Tag Archives: Gladwell

What is Gladwell thinking?

(I realize this is old news but I was very inspired to blog about Mr. Gladwell’s article)



I read The Tipping Point, Outliers, and Blink within a six month period. You had me hooked Gladwell. The stories and level of thinking in your books I found relevant, practical,and abundant in “aha” moments. Even your TED Talk on how spaghetti sauce changed the consumer culture had “stickiness” and impactive meaning. And now you pull this? Selling out the role of social media as a force of change.

Let’s lay out his arguments:

1. Social Media creates weak ties to others; strong ties are necessary for social activism. (1970s Italian Red Brigade & Civil Rights Movement are used as examples)

2. Instead of being defined by their causes, activists today are now defined by their tools.

3. Social Networks do some things well; but hierarchal direction isn’t one of them. Bottom to top change is in many ways a phenomenon rich in structured organization.

I can’t disagree….100%. While it’s true that social media creates weak ties, Gladwell himself sees this as a great quality in moving information or locating specific people or items with value. In my experience my weak ties have profoundly influenced my stronger ties by allowing me to share understanding and experiences. A good example is my PLN on Twitter. In another scenario, while protests were happening in Bangkok last year, social media kept me apprised of the situation in order to make decisions for my family. I feel very fortunate to have been informed (I also needed to corroborate information as well). More importantly, we are now embarking into an age where we have greater opportunities to forge “weak” ties that have never been possible before in the history of the planet. In these unchartered waters, we are just beginning to understand the complexities and promise of greater connectivity. Gladwell appears to be jumping the gun.

Gladwell’s next idea is very puzzling and problematic since I see social activism in the 1960s as heavily depending on the tools of the time period. University pipelines and weak/strong ties to people in specific positions to be used for getting the word out. I’m sure Gladwell knows the story of Rosa Parks getting arrested on a Friday and the Montgomery Bus Boycott starting that next Monday. The social network and media devices were word of mouth, the academic and social pipelines of colleges, and a hand turn mimeograph machine (at work all weekend) to organize a massive, city-wide boycott of municipal transportation.  I don’t see the point – tools are tools and social activism is impossible without both a message and a means of transference .

The third point regarding the lack of a hierarchy in the mass of social media is his most valid. All major political revolutions have order, direction, and organization although the effectiveness of all or any combination of the three can be questioned.  Can revolutions happen through Twitter? Emphatically not. But this is where Gladwell makes some important errors in analysis. His first error is in trying to compare the social activism of the 20th century with current political activism. They lack congruency. Bad government/ineffectual government is relative and the people at the barricades in Egypt and Libya are ready to make sacrifices so their children can experience the sweeping global changes taking place (Thomas Friedman is all over this). Social media is not bringing down governments but it most certainly is effecting the intellectual climates of closed/single-party states. More importantly, neo-liberalization and the proliferation of information on an exponential scale has blurred the lines of right and wrong, with a high propensity of moral relativism filling the void. In the 1960s Americans had to learn that disenfranchising citizens because of race is wrong…arguably some still don’t know; my point is that effective social action informs and changes minds; it is by definition demonstrative to all involved. I am demonstrating something when I put out a 140 character message to the world.

I have tremendous respect for the writer who has made me think differently about socio-cultural context, cognition, and success. I find his books extremely relevant to teaching and therefore his books resonate on very high level with what I do daily.  So here is my dilemma. If I believe social media has the capacity to transform learning, communication, and citizenship, then why doesn’t this brilliant author? Shouldn’t we be on the same page? Sounds like a 21st century problem. Get to the root of our difference, explore the evidence of the counter-argument and establish the “middle ground.” I’m learning empathy – I will see (or try to see) Mr. Gladwell’s point of view. So I research (21st century skill). I read a number of blogs and articles about this difference of opinion.  Here is what I came up with:

From Barbara Popova of the Change Observer (digital resource)

Malcolm Gladwell’s take on social media is like a nun’s likely review of the Kama Sutra — self-righteous and misguided by virtue of voluntary self-exclusion from the subject. But while the nun’s stance reflects adherence to a moral code, Gladwell’s merely discloses a stubborn opinion based on little more than a bystander’s observations.*

And this excellent observation from Matthew Ingram of Gigaom.com

While I was reading Gladwell’s piece, in my head I replaced any mention of Twitter or Facebook with the words “the telephone,” and then it became a diatribe about how people talking on the telephone has never amounted to anything in terms of social activism. That is probably just as true as his criticisms of Twitter. But would any modern social effort or campaign or demonstration be effective without someone making phone calls? Twitter and Facebook are just tools, and they can be used for social good in the same way any other tool can. And those “weak ties” can eventually grow into strong ones.*

(*I recommend both of these readings (plus Biz Stone’s response) for anyone still not convinced about why connectivity drives information and action)

So what does all this mean? Malcolm Gladwell really said nothing that wasn’t accurate from a particular point of view. Watch the video below: YouTube Preview Image

Discipline, trust, and organization are necessary for high risk activism.

Sounds like a few 21st century teachers I know. But OK…I’ll give credit to you Mr. Gladwell; I have come full circle and now will read Tipping Point for the third time because it just makes me think….like social media does.