If reaction to Malcolm Gladwell's latest dump of cold water on the flaming arc between social media and social change is any measure, The New Yorker very much needs this able writer to keep the links flying. He's got the neterati all up in their (our) nodes starting with the headline of his short Februrary 2, 2011, post, "Does Egypt Need Twitter?" Gladwell's two-letter answer: No.
My favorite headline so far comes from Business Insider's Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry: "Sorry Malcolm Gladwell, But You're Making Zero Sense On Twitter And Egypt."
For comprehensive deconstruction of Gladwell's 370 words, see David Weinberger's "Gladwell proves too much," where he takes down every syllable of Gladwell's argument. Argument, Gladwell's is, as he throws in provocation after poke ("Whoa. Did you see what Mao just tweeted?" or "Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented.)
OK. In 2011, it's hard to resist saying things like "that's just dumb."
But more to the point, as a reporter, Gladwell badly needs a fact-checker. He clearly has not put together any kind of timeline, spoken with anyone in Egypt, or, frankly, observed a primary tenet of journalism: accuracy. Granted his post, which suffers from the blogger-weakness of "off-the-top-of-the-headism," is Gladwell's opinion but he is ignoring the well-documented way things have unfolded, beginning with the Facebook page with its background, We are all Khaled Said.
Even the demonstrators in Tahrir Square have been astonished at what "the youth" have wrought. I'm not going to run this all down--that's a long piece that someone (probably many someones) are working on right now--but a spark was lit and then social media made it very easy for word to spread. And to make plans. And to meetup, as it were.
Second OK: Gladwell's other huge factual error is his view of social activism (as per above, "[it] requires deep roots and strong ties"). True but incomplete. Scores of studies, books, re-studies, and more books have proved that social activism depends both on strong ties AND weak ones.
Mark Granovetter's elegant title to his 1973 groundbreaker, "The Strength of Weak Ties," whom, by the by, Gladwell misinterprets in his original screed, lays the early network science foundation for why social activism depends on both kinds of ties.
The hundreds of thousands, if not millions when you count up all the cities, of people in Egypt don't all have strong ties, Malcolm. Smaller pods of them have very strong links; between/among the pods are weak ties--and the occasional strong ones. The whole thing hangs together--and people keep turning out--because of these loose and strong connections. That's a movement. And it spreads at lightning speed thanks to social media networks, where again the ties are both iron and gossamer.