At 4:29 am on December 5th, 2008, Malcolm Gladwell of Blink and Tipping Point fame posted his first tweet. It read, “Nice to join this jungle.” One year later in October 2009 he tweeted his last. It was a failed experiment. It hadn’t been that nice after all. He hadn’t seen the wood for the trees. Gladwell, it would seem, wasn’t impressed! “What?” I hear you ask… after all, Twitter has brought down governments and brought MC Hammer closer to over 2 million of his followers!
Over a year later, and in an article in the New Yorker, Gladwell attacked Twitter’s revolutionary credentials. He suggested that there is a limited application of social networking tools to activism in the “real world”. The Twitter Revolution in Moldova hadn’t really happened. The social network that Ahmadinejad banned at the height of the 2009 troubles had in fact had no effect on the streets of Tehran. Facebook hadn’t lead to the downfall of Ben Ali in Tunisia or indeed Mubarak’s flight from Egypt.
I have to say… I agree and disagree.
Gladwell it has to be said has a propensity to simplify, but as my mother always says – and she really is wise – “Things are never black and white. They are always grey.” It is as ignorant to say that Twitter caused a revolution as it is to suggest that Twitter, or indeed Facebook, had no effect whatsoever. Such events are multi-layered and multi-faceted. Hell, I would even agree with Julian Assange when he took part credit for the events in Tunisia and Egypt because of his Wikileaks revelations.
There is no doubt that social media was used as a communications tool inside and outside of these events, allowing leaders to influence and spread news. There is no doubt that it influenced global mass media, and in doing so influenced politicians. However, the likes of Twitter and Facebook are just tools. They aren’t revolutionaries in their own rights. They are used by revolutionaries who may or may not be that skilled at influencing, organising and toppling as the next cyber-Chez. And they are used alongside muffled coffee shop conversations, discrete text messaging and incendiary leaflets disseminated around the corner from the local Mosque.
When we think of ‘leaders’ I think we have to remember that with the democritisation of the web through the social networks, ‘leaders’ has come to mean ‘you’ and ‘I’. We all communicate and influence. Social change may have traditionally been seen to be hierarchical, but that does not mean it is the case or that it will always continue to be so. Social networks give people this voice and magnify it. I find it odd that Gladwell seems to have missed this. Isn’t that what Tipping Point was all about?
Of course it will always be easier to get somebody to ‘like’, ‘poke’, ‘retweet’, ‘follow’ or ‘share’ but that has more to do with the energy behind their revolution than it does anything else. The social networks are a tool, amongst many, but powerful tools to be leveraged by those with an axe to grind.