Philippa Thomas Online

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So WILL the revolution be tweeted?

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Here’s my short take on a surprisingly personal debate between some of the new media gurus of our time -a debate that’s shot from single article to raging debate online.

It kicked off with a literary hand grenade, tossed out by the New Yorker in its 4th October edition,  penned by Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point” and “Outliers.”

He argues with some force that the revolution will NOT be tweeted: that Twitter is essentially a method of dispersing quick-fire information. He describes it disdainfully as a way in which we stream “feel good” exchanges about the challenges of our time, rather than a tool to contribute to meaningful social change. “Weak ties seldom lead to high risk activism”. It’s a good provocative read.

I think Gladwell’s argument is weakened by what comes off as a somewhat personal attack on Clay Shirky and his crowd-sourcing ideals. Shirky is the author of “Here Comes Everybody” and “Cognitive Surplus”, and I’m currently auditing his class at the Kennedy School. I spoke to him the day the article came out and he said he found the line of attack somewhat “shabby”; his detailed coverage of the political uses of Twitter so far somewhat overlooked.  

But this IS a valid debate, it goes well beyond Gladwell v Shirky, and it’s fascinating to follow for all of us who think social media might well BE revolutionary – we just haven’t got the benefit of hindsight yet. 

The only way we’re going to end the argument is by PROVING that social media works, that it has a significant social impact.  Here’s one article from the UK Guardian in Saturday 2nd October arguing that Twitter is working in Kashmir by opening up a long running protest movement to a new audience.

And here’s another article from the week before on the ways in which social media help draw attention to  the long running saga of  drug violence in Mexico.

There’s a smart overview of the debate in the Guardian’s sister paper the Sunday Observer (3rd October).  As journalist Tim Adams writes it, Gladwell has “enraged” social media champions, and he gives them – including Shirky – sympathetic treatment. Some of the best insights of all come at the end of the article, in the stream of readers’  comments, including a heartfelt submission about why Twitter works for democracy activists in China.

Speaking globally, there’s a similar debate bubbling about the value of social media  provoked by a forthright editorial in “The Australian”; I’m seeing lots of tweets about it flying from Australian and American sources.

 I’ll follow that and more in this blog, as I try to think about the best uses of digital media today. Any advice welcome here or on twitter (appropriately!) at @BBCPhilippaT

Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 30 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, psychology, reading, trekking, and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, coaching @positivecoachi3, and life & travel on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

One thought on “So WILL the revolution be tweeted?

  1. Debating it today in Clay Shirky’s class on New Media and Public Action. He says of Gladwell that he ‘wrongly extrapolates’ that social media never cause strong ties. It remains hugely significant that a message like “Where’s my Vote” in Iran could spread so fast. The shallow “narcissistic” excitement over the Twitter revolution is no reason to conclude that the tool is therefore insignificant. All movements use the tools of their time. “We would expect modern insurgencies to make successful use of social media. Not insurgencies that use social media to be automatically successful. It’s not like the internet sprinkles freedom dust….” Is he rowing back?
    More like, I think, making it clear that social media is revolutionary as a tool, but it still takes motivated human beings to drive the revolution itself. And leadership…

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