Malcolm Gladwell’s Still Got it Wrong

In October of last year Malcolm Gladwell wrote a much-read piece in the New Yorker arguing that the value of social media for activism was greatly overstated and older analog methods of organizing were more effective. The piece drew considerable criticism from the blogosphere, which picked apart his argument from a variety of angles. On Sunday, Gladwell was interviewed by Fareed Zakaria on CNN, seemingly having learned nothing more about digital activism.

“In light of all the things happening in the Arab world,” Zakaria observed, “you have been distinctly unimpressed by social media as a way of generating political discontent. Why?” This is an unusual question, since the idea that social media “generates” political discontent is a straw man argument – no one actually believes it. Zakaria asked the question either 1) because he doesn’t understand this or 2) was handing Gladwell a straw man that he could easily tear down. I’m going to give Zakaria the benefit of the doubt and go with #2.

Gladwell’s Flawed Proof

However, Gladwell did not hit this easy pitch by drawing the distinction between the motivations for protest (not digital) and the means of protest (quite often digital). Instead, he created another, even weaker straw man to defeat: that digital activism is no more that flash-mobbing. (By defining digital activism by its weakest avatar he used a similar strategy to Evgeny Morozov. Maybe that’s why he wrote the blurb for Evgeny’s book. But I digress.) Gladwell started off humbly (“I’ve been as dumbstruck as everyone else by what happened in the Middle East”) but soon threw a punch:

I can’t look in the past at social revolutions and see examples of cases where people had a problem, under dire circumstances, of getting lots of people together to voice their concerns…. Looking at history, I don’t see the absence of efficient tools of communication as being a limiting factor on the ability of people to socially organize.

Even this opening gambit is extremely problematic, here’s why:

  1. Proving a Negative: The way Gladwell sets up his proof, he is right that social media is not needed for revolution if social movements in the past did not have collective action dilemmas (what he calls “getting lots of people together”). Yet really, how do you prove the absence of a collective action dilemma? You could look at thwarted protest movements, but what about the protest movements that never even emerged… BECAUSE of collective action problems? It’s a catch-22. He points to fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 (when “13% of East Germans had telephones”) as evidence that technology was not needed, but what if there had been 74% phone penetration? Perhaps the revolution would have happened a decade earlier. It is panglossian and a naive misreading of historical process to assume that the past could only have occurred in the way it did, that “all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”
  2. Social Movement ? Flash Mob: Second, by saying that social media is not needed because people did not have a problem “under dire circumstances, of getting lots of people together to voice their concerns” he is aiming at the most visible form of social movements – the protest action – but ignoring all the other components of social movements, like changes in the opportunity/threat structure, presence of mobilizing structures, and framing processes (hat-tip Doug McAdam), all of which happen outside of public view. Social media likely affects all those steps in the process. Here I think Gladwell is simply suffering from representation bias. He believes the full set of social movement processes is equivalent to the social movement processes he can see – people in the street.
  3. Problems with Historical Precedents: As Gladwell sets up his proof, social media is only useful if it solves some historic collective action dilemma. He does not “see the absence of efficient tools of communication as being a limiting factor on the ability of people to socially organize.” However, even if the limitation is not visible to him, it may still exist. Even those engaged in the activism, like Gladwell’s example of John Lewis, may not be aware of these limitations. If people in the past did not perceive an inefficiency in their process, that does not mean a more efficient process cannot subsequently be created. For example: printing press > typewriter > computer > computer + Internet. Each stage was the peak of technological advancement… until it was improved upon. Even if past activists were able to successfully mobilize and saw no collective action limitations to their work (and I’m sure they did), that does not mean that these processes could not be improved upon by access to new technology.

Seeing the Past with Rose-Colored Glasses

Gladwell has a real problem with idealizing the past. In idealizing the closed American media environment of the 1950’s and 60’s he says “The civil rights movement – all they had to do was essentially capture the three [television] networks.” What he presents as inevitable in hindsight was no doubt tremendously daunting and extremely difficult for activists at the time. All they had to do was co-opt a media structure owned by a conservative white elite – no problem!

In focusing on the successes of social movements in the past, Gladwell glosses over the limitations of past communication structures. The civil rights movement, by some measures, began in 1896. I find it hard to imagine that between that time and the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, civil rights activists would not have had a use for near-free tools for independent mass information dissemination and mobilization.

Good Points on Costs and Strategy

Occasionally in the interview, Gladwell makes a reasonable statement. For instance:

What I don’t know at this point is whether the balance of benefits and costs to the new technology will work out in the favor of the oppressed or whether they will work out in the favor of the oppressor.

This is a good and reasonable question, but his rhetoric does not reflect it. In his rhetoric it appears he has already made up his mind. He also notes that “the real work is elsewhere,” meaning that your must have a strategy and a core group of initiators before you can have a successful digital activism campaign. Again, this is true, but digital technology does not prevent people from being strategic, it only makes it easier to act in the absence of strategy.

Why Did Gladwell Even Do This Interview?

Since Gladwell does not really know what he is talking about regarding digital activism – or even theories of pre-digital social movements – why did he do this interview, which served as a platform for his ignorance? There is vanity, of course, but I would also guess that, since the incredible success of The Tipping Point in 2002, he has felt incredible pressure to create another intellectual master work. Seeing digital activism as a field getting a lot of attention, he decided to seek his fortunes here.

And that is fine, but he is an influential thinker and when he spreads false information through his lack of understanding he does a disservice to digital activism, which is already misunderstood. I would be happy to have Malcolm Gladwell as a colleague in research and honest analysis, but in his current mode as an under-informed talking head only interested in exploring one viewpoint, he does more harm than good.

(hat-tip to Nancy Scola of TechPresident for highlighting this interview.)

4 thoughts on “Malcolm Gladwell’s Still Got it Wrong

  1. Pingback: A Self-Defence Class for Digital Activists? | Strangers on the Shore

  2. I don’t know if he’s necessarily trying to top his earlier success rather than apply his “Things Take Time” paradigm. I think his contention is that people have been convinced that social media activism is the driving force behind revolutions rather than mainly being a supportive force of this change. While you outline criticisms of an alleged disproof, he is not disproving, he is refuting the initial claim (above). Two different activities. He does argue that social media is an “as well as”, not an “instead of”, and a complex one at that (“is it always positive?”), stating that revolutions take time to coalesce into a game-changing event. I’m of the mind that social media can enhance an already burgeoning revolution, but I’m with Malcolm if he is questioning the assumed benefits of the medium.


    • Hi Marian – A big problem I have with the cyber-skeptics and cyber-pessimists is that they create straw man arguments instead of addressing the real opinions of cyber-optimists. For example, the idea that “people have been convinced that social media activism is the driving force behind revolutions.” Who are these so-called “people”? None of the smart cyber-optimists I know – Ethan Zuckerman, Clay Shirky, Yochai Benkler – think this. So there is no need for people like Gladwell to “refute” it. Refuting stupid ideas that are not held by peers is not the job of a public intellectual like Gladwell.

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