Note to Malcolm Gladwell: (Social) Media Matters

Malcolm Gladwell makes a handsome living endorsing or attacking common wisdom in ways that sound smart. And now, he has wormed his way into the unfolding drama in Cairo.
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Malcolm Gladwell makes a very handsome living endorsing or attacking common wisdom in ways that sound smart. Now he has wormed his way into the unfolding drama in Cairo by declaring on The New Yorker's website that so-called social media have no impact on political protest there or anywhere. (Does Egypt Need Twitter?) Needless to say, he misses the point entirely.

There is spreading anti-Gladwell dissent on Twitter and across the web. "Malcolm Gladwell is as out-of-date as Hosni Mubarek," media gadfly Jeff Jarvis tweeted. In a blog post for The Nation that also was picked up by NPR, net expert Ari Melber noted that Gladwell's New Yorker post "is brief and thin, but it is also important for the ways he gets Egypt wrong."

The anti-Gladwell forces have truth as well as entertainment value on their side, but they haven't nailed the central error in Gladwell's posturing.

Gladwell's entry into the Egypt story is seen by Jarvis, Melber and others as a weak attempt to defend a longer, much derided and debated New Yorker piece published last October with the sub-line, "Why the revolution will not be tweeted." Titled "Small Change," the essay argued that social activism is not aided or abetted by social networks. "Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all?" Gladwell asks. His answer (and everyone else's, I suspect) is no. But the question, of course, is a straw man erected because it's so easy to knock down.

What both Gladwell pieces have in common is his characteristically simple-minded argument that social media doesn't matter because there were revolutions before there was Twitter. He cites the French Revolution as one example. If I'm permitted to join this random display of erudition, I even seem to recall an incident in 1215, a couple centuries before the printing press, when England's barons rebelled against the unchecked authority of the king. So, no media matters? As Melber points out, "The overarching problem here is the false premise, frequently employed in these disputes. No one is arguing that this is the first protest in world history." Thank you.

Gladwell, however, tries to argue from history to say Twitter played no role in the protests in Iran, Tunisia or Egypt. By implication, he apparently believes television had nothing to do with the civil rights victories of the 1960s and newspapers played no role in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Stripped of its myriad details and meandering anecdotes, Gladwell's theory is that media doesn't matter. If word of mouth sparked the English barons' rebellion, then print, TV and the Internet are all irrelevant. But considering the central role of media and mass communications throughout history, that's a pretty silly position -- a position that ignores the central role of media in defining human society.

So-called social media, of course, are nothing more (nor less) than media--another set of publishing platforms in a long series of such platforms. David Lewis-Williams is the academic to read when it comes to the history of media. He is a South African anthropologist who is the pre-eminent scholar of rock art and cave art, especially the ancient cave paintings of western Europe that mark the beginnings of humanity, complete with media and written communication.

Lewis-Williams, in a series of books, demonstrates that the origin of media -- beginning with Paleolithic cave art -- was social: the community participated in the creation. And the closer one got to the act of creating those images, the more powerful one became in the community. The purpose of this first medium, he argues, was to create the first social hierarchies. In effect, the guy who controlled the medium was the guy in charge: the Mubarak of the cave.

Media created the social power structure which is the subject of all politics. Viewed from Lewis-Williams' long view, the only new thing about social media and the Internet is that anyone can now be the creator of the images that everyone sees. On Twitter, Facebook and blogs, everyone now is potentially a global publisher. That, of course, is having a profound effect on power politics in a world where formerly only the ruling elites could publish to wide audiences.

The recent negative actions of authoritarian states give us ample evidence, not only of social media's new power, but of the persistent power of all media. Mubarak didn't turn off the Internet in Egypt because it played no significant role in challenging his authority. The Great Firewall of China was not built and manned around the clock because China's leaders feel the web is no threat to their autocracy.

What Gladwell needs to understand is that a change in who can publish to the world is a big change in the political landscape -- a challenge to the existing order. In other words, media matters, Malcolm. Especially, lately, social media.

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