The best-selling author of The Tipping Point has enraged social network users by dismissing their impact on real issues. It is, Tim Adams writes, just the latest salvo in an argument set to run and run.
Social networks, those loose, busy and self-absorbing communities of Facebookers and Twitterers, have always invited analogies from the insect world. If we are to accept the most common of them, Malcolm Gladwell, provocateur-in-chief at the New Yorker magazine, has poked a sharp stick into the online ants' nest. The Twitterers have responded to his provocation by swarming on to blogs and websites to protect their uniting belief: that the future belongs to them.
Gladwell is a spirited contrarian. His argument in the New Yorker last month was an attack on the prevalent idea that online social networks represent the future of campaigning and protest, and perhaps - in totalitarian states - of revolution. The best-selling author of The Tipping Point unpicked this notion with typical chutzpah, moving quickly from emotive and carefully selected individual case studies to sweeping universal principles.
Gladwell examined the most effective mass protest of modern times - the American civil rights movement. Using the coffee bar sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960 as an example, he argued that such activism was based on the strength of intimate friendships and shared experience. He said it could never have arisen from the "weak ties" and "horizontal" associations that characterise the campaigning of online "friends" and "followers".
"Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that [Martin Luther] King's task in Birmingham, Alabama, would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail," Gladwell argued.
"But [online] networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterises Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King jnr had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure. And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where 98 per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed - discipline and strategy - were things that online social media cannot provide."
As an example of the comparative ineffectiveness of wiki-activism, Gladwell cited the virtual support groups that arose at the height of the civil war in western Sudan. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition had 1,282,339 members, he noted, before detailing, with a flourish, the financial commitment of those "protesters" to their cause: an average of 15c each.
From this and other anecdotes Gladwell drew the following conclusion: that while social networks may be useful for some communication - to alert like-minded acquaintances to social events, or to solve a specific "weak tie" problem, such as the location of a bone marrow donor, they do not promote the passionate collective engagement that causes individuals to make commitments that result in social change.
Facebook "likers", he argued, are not sitters-in or nonviolent activists, they are not even marchers or candle-wavers; they may wish to associate themselves with a protest app, but the nature of their medium means they do so with negligible risk and therefore negligible effect.
"The evangelists of social media," he concluded, "seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend. Social networks are effective at increasing participation - by lessening the motivation that participation requires. In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice."
To many of the anonymously outraged, this was fighting talk. "Cynic", in a long and vitriolic thread on the rival Atlantic Monthly website, argued that while "once a group of local activists might have placed notices in the local paper, today it tweets. There are important changes implicit in this transition, to be sure. Organisations have a much easier time reaching a broader public. They can enlist a huge number of people to perform small tasks, that in aggregate add up to large accomplishments."
Gladwell reserved much of his ire for Clay Shirky, the charismatic New York University evangelist of the power of online crowds, and author of the seminal social media text Here Comes Everybody. Shirky, Gladwell argued, had oversold the potential of wiki-activism as a tool for social transformation.
Gladwell recently told me he never spent much time on the internet. "I run out of things to look up really quickly."
New Yorker editor David Remnick argued recently that "as long as I'm there, we are not going to change who we are, no matter what the delivery systems are, no matter what the means of reading us. We are about reading. We're about long-form journalism ... a sense of delight, a sense of seriousness when it's appropriate. [We will not] give away these core things because in the short term we think, 'wow, you know, actually [the future is] three-paragraph long pieces, the hell with doing 15,000 words on American politics, or sending somebody to Afghanistan three times to get the story ..."'
In an - ironic - online forum that followed the furore he had created, Gladwell argued that what drove him crazy about "the digerati" was that they "refuse to accept the fact that there is a class of social problems for which there is no technological solution.
"Look, technology is going to solve the energy problem. I'm convinced of it. But technology does not and cannot change the underlying dynamics of 'human' problems: it does not make it easier to love or to motivate or to dream or convince."
In an argument that will run and run, he seemed to be inverting the wisdom of a social theorist from a previous age: the message is not only about the medium.
- OBSERVERBy Tim Adams