Home Tipping Point Author Malcolm Gladwell Says Facebook, Twitter Won’t Lead to Social Change

Tipping Point Author Malcolm Gladwell Says Facebook, Twitter Won’t Lead to Social Change

Facebook and Twitter don’t have the power to change the world, says notable author Malcolm Gladwell, whose book “The Tipping Point” detailed how little things can make a big difference. He made this controversial, counter-intuitive argument via an article published in The New Yorker titled “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted.”

As you may imagine, the Internet is already abuzz with its reactions.

Social Networking Users Have “Weak Ties”

Gladwell’s Tipping Point book described the power of “Connectors” – those people whose knack for making friends and acquaintances amass them social networks containing over a hundred connections. Connectors link us up with the world, he said. Others with special “social gifts” were described as either “Mavens” (aka “information specialists”) or the powerful persuaders known as “Salesmen.”

And yet, in his current essay, Gladwell doesn’t apparently seem to think that those same types of personalities can impact the world when they use their “gifts” on social networking sites in order to enact social change. Revolutions, activism, protests and the like that take place via social media are not like those in the past, he says, because “the platforms of social media are built around weak ties.” 

Weak ties aren’t necessarily a bad thing, though, Gladwell explains:

“Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life. This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties…,” he says.

“But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”

High-Risk Activism Won’t Come from Tweets, Facebook

To illustrate this point, Gladwell pitted historical protests , like those from the Civil Rights era against modern ones, like he “Save Darfur” Facebook movement and the Iranian elections with its accompanying “Twitter Revolution.”

In the Civil Rights era, says Gladwell, the high-risk activism that took place was based on strong ties and close relationships. It was rife with danger and often met with violence. 

But today, the so-called activism that takes place on social networks isn’t nearly as risky nor impactful. For example,  the 1,282,339 members of the “Save Darfur” Facebook page have committed an average of 9 cents each to the cause.  The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of 35 cents. “Help Save Darfur” has 2,797 members have have given, on average, 15 cents, Gladwell writes.

He explains that “Facebook activism” succeeds by “not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”

As for the Twitter revolution surrounding the Iranian elections? It was more of a product of shoddy Western journalism than any real activism. Gladwell cited Golnaz Esfandiari’s article in “Foreign Policy” which stated, “Western journalists who couldn’t reach–or didn’t bother reaching?–people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection. Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”

There are many more examples in the article itself, but they all point to the same conclusion: activism that takes place on social networks just isn’t the real thing.

“We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro,” says Gladwell, referring to the historic moment on Monday, February 1, 1960,  when four college students sat down at the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina and ordered a cup of coffee – the example that kicks off the lengthy essay.

Do You Agree?

In the article, Gladwell takes on social media activists, including Clay Shirky, author of one of the social media movement’s bibles “Here Comes Everybody” plus Andy Smith and Jennifer Aaker, whose new book called “The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change” tells the story of how a Silicon Valley entrepreneur used social media to find a bone marrow match when he came down with leukemia.

Gladwell says that social media enthusiasts don’t understand the distinction between this latter scenario and real activism:  “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,” he writes.

The article is already being criticized for missing the mark, most notably by David Helfenbein on The Huffington Post, who says the piece is “generationally insulting.” Gladwell is saying that “older generations knew how to create real, palpable movements; younger generations simply know how to push buttons,” says Helfenbein. “But Gladwell, younger generations can do both,” Helfenbein explains. “They have: they were in the Facebook groups for President Obama and then they showed up by the thousands to the rallies and then they voted for him. And in the end, whatever you believe politically, Obama won. This was one significant, high-risk movement.”

Of course, one could argue that voting for president isn’t really all that dangerous – it’s a movement, sure, but was it “high risk?” Perhaps it’s Helfenbein who is missing the point?

For those that only skim headlines, the article and the accompanying analysis makes for a nice tweet: “Gladwell gets it wrong (link).” But to those who still read longer articles like Gladwell’s essay (or heck, this blog post summarizing), there’s definitely food for thought here.

Feel free to share yours in the comments.   

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

Get the biggest tech headlines of the day delivered to your inbox

    By signing up, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy. Unsubscribe anytime.

    Tech News

    Explore the latest in tech with our Tech News. We cut through the noise for concise, relevant updates, keeping you informed about the rapidly evolving tech landscape with curated content that separates signal from noise.

    In-Depth Tech Stories

    Explore tech impact in In-Depth Stories. Narrative data journalism offers comprehensive analyses, revealing stories behind data. Understand industry trends for a deeper perspective on tech's intricate relationships with society.

    Expert Reviews

    Empower decisions with Expert Reviews, merging industry expertise and insightful analysis. Delve into tech intricacies, get the best deals, and stay ahead with our trustworthy guide to navigating the ever-changing tech market.