Thoughts on Gladwell’s Small Change Why The Revolution Will Not be Tweeted.

A long time ago, in a life time far away, i read Malcolm Gladwell’sThe 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.

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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.

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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

Bell Bajao -using the social media to create awareness- case study

9 Comments

  1. Author

    “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.”

    Seriously, WTF.

    1. Author

      seriously – and i mention that because using media of any sort, or going against any sort of Govt stricture can mean jail.
      we don’t face that, yet, in India (atleast in most parts of India)

      1. Author

        Is this where one makes an elaborate and serious decoy for self-deprecation? It’s not working, darling.

  2. Author

    A very interesting read. I think the reason I read through the full post was because of the context in which you mentioned Blink. I had similar thoughts about the book.

    I get the feeling that some folks talk about social media in a tangential manner just to be different. I think the entire revolution is being tweeted, right now. Before social media – there was a density to the making of a statement – usually many bodies being in one place. Since the statement of revolution was local, it appeared “dense”. Twitter and its cousins are causing a revolution right now – globally. It’s sparse and, as you have mentioned, it needs some time. Right now it is all about the tool. When we are done exploring the tool’s plumbing, we’ll make better use of it.

    Facebook users caused Facebook to reconsider it’s privacy policy? No?

    Thank you for this article and the links. 🙂

    1. Author

      thank you Atul…
      I agree – two years ago, i was shooting for a film on Disaster Risk Reduction. ONe of the participants was from Ache – he had lost his entire family in the Tsunami – and he was now working hard to ensure a) long term rehabilitation of survivors b) capacity building in all parts of society c) training & education on DRR.
      Amongst the many initiatives he put in place was microfinance and SHG’s. He told me – and it is one of those things that has stuck with me – that we were all proud of doing this in Aceh – until we learnt that our Indian and Bangladeshi brothers and sisters had been doing the same thing for 25 years…..p2p tech – in today’s context helps share info. that wasn’t possible except as very boring papers 25 years ago. In formal communication always trumps formal communication

      The revolution for me – is simply the ability to share an idea . call to action baad ki baat hai !

      1. Author

        Good, did you tell him with 6 Billion and growing, the Earth’s population cannot all be saved from all natural phenomena? That it’s better some die? That the way to save a planet is usually by decimating the dominant species on it?

        I think he should be stripped of all will to live so that he wilts and submits to nature. Die, motherfucker – die. That should be your chant.

  3. Author

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  4. Author

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  5. Author

    I feel you did not understand the article. What he said boils down to: weak ties cannot sufficiently motivate people to act/speak against the status quo if such action/speech could lead to them being beaten, shot at, or even die.
    And his point was that facebook/twitter/social media in general does not create strong ties. Seriously, would you be willing to die for someone you have only met on social media? I would not, would I be willing to die to for one of my friends? Without hesitation.

    For a protest to be effective, the protesters have to be physically present to make their voice heard. But if there is a good chance that you will die for protesting, unless you are committed to the group, and value their respect more than your own life you will not show. And we do not really value people unless we have a strong connection with them. Because if it is just a protest on the web, it is super easy to ignore, It takes no real effort on the part of the person ignoring it.

    But what about as a tool for organization? well, social media allows people to pass information rapidly from person to person. But there is a reason why pure democracy (IE, mobs) do not work as a form of government, or as a long-term strategic entity. Everyone has a different point of view, everyone a different plan. One war-chief and a hundred braves is far more effective at fighting than 100 war-chiefs and 1 brave.Without structure and organization even sufficiently motivated people will spend more time being ineffectual than getting things done.

    Finally, while Greensboro is built on the backs of other social movements (and would not have been possible without them) that is true of every single social movement, modern and otherwise. And all of those successful social movements did not involve social media either. (gasp) neither have any actual recent changes I have heard, (except occasionally as a tool for communication, but often times text messages have proven to be far more effective, harder to trace and all.)

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