There's been a bit of a dust-up among networking aficianados since The New Yorker published Malcolm Gladwell's "Small Change: The revolution will not be tweeted" in its Oct 4 issue. While we all bow to him for bringing some key networking ideas to a mass audience with The Tipping Point, we need to send him back to school before he writes another piece like this. Factual errors, wrong conclusions, and major points missed typify his work this time. Here's just one thoughtful post from my friend David Weinberger; google the article title and the word blog and you'll find a whole lot more.
Having received last week's New Yorker with reader response to the article, I now know that they're not going to publish the letter to the editor that we fired off. (I hit the jackpot on this once before in defense of Bucky Fuller, blogging about it here with a bit of a backstage view of how this process works.) Thus, I'm publishing it here in the hopes that Mr. Gladwell will think about these points before he writes more on this subject as one has to wonder whether he's working on a book about this.
To the editor:
For a one-piece-has-it-all view of every wrong-headed yet sadly popular view of networks, read Malcolm Gladwell's "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted." Gladwell does a great job of conflating social networks with social action with network structure and ignores the past thirty years of research and analysis of networks as organizational structures.
Among his myths, which he puts forward as truth:
#1. That networks are leaderless. Wrong. Networks are leaderful. Many leaders give networks their resiliency, speed, and reach.
#2. That networks stand in opposition to hierarchy. Unh-uh. Thanks to the new science of networks, we're able to apply network theory to rigid hierarchies. Guess what? Hierarchies are networks too, just a special case.
#3. That social networks cannot really engage, motivate, and inspire people. Sadly, he's under-reported here. At the risk of raising political spectres of elections past, what was Obama/2008 but a massive eruption of social networking, intermingled with hierarchy? That's the way it really works. Networks and hierarchies (in the traditional way that Gladwell interprets them) interweave one another, as they also did in the civil rights movement, where "circuit riders" bridged formal organizations, forging ties that those on the outside could barely see.
Finally, #4 for all the business types: That networks don't design new products. Huge error here: Networks comprise companies like Benetton, where hundreds of small decentralized firms network to design and produce apparel marketed under a common banner. And, networks such as these turn around economies, as they have done in Northern Italy and Denmark, where small business networks banded together to reverse terrible declines in employment and GDP.
Networks are the oldest, the most enduring, the most flexible, and, bless them, the newest structues that we have. Dismissing them without truly understanding them leaves a lot of networkers, like ourselves, scratching our heads, maybe even tweeting.
--Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps, authors of The Age of the Network and The TeamNet Factor (Wiley, 1996, 1993) and Networking (Doubleday, 1982)
West Newton, MA