The Practical Radical

Whose Tweet Counts Anyways? A response to Malcolm Gladwell. | September 30, 2010


Recently the twitter/facebooker/bloggers sphere has all been a-twitter about Malcolm Gladwell of Tipping Point fame’s slam of social media as a tool for advocacy. Seems Gladwell does not believe that social media creates very strong “links”, which especially effects those who would wish to use twitter as an advocacy tool. He states that the twitter revolutions that happened in Moldova or Iran were overstated; siting the fact that there are very few twitter users in these countries.He gives some detailed overviews of how REAL advocacy happens in the form of recounting key events in the civil rights movement.

I agree with him on some counts – technological advances in my mind are always overhyped – and there is nothing more hyped than facbook and twitter. Yet, I think that his analysis is flawed in one way -it is written almost solely from a developed world perspective. Yes, we in the developed world might be spoilt with our ubiquitous bandwidth, but it is not in the developed world that social media is having the biggest impact. It is the developing world, those places where millions upon millions of people are queuing to buy mobile phones, getting on the internet and social media, and using those phones for all there worth. I have written a few posts on the impact of mobile technologies which you can link to here.

So I have posted my response on the Social Capital blog (a great blog by the way). Here is a brief on the blog and my response to it.

Why the revolution won’t be tweeted

Posted on September 29, 2010 by socialcapital| Leave a comment
Twitter Revolution – Flickr Photo by FrauleinSchiller

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting column in the October 4, 2010 New Yorker called “Small Change.”

Gladwell asserts that claims of Twitter’s role in various uprisings in developing countries (like Moldova or Iran) have been exaggerated.  He cited Evgeny Morozov, a Stanford-based scholar who notes that “Twitter had scant internal significance in Moldova, a country where very few Twitter accounts exist.” And he cites Anne Applebaum who suggested in the Washington Post that the protest “may well have been a bit of stage-craft cooked up by the government.”  Golnaz Esfandiari in Foreign Policy wrote in Summer 2010 about Iran: “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events of Iran right…Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.”

and my response …

practicalradical | September 29, 2010 at 4:12 pm | Reply

I have heard Gladwell go on this rant before, and I have to say I think he is going as much overboard as is everyone who is enamored with social media (and technology).

Social media is not a goal unto itself – it is a tool. It is a mutli-purpose tool – it has allowed me for the first time to connect on an ongoing basis with old friends who I otherwise would not be as connected with. This has facilitated us getting together, planing parties and such. It is a great tool there. As well, it has allowed me to pontificate online, share media stories, funny videos. etc. My kids now spend more time in front of youtube looking up funny videos and music mashups than they do on TV. Social media beats TV handsdown for its interactivity factor.

As someone who has been an activist and works for NGOS, has it made me a better activist? Maybe a better informed one, but I don’t sign on to more causes, nor do i come together with other activists because of social media. In fact, as far as I can tell, everyone ends up in their own little niche of friends, yelling and screaming at one another about those other people.

So, for us in the developed world who have ubiquitous band width, it becomes an all purpose work/play/family tool. Does it make our lives better? Different, but not better. Does it mean that i become a better activist? Again, different but not better.

Yet one thing that I find is that twitter and facebook can ease the isolation of those who have been silenced and marginalized. So, in all the cases that are sighted, it was the story of people whose struggle would have gone unheard, due to the focus of the main stream media, governments, etc. They were heard … that is a huge step forward .. and in some cases this changed the outcome. It doesn’t take the place of on the on-the-ground network, organizing, friends, etc, but the actual act of being “on the map” can’t be underestimated.

The connecting is especially the case for people in the developing world, where in Africa for example, the uptake in mobile technologies is faster than anywhere else in the world. As someone who has worked with marginalized communities both in Canada and in the developing world for the past 25 years I have found these mediums to been key in challenging isolation. When I was in East Africa 10 year sago working in the slums , it was impossible to get a phone line out; now, i get FBed, twittered, and SMSed constantly by the youth I work with. I have written a lot on the impact that technology is having on the developing world – http://www.delicious.com/tag/pradical. This has changed for the better myself and the lives of the youth that I work with – it has helped break down the rich/poor, developed/developing relationship that is always present – i see pictures of their kids, no when tragedy strikes, share our joys. They are my friends in a way they never would have been without social media.

So, I agree with Gladwell that we have to be careful in attributing the wrong outcomes to social media; yet, I would encourage him to look beyond his own social milieu, and take into the account those who have been historically silenced, and what these mediums mean to them.

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