With global attention on the protests in Egypt, it’s not shocking that some people have fixated on the role of social networks like Twitter as driving the activities of anti-Mubarak protesters. Indeed, one of the first major steps Mubarak took to try to stymie the dissidents was completely shutting off the internet in Egypt (it was recently restored). Not shockingly, when it comes to triumphalism of technology in activism, Malcolm Gladwell, devote skeptic of all things digital, chimes in as an anti.
Without going at the thin and dismissive post by Gladwell myself, I’m turning it over to Melber, who writes:
The overarching problem here is the false premise, frequently employed in these disputes. No one is arguing that this is the first protest in world history. Very few people think the Internet is an essential prerequisite to revolution. Instead, they’re exploring whether the web and networked communications open up new and effective ways for citizens to converse and organize each other in repressive societies. (Access to mobile phones and text-messaging, for example, may have helped young people organize in Egypt and Tunisia in a different way than landlines or websites.) We can engage these issues without taking anything away from the French Revolution. Now, whether people “always” communicate grievances in authoritarian societies—a dubious claim—is less important to foreign policy than what comes of those communications.
[W]hen Gladwell simply announces that how people communicate is “less interesting” than why, he’s just stating his personal, editorial preference as accepted fact. The banal reality is that different people find different things interesting. And really, by ending his defensive post with that line, Gladwell sounds a bit like the recent Onion headline tweaking his predicament: “Panicked Malcolm Gladwell Realizes Latest Theory Foretells End Of His Popularity.”
Actually, Melber’s conclusion reminds me a lot of his demolition of Lee Siegel’s book, Against the Machine. In 2008, Melber wrote:
By combining the fact-free observations of a futurist pundit and the hypocritical tirades of a sinful preacher, Siegel’s book is as unreliable as it is insufferable. Ironically, he sounds like the caricature of bloggers he denounces: uninformed, shrill, defensive, and self-obsessed. The nascent web culture does have problems, which fine thinkers have tackled before (Cass Sunstein and Yochai Benkler, for example). But Against the Machine fails to support its antiweb hostility, let alone offer specific reforms, because it’s too busy ranting in the mirror.
Gladwell really does sound eerily like Siegel, whose old man yelling to get off his lawn routine is getting quite old by now.
But to back up a step, Gladwell’s overall critique is that social networks and the internet are incapable of building the sort of deep ties which he says are requisite to produce meaningful social and political change. First, this denies that most social networks are, in fact, social and built upon close personal relationships. But more importantly, in the situation we have in Egypt now, what evidence is there that this mass uprising is built on deep ties between the anti-Mubarak activists in the street? What says that two strangers standing next to each other, sharing shelter from thrown rocks, must or even do have a deep tie? More likely they are there because they both knew it was time for change and time for action. They may have been brought there by a tweet or by a phone call, but they’re there. There’s no unitary way that people come to action and that’s totally fine. Hopefully Gladwell grasps this and will stop pissing into the wind sooner rather than later.