Gladwell’s “Small Change” Misses The Mark

by on Oct.08, 2010, under general, media

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Small Change, published in last week’s New Yorker, the author (essentially) argues that social media is not only different from “true” social activism, it’s actually irrelevant to and perhaps hurting it.

My response – sadly unsolicited by either Gladwell or TNY, but sent as a letter to the latter nonetheless – is below:

In “Small Change”, Malcolm Gladwell made what has become a fashionably contrarian claim: that social media’s contribution to activism has amounted to little more than “helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls.”

And in some respects he’s right. Gladwell correctly identifies the “Twitter Revolutions” of Iran and Moldova as nothing of the kind. There is scant evidence that Twitter actually helped folks inside Iran or Moldova, as opposed to simply give CNN something to talk about. Closer to home, the unhappy truth is that millions of teenagers sending texts and $10 to Obama didn’t transform him into a latter-day F.D.R.

On the other hand, Gladwell ignores examples from Shirky’s book (which he cites for the phone example) that weaken his argument. Kate Hanni’s use of social media to organize disparate dissatisfied passengers into the collective FlyersRights.org was a driving force behind the Passenger’s Bill of Rights. Voice of the Faithful, the organization of lay Catholics which drove the torrid response to the 2002 sex abuse cases, relied on social media to expand beyond its Boston origins. And Wikicrimes, a site which began mapping experienced crimes and police corruption in Fortaleza, Brazil, allowed its citizens to challenge local authority and evade police brutality as they couldn’t before.

Gladwell is right that we shouldn’t confuse texts and tweets with boycotts and sit-ins. But the two need not be mutually exclusive. Two million people texting may not be as effective as two hundred people sitting at a counter – but if, out of the two million texts, two hundred people sit at a counter where they would not have done so before, nothing has been lost. Social media need not be a substitute for real activism – the two can, and do, complement each other.

Gladwell’s argument holds true only if they do, in fact, become substitutes – if nascent activists content themselves with sending a text when they would otherwise be demonstrating. That is a real danger, and it may even be true. But it’s also a point Gladwell didn’t attempt to prove – or, truth be told, even care to make.

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