Malcolm Gladwell, Your Slip is Showing


Time is always limited, but in these historic times, I wished to add perspective in the hopes of moving this important conversation in a productive direction.

Malcolm Gladwell continues his march toward dissension with his latest installment in the New Yorker about social media vs. social activism. Honestly, Gladwell is more than welcome to share his thoughts as it is a democratized information economy after all.  I do find it alarming however, that he is wielding his influence through an equally influential medium to spin intellectual and impressionable minds in unrewarding and pointless cycles. Is he not listening to opposition or consulting existing research?

In that case Mr. Gladwell and the like, this is not for you. This is for the people who read your work and who knowingly and unknowingly contribute to the evolution of media and culture. Perhaps, we can then better understand our role within this information revolution + evolution.

In his piece in the New Yorker he asks, Does Egypt Need Twitter?

Right now there are protests in Egypt that look like they might bring down the government. There are a thousand important things that can be said about their origins and implications: as I wrote last fall in The New Yorker, “high risk” social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.

Indeed. In the end, it is not how revolutions are organized, it is why they arise and what they change that matters to the world. Without organization however, the revolutionaries of the future will be faced with either progress or defeat.  As I’ve always maintained, this current information (r)evolution that we are experiencing at varying depths globally is less about the technology and more about sociology and how it is changing our behavior and society as a result. To ignore it or discount it is absurd and irresponsible.

Good friend Mathew Ingram published a very compelling argument to Gladwell, “It’s Not Twitter or Facebook, It’s the Power of the Network.” In this thought provoking post he cites Zeynep Tufecki, a professor of sociology, who studied the revolution in Tunisia and documented how to produce outcomes through “material,” “efficient,” and “final” causes.

The source of the debate is also its weakness, relationships and technology.

Gladwell questions the alliance between deep roots and strong ties. Ingram and Tufecki argue for the the power of the networks…they are not wrong. The only side not demonstrating authority is also its strongest voice. To which I point to a prospective slipping point and say with concern, “Gladwell, your slip is showing.”

As someone who has greatly studied how movements ranging from causes to commercial can and can’t be organized through social media, I would like to move the discussion away from tools and ties.

This is perhaps where the story gets convoluted and debatable. Technology aside, it’s our ties that dictate how information travels and to what extent. But, it is also the spontaneous fusion of strong, weak and temporary ties that align around interest or emotion that propels information across vast distances with far greater velocity. This impetus is the spark, the catalyst necessary for organization, communication, and also for engendering support. You need a powerful network for this to occur…


If unity is the effect, density is the cause. But to achieve density, bonds must be formed regardless of strength or longevity quickly around a shared mission or purpose. Density cannot be achieved if the network can’t supply the necessary resources. Well, as Ingram and Tufecki point out, the potential for activation exists within Facebook and Twitter. Social networks aside, the trigger for social activism is unquestionably built-in to the internet. It’s not a switch however.

Stowe Boyd is a social philosopher, webthropologist and a dear friend. He recently spoke out against Gladwell to teach, but also remind us about the importance of density in a network effect:

Trufecki and Ingram are on to something, but they — and Gladwell — miss something very basic about the nature of Twitter and other social tools, something critical to revolution. Ideas spread more rapidly in densely connected social networks. So tools that increase the density of social connection are instrumental to the changes that spread.

At its core, Gladwell’s arguments are not about the way revolutions work, but a denial of the strength of social culture: the culture that the social web is engendering, wherever it touches us. Wherever we connect.

This is again, not about tools or ties, but the capacity for alliances to form based on connections and how information spreads across them. I would like to share with you some very interesting research from the Department of Computer Science at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. In early 2010, the research team performed a multi-part analysis of Twitter. In their conclusion they found that Twitter is a highly effective way to filter and spread relevant information. It was the rapid fusion of ties within a densely populated network to activate the density required to trigger a network effect.

The research team used the unfortunate incident of the doomed Air France flight to visualize density and distribution.

This is a demonstration of how strong, weak, and temporary ties connected for a moment to ensure that the world united around this devastating news. I’m sure we would see similar maps if we analyzed the Iran and Egypt events where Twitter played a pivotal role in unification and dissemination.

In my work, I’ve found that it takes an exceptional incident to activate density in powerful, yet expansive and distracted network. But, it is possible, and to varying degrees, it happens every day. In instances where planning and design around action and outcomes were orchestrated, the results are proven incredibly promising and replicable.

This strength of social culture is only increasing in prevalence to the point where each day, it changes our behavior online and offline incrementally.  For some, the behavior is advanced while it is starting to bloom with others. This is nothing new. But, it is this culture that we are learning to embrace that over time, moves us from our “comfort zones” in the middle to the edge until finally, the edge becomes the new middle.

This is a culture shift and a culture shock. Those who embrace their role as student in these times will earn the ability to lead us toward a new era of solidarity.

UPDATE: Sharing a very interesting picture from Mediaite with a simple, yet symbolic message that reads, “Thank you Facebook.”

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  • Howie at Sky Pulse Media

    If you need validation that Social Media is playing such a big role in Egypt that is a very ignorant position. It is helping immensely getting news out of Egypt. But Word of Mouth, Phones calls, Emails and SMS Text seriously make Social Media nothing but a teeny speck on the wall. I notice too many of the Social Media Talking Heads need this validation because as long as they can continue this story line it justifies them selling books, getting speaking engagements, and VCs investing in Social Networks.

    But Social is such a small part of world wide communication consumption and participation. Each day even avid Social media users which is a small part of the world, still communicate much more off social. And why would someone in Egypt risk getting beaten for a Tweet when they can have a talk with someone and not be at risk?

