After reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody and Malcom Gladwell’s October 4th article in the New Yorker, I thought I would give a comparison between the two minds and make some thoughts of my own.
Enter Clay Shirky
author of Here Comes Everybody:
A new media enthusiast who believes in the gathering power of new media. Protests in Iran, political activism in Egypt, and teenage girls who get blasted on the Internet for stealing a cell phone prove how social media is a force to be reckoned with in the 21st Century. Shirky uses these as examples of how social media is changing the way we interact due to our need to share, edit, and play nice with each other’s digital contributions to the world.
Enter Malcolm Gladwell
author of The Tipping Point:
A social media realist who believes that the power of social media can only be thought of as a place where weak ties between individuals and groups can exist. This power is only good for fleeting moments of togetherness and collective activism. For Gladwell, to think that a “@MLK #CivilRightsMovement” in the 21st Century can have the same or even a much larger and effective impact than the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960′s ignores the basics of group formation and social psychology.
What Do I Think?
Gladwell has a valid point. I don’t think social media is a place where strong ties are made. Any interaction through media, regardless of their relative richness (email v. phone v. skype v. etc.) will yield much weaker results than old-fashioned, strategic group organization. Strong ties can only be garnered through face-to-face relationships, such as friendships and partnerships.
However, it’s unfortunate that Gladwell doesn’t argue for the need to incorporate social media into strong ties between individuals and groups in order to make the relationship between them stronger and easier to access. Hasn’t he ever used Facebook to keep in touch with his buddies from undergrad? He simply states that the passion and success of a long, sustaining movement cannot hinge itself upon the ephemeral nature of social media flash mobs. True as this is, he’s not thinking past the social media/social organizing dichotomy. he should be think towards a combination of the two.
Gladwell assumes that people like Shirky are “tech first people second” new media scholars. This is hardly the case. In Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, Shirky clearly makes the statement that social media and groups must be corralled in some way by an organized structure in order for it to work. Also, and most importantly, Galdwell states throughout the book that social media and technology are simply extensions of the needs of the people (like how the printing press came out of the need to distribute literature, which was once done by scribes).
In the end, I’ll have to give more credit to Gladwell for pointing out a significant flaw in new media theory because he makes note of the myth that social media create strong enough ties among individuals and groups to develop long and sustaining social movements (something that he convincingly disproves in the New Yorker article). However, Gladwell fails where Shirky begins. Shirky takes this myth, and acknowledges it’s faults; explaining how fleeting relationships can be used for good. Again, Gladwell seems to be 100% people oriented and does not make the attempt to bridge social media and pre-Internet group formation.
What I would like to see in the future is a practical explanation on when social media can be used to gather certain types of people for certain types of movements. With such a map, users of new media can plan accordingly and use social media to turn what was once a fleeting relationship into a long sustaining relationship of people willing to do what is called of them.
In the end, I’m still waiting for the Million Twitter March, which will be streamed live on Ustream and updated live Wikipedia faster than the papers can say “print” :P. Just so long as mankind continues to act human and form strong relationships, social media will be there (and improved upon) to support these relationships.