How Malcolm Gladwell Misses the Mark in His Recent <em>New Yorker</em> Piece on Social Revolution

When Malcolm Gladwell spoke at my alma mater during the first week of classes a number of years ago, I believed in him because I thought he believed in the future generations. After reading his latest piece, I'm not so certain that he does anymore.
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Malcolm Gladwell, author, and astute assessor of life -- who I first encountered when I read The Tipping Point back in the summer of 2004 prior to entering the University of Pennsylvania for Penn's annual reading project, has somehow missed the mark in his latest piece in The New Yorker, Oct. 4, entitled "Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted." As usual, Gladwell points to many facts and sources in this case to make a persuasive argument as to how social movements today are loosely-tied as compared to those of those before us, most notably several movements of the 1960s, such as sit-ins and the Montgomery Bus Movement. He argues that creatures of Facebook and Twitter are commanded by simple pounds on a keyboard and stir movements by these simple pounds as opposed to actual physical participation, creating weak-ties to participatory events and lower-risk involvement in movements themselves as compared to those that occurred in the past. Participation today is thus either negligible or, it seems as Gladwell argues, drastically less significant than has previously been.

Yet, the social media movements of today are far from insignificant: the most palpable and significant in recent time, for example, based largely (not solely) on a foundation of a social media movement was the momentum of President Obama's victory in 2008. The election of a United States President, was not only tangible, strongly-tied, but also one of absolute high-risk -- maybe not high-risk in the sense of a sit-in with the repercussions of the 1960s -- but high-risk in results, as the results of a presidential election are not a low-risk matter.

When the United States Department of State used SMS text messaging as means to raise money for those impacted by the Haiti disaster, creating the largest mobile donation campaign ever at the time, this was a high-risk movement too. By texting the word "Haiti" to 90999, individuals were each able to donate $10 to the Red Cross, generating 1.7 million dollars the first 24 hours alone. The campaign spread virally across Facebook and Twitter and money kept pouring in. By January 20th, eight days after the earthquake initially struck, the campaign had passed $25 million in its total fundraising amount. This was a movement in the United States that spread across national boundaries, a point that Gladwell clearly distinguishes with the Iran elections, claiming that there was little or no revolution within Iran but instead a movement that was "Western-led." In regard to "Text Haiti," Haiti needed us, and they didn't have the tools to lead the revolution. America needed to lead and did.

Gladwell touches upon societal restructuring with the assumption that we are seemingly now more apathetic. As a younger individual, I can't help feel that some fingers are being pointed at Generations X and Y, the so-called "future of our nation." But studies about younger generations, many of whom are glued to their screens or PDAs day-in and day-out, do not reveal this, not only at election times, but also in regard to civic participation as well.

True, pushing a button on Facebook or sending a tweet is not the same as being in the center of a sit-in or a rally. And if it were not for the generation before each generation, we would not be where we are today. This goes without saying for many generations throughout history, and risks change with history too.

I enjoy Gladwell's books and consistently find many of his arguments intriguing and interesting. But I find his recent piece in The New Yorker to be somewhat generationally insulting -- to me, it seems that he is saying that older generations knew how to create real, palpable movements; younger generations simply know how to push buttons. But Gladwell, younger generations can do both. They have: they were in the Facebook groups for President Obama and then they showed up by the thousands to the rallies and then they voted for him. And in the end, whatever you believe politically, Obama won. This was one significant, high-risk movement. And what if no physical presence occurs at all with such a movement? Look at the "Text Haiti" example: individuals raised over $25 million in eight days via this campaign. Was this high-risk or low-risk? Ask the people of Haiti.

I understand the point that Gladwell makes about joining the largest Facebook group to help save Darfur. Why do it he seemingly asks? The average donation amount is relatively low. However, the problem with this argument, Mr. Gladwell, is that it breeds a culture of cynicism in itself and falls into a cyclical nature of apathy. Just as it was unlikely to force people to join a sit-in if they didn't want to back in the 1960s, it is unlikely to make people donate more than they are willing to, or anything at all, if there main goal is to make a point. And making a point to them might just be joining that group. Either way, these individuals are still making their own statement in their own, as you say, loosely-tied ways. And whether we like it or not, times have changed, and these are the movements of today: new societal structures have been created where people can in fact still make differences.

When Malcolm Gladwell spoke at my alma mater during the first week of classes a number of years ago, I believed in him because I thought he believed in the future generations. After reading his latest piece, I'm not so certain that he does anymore.

Mr. Gladwell: Look at all of the responses on the Internet that you have been receiving to your initial column. I have seen many. Low-risk, for sure. Loosely-connected, of course. But we care enough to write responses. And others care enough to tweet our responses or post them on their Facebook walls. And so, I end with what you ended with in your own piece: Viva la revolución.

David Helfenbein has also posted this blog posting on his site,, under his blog, The Bean Blog.

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