A long time ago, in a life time far away, i read Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” and remember being impressed with the insight on what causes mass behavioral change.
I was so impressed that when Blink came out i bought a hardcover edition – and was surprised at how mundane it was.
With Outliers I was seriously underwhelmed – as much with the methodology as the stating of the obvious that my review for that was:
Take some data. it could be any data. Add a bit of correlation, stir in a bit of causality, simmer with coincidence and garnish with a leap of faith – package well with a chatty narrative style -and bingo – you have Outliers
Seriously, you work hard – really hard – and you will succeed is the kind of stuff all of us have grown up hearing from our parents, when we were at school. Practise your algebra, practise your classical music …. my grandmother used to say “pada pada raagam, muda muda rogam” (which translates as the more you practise, the more you will be in tune – the less you do the more it will sound like a sick person groaning _
I have been following his columns in the New Yorker – he is, as always an entertaining read. There was nothing in the columns so far that would prompt me to react. But, that changed with the latest one where he talks about small change and why the revolution will not be tweeted.
My issue is not with his conclusion or his view – he has the right to hold both – or indeed my belief that the revolution will be tweeted – i don’t believe that there will be a revolution and if there was, it won’t be tweeted – but will be a consequence of people gathering and being involved. however, I do believe that in a decade or so you will end up with large numbers of people gathering – based on their common interest – to facilitate change, and they will get there because they heard about it on one social network or the other. There is a good reason why the Government of India has banned bulk SMS’s in the run up to the Ayodhya verdict – it is aware that this social media can get like minded people to gather to create trouble.
My issue – as in the case of Outliers – his methodology. Gladwell uses the example of the Greensboro sit in, and the subsequent impact on civil rights – and says it was achieved because of strong social ties between the men involved – and says that social media will not be able to achieve it because people have weak or non existent social ties
History is not a snapshot – it is series of events that all impact each other. When you look at the Civil Rights Movement – you can’t look at it in isolation without looking at other aspects :
- Universal Right to Education in the USA – sometime after the first world war
- Universal Franchise or Right to Vote – for men after the abolishment of slavery, for women somewhere in the first two decades of the last century
- The role of African Americans in the Second World War
- Germany losing the second world war, the British losing their colonies
- Civil Disobedience in India and Gandhi – and the fact that peaceful protest can make a difference
- Massive Post Second World War Industrialization and the need for skilled labour – that raised the standard of living, including those of African Americans
- The increased awareness amongst the majority of ‘White” people – calling them Anglo Saxon will be restrictive, as will be Caucasian – that discrimination was wrong.
- Liberal Mass Media, and not in the least
- Charismatic Leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X – both of whom represented different ends of the Civil Rights spectrum and charged young people to fight for their rights
These are just from the top of my head – i am not particularly clued into the social history of the USA – if there are more do add….
If the same protest that Gladwell refers to, had happened a century earlier – it would have been crushed, the papers & the population would have supported its crushing. Or another way of saying the same thing, is that a set of historical events – which had nothing to do with Civil Rights – ended up ensuring that the sit in was successful. Had there not been African American students in college, had there not been popular mass media, had there not been African American voters, had there not been a wave of liberal thought, had there not been civil disobedience movements in other parts of the world, and finally, No Charismatic Mass Leader – who cut across demographic & pscyhographic divides – would this sit in have been successful – irrespective or strong or weak social ties ? In a way, to quote his earlier work, this too was a tipping point.
The Web and its applications, despite its rapid proliferation, is in its nascency. It is easy to be English speaking or writing and have access in a free country. That becomes more difficult, the more repressed a state.
Last week, i was training a bunch of Iranian NGO workers and documentary makers on the use of Media and Social Media to effect change in their areas. Many of them work in the area of women’s rights & civil rights – and are constantly under the scanner. Using the WWW, where they can be easily monitored may not be the solution – but using technology to spread their message and bring about change is a different matter. One of the examples that i gave them was the Ayotollah Khomeni and how he brought about the revolution in an equally repressive state. This is a standard niche media case study that I use for students.
Ayotollah Khomeni, exiled in France, used Audio Tapes to record messages of why there should be a revolution. The tapes were then smuggled into Iran. The tapes were heard, and then passed on – or copied & passed to others – without changing the original message. The message of the revolution was spread through audio cassettes that circulated across Iran. People who possibly had weak or no social ties with each other – brought together by a cause and inspired by a leader to take risks and spread a message of revolution. The revolution wasn’t tweeted – but it came close it ! Although, it didn’t use the Net – it was social media …
The advice to the students was to take a leaf out of that book for social change. you no longer need cassettes – record the message on the mobile and disseminate – in a language, in a dialect that people will understand.
But it is not just about technology, or even content – it is also about leadership, and the willingness to be involved.Access, Accessibility, Universality and Acceptance and Leadership – all are required before any media, technology or any idea can impact change.
Finally – I would quote Marshall McLuhan – who said the “Medium was the Message” – and that isn’t as trite as it seems – what it meant was that every so often a technological change comes about that so impacts cognitive organisation – or the way we understand or comprehend things – that it in turn impacts social organisation. The greatest impact of the World Wide Web – whether it is twitter or youtube or wiki – is that it enables peer to peer communication – across regions, across borders, across the world. That communication will impact, sooner or later, social organisation and bring about social change – it is already happening. Revolution is not just being able to bring down governments – it is also changing the way in which we approach & solve issues … we share and build capacity … it is by allowing this that revolution happens – not the other way around….
Print took almost 500 years to deliver the revolution – it came about in the printing of ideas, mass circulation of these ideas ; TV & Radio after 70 odd years still are – given its economics – it tends to be more a state or corporate tool; the web is 20 years old. And applications that Gladwell is talking about -less than 10 – give it time ! change agents, in their little corners are brining about change using the power of P2P communication.
Finally, in Gladwell’s own country – a strong charismatic leader – and easy access to P2P media – led the youth to get involved – weak ties and all – to elect the first African American President – on a platform of hope !! People maybe aware about lots of things, but they only get involved in those things that they believe in. In a way a P2P media allows people to act – more than any other media.
Do read – Social Media and Social Activism: Four Reasons Why Malcolm Gladwell is Wrong by Gauravonomics
Malcolm Gladwell Is Dead Wrong – by Leigh