I like Malcolm Gladwell’s writing, but he’s taking a lot of heat for recent comments and articles in The New Yorker that are seen by many as trivializing the power of networks built on social media. (Does Egypt Need Twitter and Small Change – Why the Revolution Will not be Tweeted.)
His primary objective is to task those that have suggested the role social media played in toppling the leadership in Egypt or, for that matter, in any recent acts of social activism.
Frankly, I’m not that concerned with measuring the impact or lack thereof that Twitter had, and I know that Malcolm Gladwell won’t be arguing his point of view with me anytime soon. I do think, however, think the underlying supposition that networks and relationships started and fostered through the use of social media are somehow less significant than those formed exclusively through some sort of shared airspace is something that merits my objection.
Trying to minimize the role of social media is an argument that doesn’t make sense for Gladwell or any thought leader to support because it fails to position social media platforms for what they are -- powerful tools for meeting objectives -- the same objectives we’ve always had. The only difference is these tools permit the same objectives to happen, with far greater speed.
Horses delivered the mail
Gladwell sums his thinking with this line: “People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented.” While this is accurate, it is also accurate to say that horses used to deliver the mail -- it is true, but I kind of like my air express mail.
The most powerful weapon of oppression is not a gun; it’s the control of misinformation. Social networks have loosened the control of information in a way that is at least potentially more democratic and that’s a powerful thing.
Community around shared ideas
We’ve always had community and networks, but they were built more on shared geography and class as opposed to globally shared ideas. Social networks and socially enabled behavior allow us to build community based on shared ideas and the power to connect with people in this manner is neither shallow nor fragile.
The notion, as Gladwell states, that people use Facebook only to keep up with acquaintances they would otherwise not have time for demonstrates only that he doesn’t choose to use Twitter or Facebook.
These tools allow people to find and make connections with people and causes that can ultimately grow deeper and richer than those drawn only from, say, a set of school district boundaries.
The fact that someone can have 1,000 weak associations or friends on Facebook doesn’t mean that’s all there is to it. It’s what is grown from the 10, otherwise unattainable associations, that marks the true exponential potential of a social network.
Weak ties spawn innovation
Some sociologists suggest, and I have found this to be true for me, that the ties formed initially around loose actions, such as following and liking, are actually the seeds of an incredible source of innovation.
Your closest friends and coworkers rarely have the space to tell you what you need to hear or to suggest truly innovative ideas from outside your industry or sphere of influence.
Some of my best ideas come from asking questions or from directly asking for help from a collection of people that have chosen for some reason known primarily to them to follow and respond to my tweets.
Speed and density
Marketers have long understood, and certainly Gladwell spells out in The Tipping Point, that density is an important attribute if you want something to expand rapidly. There is an inertia required to build movement and momentum and social media tools make it very easy to build networks that are very dense and can act with lightening speed.
This aspect isn’t something that’s always controllable or even predictable, but it offers a far greater opportunity for anyone to create the kind of impact that just a few short years ago may have taken millions of dollars and a lifetime of sacrifice.
Filtering towards permanent
And finally, it’s the notion that ties formed in social networks, powered primary online, are destined to remain insignificant.
Every relationship, no matter how it is formed, begins on the basis of some loose affiliation -- an introduction, a shared room, a sales call, or maybe a chance meeting at a coffee shop.
That same loose beginning can now happen on Facebook, LinkedIn or any of a dozen online communities, but like any relationship, it’s what comes next that defines the permanence or strength of the relationship.
Thankfully, my wife and I still enjoy long, thoughtful discussions on our patio after almost 28 years of marriage, but I also look forward to thought provoking conversations over beers on the upper deck of the Iron Works Barbecue during SXSW with friends and relations forged initially through social networks and shared ideas.
Image credit: _DaniloRamos