Egypt proves Malcolm Gladwell was wrong about social media… and right

In October 2010, Malcolm Gladwell published an article in the New Yorker entitled “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted“.  In the article, he rejects the idea that social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook will be agents of change that will inspire repressed people around the world to rise up in protest.  He talks at great length about how active defiance – the kind that puts individuals at risk – requires deep commitment and strong ties to other passionate people.  Despite all of the attention Twitter received during the Iranian protests, he argues that social media tools like Facebook and Twitter are built on networks of loose ties.  People may be casually interested in what others are saying and click a “like” button, but this is not the type of engagement that will lead people to go put themselves at risk for the sake of an idea:

The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.

Naturally, devotees of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook were quick to rise to the defense of these networks.   They pointed to all of the connections that these networks allow, and how these loose ties build a foundation that strong ties are created from.  Angus Johnston writes:

Gladwell is right that strong-tie relationships were a crucial part of the Civil Rights Movement, and is a crucial part of any organizing effort. But he misses the fact that all strong ties start as weak ties, and that even weak-tie relationships can spur action within and between strong-tie communities.

At first glance, the ongoing protests in Egypt would seem to prove that Malcolm Gladwell was wrong.  Facebook and Twitter were key instruments used by protesters to organize themselves and coordinate their activities.  They also helped to draw international focus on the event by bringing people from around the world right into the center of the action.  This in turn has kept strong international attention on the issue, and while Mubarak has yet to step down, it has become more a question of when, not if.  

Social networking sites have played such a central role that the Egyptian government took the unprecedented step of shutting down Internet access in the country.  The goal, presumably, was to cut off access to Facebook and Twitter and throw the protesters into disarray.  Pundits everywhere are pointing the to the dramatic role that social networking sites are playing in the movement.  Clearly Gladwell must have been wrong.

However, a closer examination of what is going on in Egypt suggests that Gladwell may in fact be correct.  In this weekend’s broadcast of the NPR show On The Media, a weekly radio show about how the process of creating media coverage shapes the world we live in, they led off with an interview with Mona Seif.  She is one of the protesters in Egypt, and she has been particularly active in tweeting about what has been happening on the ground.  She talked at  great length about how important Facebook and Twitter have been to their efforts.

At one point in the interview, On The Media host Bob Garfield asked her what impact the shutdown of the Internet has had on their organizing efforts.  Seif said that rather than hurting the movement, the loss of access to Facebook and Twitter had the opposite effect, driving more people to leave their homes and join the protest:

Lots of the people who would have normally been satisfied with just following the updates on Facebook and Twitter suddenly did not have this connection, and so they found no way of being part of this movement except by going out on the streets.  So I actually think that cutting off the Internet helped the movement on the real ground and on the street become bigger.  

In effect, she is saying Facebook and Twitter were actually limiting the number of people on the streets to some extent.  Once they were cut off from the social media, the illusion that were involved because they were following along was dispelled.  The only way to be truly involved was to actually go out and participate.

Ultimately, the answer is somewhere in the middle.  Social media sites clearly have a powerful role in revolutionary activities by allowing broadly dispersed and disorganized protesters to coordinate their efforts.  It also allows them to broadcast their activities to an audience around the world and draw international support.  But in the end, Gladwell’s point still stands.  People need to get up out of their seats and take part.
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