There have been a number of thoughtful responses to Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece about social media, so I’ll keep my comments relatively brief, but the article’s flaws are just too embarrassing not to write something. I honestly expect more from Gladwell’s employer than this when it comes to researching on an article of this prominence, and it’s clear he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In this interview with Katie Couric, Gladwell confesses that he doesn’t use social media and doesn’t write about it because there are smart people already working on it. As he says, “they don’t need me.”
But he went ahead and did it anyway, and the resulting article about the relative insignificance of social media in effective activism reads like a lifetime teetotaler writing authoritatively about the importance of alcohol in party situations. Not only don’t you know what drinking is like, you don’t even know what a party is. Here’s a vital paragraph:
“Boycotts and sit-ins and nonviolent confrontations—which were the weapons of choice for the civil-rights movement—are high-risk strategies. They leave little room for conflict and error. The moment even one protester deviates from the script and responds to provocation, the moral legitimacy of the entire protest is compromised. Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail. But networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure. And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed in Birmingham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide”
The simple criticism is that Gladwell clearly has no idea what the fuck a wiki does. To make a comparison between the bus boycott and a theoretical wiki-boycott, one has to imagine what a wiki-boycott could possibly be. There is no such thing as a wiki-boycott, nor is there any possible interaction between the two hyphenated terms that doesn’t just mean a refusal to use wikis. The comparison is ignorant, non-sensical, and irrelevant. But far more importantly, Gladwell doesn’t understand that this isn’t the South in 1960. Gladwell pulls a tricky move in order to justify the comparison: “Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail.” I wrote whole arguments about the misuse in this sentence of “no doubt,” “infinitely,” and “contented,” before deciding none of that was the point. Here’s the kind of tweet that would have been useful at the time: “Cops r taking MLK to jail @ corner of X and Y, hustle!” And if you think any 60′s activist wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to post a blog instead of spending all night at the mimeograph machine, you’re nuts. Twitter is not, in and of itself, The Revolution, but I’ve never heard anyone make that argument. Gladwell proves these technologies are useless tools – when used incorrectly.
The question for activists is always how to use available tools effectively. So blogs are for sharing longer ideas, Facebook is for spreading basic information and links, and Twitter is for sending small amounts of information publicly on the go. We even use phones sometimes. The internet can’t hammer a nail, but that’s what hammers are for. But there are some tools that don’t stand the test of time as well. Gladwell writes, “… what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church?” Of course, this is a completely useless question. What good would Twitter have been for dinosaurs? THEY COULDN’T EVEN PRESS BUTTONS! By putting the historical comparison on his opponents (who would “no doubt” make it), Gladwell attempts to dodge responsibility for an absurd line of argumentation. He writes that MLK needed discipline and strategy because of certain exigencies of the particular movement (the need to maintain a moral high ground for the white viewing public), but never explains why those tactical decisions should carry over. In fact, Alain Badiou has argued that while patience was the cardinal virtue required in the past, right now we need nothing so much as courage. Fetishizing the 60′s is a bad idea because we don’t live there any more. Material conditions change; so should our strategies, so should our tactics, so should our methods of communication.
The truth is, ninety-eight percent of the people with whom we need to organize don’t go anywhere in common but online, so that’s where we’ll go to find them. But protests in the 60′s didn’t end (or even necessarily begin) in the churches, why should activism that takes place partially online need to stay there? Is it because Gladwell thinks no one will ever risk injury or fight cops because of a Tweet or Facebook message? Allow me to conclude with the flash mob: