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. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/oct/02/malcolm-gladwell-social-networking-kashmir
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