Malcolm Gladwell is a marked man. Critics—both caustic and constructive—are picking apart his recent essay in The New Yorker, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.”
Gladwell’s basic argument: Social media like Twitter or Facebook connect people with “weak ties.” But social change demands “strong ties”—deep, put-yourself-at-risk commitments that transcend clicking “thumbs up” to the latest feel-good cause or texting $10 to help victims of natural disasters.
Critics of the best-selling author counter that “he just doesn’t get it.” Social media are how people become informed about social issues, so they can become more engaged citizens.
I’m afraid that Malcolm is losing this debate online. And that’s too bad because I think he’s trying to make a deeper point that’s getting lost in all the gleeful Gladwell bashing:
“Communicating is [only] five percent of the problem.”
At least that’s how he framed the issue—more successfully, I think—in an “Ask the Author” discussion after the article had been published. Gladwell went on to comment:
“What Twitter and Facebook are capable of doing is introducing a very large group of people to a subject or an issue. The hard part is getting them to go beyond that introduction and dig in deeper—and that leap requires some additional form of social engagement. The Obama election campaign did a very good job of doing both—augmenting social media tools with old-school grass roots organizing. To me, that’s the gold standard.”
I’m not sure if Gladwell is retreating from or clarifying his point of view. But I agree with it: Awareness is not an objective. But I suppose that idea wouldn’t have inspired as much activism, would it?