Social Media – Not the Revolution?

Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker for September 27th contrasts the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the US with social media ‘activism’ today. He says that social media are great for sharing information widely, for exploiting weak ties for low risk, low commitment actions. However, they are not good for working strong ties towards high-risk, disciplined activity.

He says that the reports of the usefulness of Twitter at the time of the Iranian election and in Moldova were greatly exaggerated.

The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic change if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash or if it doesn’t need to think strategically. But if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy.

Networks are the opposite of hierarchy.

Does this sound right to you? Do you know of disciplined, focused activity created or spread by social media — or even socially effective activity, at more than a superficial level? (“Superficial” does not mean “meaningless” or “useless”, but there is a difference between serious or profound effects and incidental or stylistic effects.)

We may improve the quality of our lives with Facebook and Twitter (or not), but we should not hold our breaths waiting for the day when they provoke serious change in our socieity — except to entrench elites whom they manage to leave alone … to their own devices.

Or is Mr Gladwell talking through his … hairdo?


  1. You don’t need hierarchy, but you do need organization. The revolution will not take place on social networks, nor by some grand uprising of the people who follow a hashtag on twitter. But more and more the organizations that ARE out there making change will have originated from meetings and conversations that happened on social networks. And the nature of those organizations will change. It will become easier to start an organization to support a cause that has few, and physically dispersed, adherents.