Can we really tweet ourselves to a better place?

Sometimes you just need to get out of the office to catch up even if you are at the end of more electronic tethers than you can count. So what have I been catching up on while traipsing back and forth to DC? Why the silly debate between Biz Stone and Malcom Gladwell of course.

Gladwell went first with a piece in the first October issue of The New Yorker about the dubiousness of the idea that social media are a key driver of social change. Not to be outdone, The Atlantic–seemingly always intent on trying to one up TNY, this time with an ‘exclusive’–countered with a reply from Biz Stone, one of Twitter’s founders. I will say that both posts are good for sociology since each quotes research that supports his point of view. But I think they may both be less than right because I find each less than persuasive.

I know,  Malcolm Gladwell is a darling of the credentialed class. His writings are a reminder that the things we studied in college before we became embroiled in the tawdry details of commerce really do matter. I read The Tipping Point and while I thought it just popularized some already known stuff at least it got it out there.

Once that sort of academic popularizing became Gladwell’s brand I quickly tired of it. I’m a geek. I need the footnotes the data and the B coefficients or it’s all just story-telling. (He does tell a mean story.) And then there was the unfortunate Fleetwood Mac incident.

(I won’t dwell on that. Suffice it to say I don’t think his argument bears scrutiny unless success is defined solely in terms of multi-platinum sales. Peter Green, Danny Kirwain, Jeremey Spencer  and Bob Welch deserve better than being relegated to being stepping-stones on an intense, directed path to mega-stardom. For Pete’s sake, Black Magic Woman is a Fleetwood Mac song. Ain’t that succesful?)

So Gladwell casts the Greensboro Sit Ins, as well as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as a classic example of strong social ties within a command and control structure. Fair enough. But let’s not get all romantic here. The same argument holds true for the Bolsheviks, the Castro Revolution and lots of other events that don’t sit well with Americans.

Do I believe the pulpit was the mega- and tele-phone of the Civil Rights movement? Yes, but only because phone ownership among blacks in the South was so low. Give those people a phone and they’d have used it, too. The tools don’t care how strong or weak your ties are. They’re tools. They have no moral authority or ability to judge. You have a goal you use the tools you have to reach it. Last I looked, Che had short wave radio and Lenin used the telegraph. Marx used an older technology, the printing press.

Then there’s Biz Stone, the very opposite of the disinterested scholar. Of course Twitter and social media are important. Other people said so. Just look, the same ones Gladwell said were wrong Biz says are right. So it must be true. Biz wouldn’t steer me wrong. Why would he?

Maybe because, in Gladwell’s great line, innovators are solipsists. Look, I don’t tweet. This blog is a refutation of the asinine notion that ordered thought can be reduced to a minimal amount of information contained within 140 characters. (I’m hard pressed to cogently make a point in 140 words.) But Mssr. Stone is hardly disinterested and his ramblings should be quite steeply discounted.

So we get a Chinese internet scholar telling us that, gasp, Twitter is changing China through micropolitics. This may or may not prove true but if the argument is that social media matter why does the example just happen to be about  Twitter. That kind of self-serving crap comes out of PR agencies and corporate communications departments. It’s not about truth at all.

We even get Stone quoting Gladwell on Paul Revere to prove that Gladwell was once right but has strayed. I have not gone back and checked Gladwell but I know some of the weak/strong tie literature and, seemingly unlike Biz Stone, I at least read David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride.

Stone is so wrong on the weak ties issue it isn’t funny, it’s lamentable. Revere’s ties may have been weak in a broad network. Each node, however, was rooted in a town structure and strong ties. The history of April 18, 1775 is full of neighbors standing behind and next to neighbors firming up individual resolve and regrouping to make the British march back to Boston as costly a march as ever there was.

Why can’t both these guys be right? Yes,  Stoney, Twitter is a tool that people can use to affect change. It is not however, an element of change or some radically different technology that changes the game. (Again, Stone’s ahistoricisim is, even by American standards, appalling. He makes the same claims for Twitter that were made for pamphlets during the War for Independence.) It can even be a grand time waster and self-aggrandizing toy.

And Mr. Gladwell, maybe you have to consider that as elegant as some arguments are, Occam’s razor sometimes demands that we accept an explanation a little more simple than the ones derived from mathematical social science. Maybe some people used Twitter in Iran, Moldova and even China.

Who knows, they might even have used it in Greensboro.

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