  • Abdurahman Medallah

    The image at the end says: Thank you…Egypt’s Youth FACEBOOK (we are) resisting…(we are) not moving.

  • Harish

    Ironic I think that Gladwell doesn’t recognize that tools, nay media, like Twitter get to the Tipping Point much quicker. And that’s very interesting, and challenging. East Germany had years to go before the wall came down. Regimes demonstrated greater repression. Now that’s gone. If they, or brands, don’t move quickly they will be overwhelmed in the blink of an eye.

  • Eric Woning

    For those who keep on hanging on to Mr. Gladwell’s words:
    What some people here don’t see is that mr. Gladwell is waging a battle against social networks – putting them off as irrelevant and only usable as a waste of time.
    He has shown this with his ‘slacktivism’ piece and is showing it off once again.

    Though I do understand what he is going for, I think that mr Solis here is pointing out quite well where his reasoning goes awry. I actually think that mr. Gladwell has taken up a point a while ago and now has to stick by his point – that this is the ultimate reason for him writing this piece.

    What I find somewhat funny is the fact that mr. Gladwell in one of his privious books states is that to be an expert on a subject you need to have put 10.000 hours of work into it. However it seems that he is writing as if he is THE expert on this subject (which in his eyes is quite impossible.)

    I would also for the record like to state my opinion on this: unless this person holding up this sign is a) someone working in internetmarketin/for facebook, b) the picture is doctored or c) it is an incridble guerilla advertising campaign done by Facebook – this proves that social is a revolution.
    I do not think that people realize that this is an older man (by most people in old school marketing – they would not think that this man is on FB if he were to live in the States or in Europe) in a technologically backward country. He is thanking a medium…..
    I have not seen many people holding signs thanking CNN or The New Yorker for that matter…..
    No, it does not trigger a revolution, and without it it is also as possible to get together a large group of protesters…. but it is also possible to create larger cities without modern technologies, but it is hard not to agree that modern technologies (car, computer, etc.) facilitize the extreme growth of cities that we are currently experiencing.
    In this case, denial is a magazine in the US.

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  • Mohamed Meerasa

    simply a great great read

  • Simon Gornick

    Stowe Boyd’s conclusion “tools that increase the density of social connection are *instrumental* to the changes that spread.” That is a profound overreach. Nobody is pretending that SM didn’t *play a role* in the Egyptian uprising, but uprisings, rapidly spreading or not, have been going on for millenia in rural and urban communities (with their own non-digital social networks). Gladwell’s argument is merely with the overreaching self justification that SM mavens constantly bombard us with.

  • Doug Crets

    I think we work with a false tautology: that because Facebook and Twitter exist, and are able to broadcast the impetus and the results of a “revolution” then the revolutions in themselves must be good, and we must support those who undertake to lead them, or follow them. The problem is that people in the Western world who tap into these revolutions via these media are no more intelligent about the issue than the journalists who parachute in to report on them. What we end up with is a very overblown and exhausting reportage of an event we do not have context to understand. We, especially in the United States, end up looking at the events with our assumption that democracy always springs from such events because they are democratically inspired. That may be far from the case. It may in fact be that, like in Egypt, the collective exasperation of the economic situation led to an uprising that people were not ready to call a revolution until people who weren’t even part of the issue chose to call it such. It’s kind of a blind leading the blind, leading the blind cycle, just as is our 24/7 media cycles: people just report on the emotions and the overview, in the hopes of driving interest. But truthfully, who has time or even the interest to appreciate the granularity of every step of these so-called revolutions.
    By the way, do revolutions like the alleged ones in Tunisia, Egypt, Southern Sudan, romania, wherever even bear any similarities to the way revolutions like the American departure from British rule were conducted? I ask out of ignorance, because from what I have seen, they don’t look similar at all. Which is not to say every revolutionary wears the same clothes, or walks the same. It’s just that tanks in the square and a twitter app on the phone do not a revolution make.

  • Paul Swiergosz

    Let’s not forget – this is a business proposition. Solis and Gladwell are communication gurus and have invested their own professional capital on opposing sides here. If Gladwell is shown to be “incorrect” in his theses, that profits Solis’ position. If Gladwell’s POV prevails, the influence of Solis diminishes.

    These men are both brilliant BUSINESSMEN, plain and simple. And in business, the desired endstate is perpetuating a profit for your business model – whether that comes in the form of articles, lectures, etc.,

    Is this a passionate topic for communication professionals? Yes. But we probably need to excise the emotion from the discussion and remember it for what it is.

    That’s not meant to be a cynical statement either – it’s just a fact.

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  • Abbas Alidina

    Congratulations to the Egyptian people! Tonight will be remembered as the night Egypt reached the Tipping Point of their revolution!

    Check out Wael Ghonim (@ghonim on Twitter). Search for him on YouTube. He’s an Egyptian who lives and works in Dubai in the Marketing department at Google. He was on leave in Egypt on #Jan25 and was blindfolded & imprisoned for 12 days for partaking in protests. He was eventually freed and you can see his interviews on YouTube.

    Social Media enables people like me to connect with him and spread the word. Social Media played a critical role in building momentum for his freedom.

    How do you feel about that Malcolm Gladwell?

    Abbas (from Dubai)

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  • Denislabel

    The Facebook page for Khaled Said:
    . photos of him shared through social media (“connector” + “maven” + “salesman” –> protest.)
    . more than 400,000 friends
    . dates, locations (and videos of) for protests
    I suggest you to read “Tipping Point”, Malcom. ;)

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Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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