Malcolm Gladwell has done it again. Last summer he wrote, I thought rather flippantly, about the ineffectiveness of social media in generating and sustaining social protests.
And now he has followed with a post on the New Yorker blog. (An irony-free zone for Gladwell who apparently doesn’t believe that this blog is a social media tool, and for him it isn’t as he appears to pay no mind to the comments.) He writes, “People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along.”
Of course they did. We had a revolution in 1776 that wasn’t tweeted, pinged or posted. It doesn’t mean that the same recipe for organizing and sustaining the protests, and sharing them with the world, is the same as it was a decade or a century or two centuries ago.
The advent of social media provides three critical resources for protesters today:
- The ability to initially organize as the Egyptian protesters did on Facebook and Twitter to connect with their friends, but more importantly, the friends of friends, the network. It was difficult to do this previusly, but not impossible of course, because of the time and mistakes that happen with telephone trees, the expensive and danger of advertising and danger of organizing on-the-ground meetings.
- The power to change plans in midstream. Using tools like text messaging, Twitter or Foursquare protesters can change meeting places or times in real time, moving thousands of people at a moment’s notice.
- Finally, social media enables citizens to share their stories, pictures and videos with the rest of the world. This gives voice to the previously voiceless and puts pressure on other governments to support legitimate protests.
As I wrote the other day, the only drawback to a reliance on social media at this time is the ability of governments, including ours that pressured companies to deny service to Wikileaks recently, to shut down service and cause a blackout for social media users in country and out. As we’re seeing in Egypt, resourceful individuals, citizens, reporters (see Nick Kristof’s powerful tweets here), news agencies, are finding a way to share the news of what’s happening in Egypt and around the world.
Social media aren’t causing revolutions, they are aiding them. Gladwell can sarcastically imagine Mao using Twitter while missing the point entirely that Mao never needed a vehicle or a voice, but the people of China certainly do. We will never know how the protests in Tiananmen Square might have been different with social media, but we’re seeing in Egypt the power that side-to-side communications can have in starting and stirring protests.