The Not-so-Great Social Media Debate

If you’re like me, you enjoyed the recent debate stimulated by Malcolm Gladwell in his New Yorker article titled Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted. (You might also enjoy his follow-up interactions with readers).

In nutshell, Gladwell compared a 1960 sitdown strike in the American South with the social activist uses of social media, particularly as promoted by digiterati royalty Clay Shirky. He found it wanting. Twitter is great for promoting awareness, Gladwell says, but hardly for promoting commitment. And the civil rights movement had its own channels for promotion; word did get around even pre-twitter.

I kind of enjoy Gladwell’s contrarian, “I prefer real books.” But he hardly has the last word. For an example of a good critique, including Shirky’s reaction, read Scotnetwork’s well-covered viewpoint.

But there’s a broader perspective here that we’re all missing.

Ho Hum, Another Boring Old vs. New Debate

Gladwell went back to 1960 for his example. Fast forward two decades, to the introduction of voicemail in about 1980. You can read about the technical history of voicemail, but I want to focus on what I remember as the commercial reaction at the time.

I was working at a consulting firm, the MAC Group, at the time. (Jamie Dimon, for a few months, administratively reported to me—one of my better party trivia). Voicemail came to us as a Rolm product. At the time, three aspects of the system quickly grabbed our attention.

Implication One. Back then there was a key job—that of telephone receptionist. Like many other companies, a single person typically sat near the front door of the office, and performed two functions: greeting those who came in the door, and answering the phone. First implication: job insecurity.

Implication Two. Cost-benefit. As I recall, quite a bit of time was spent analyzing (we were, after all, a management consulting firm) the cost-benefit ratio of the new system. Was it a new item, with new value? So thought the nerds of the time. Or was it simply a new efficiency toy, to be justified by the job redundancies it made possible? So thought the hard-asses and Luddites of the time.

Implication Three. How could you make money off this thing? To be honest, I recall less of this discussion around voicemail than around the other two–but this was early in our love for things technoid. This question—how it would make money—became the obsessive question for later generations of techno-toys. Think laptops, PDAs, LANs, document management systems—and all that was before we even got the Big Deal—the Internet.

All of these waves of technology add up to one conclusion above all others: Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.  The more things change, the more it’s the same thing.

The Things That Stay the Same

1.    We constantly mistake plumbing for business models. A phone is not a business model. Neither is voicemail. Neither is Twitter. They all start out as cool ideas, then get anointed as business models, then quickly move to plumbing. Nothing wrong with plumbing. Though before too long, you notice that it’s only plumbers who make money off plumbing.

2.     The real issue is not efficiency, it’s effectiveness. The importance of voicemail lay not in reducing secretarial positions, but in advancing the quality and range of communications possibilities. Voicemail didn’t ruin communication—it altered it. Ditto Twitto.

3.    The new issues get framed in the old terms. Twitter and Facebook are neither the savior of civilization, nor the antichrist. They are not good, or bad. New and old media will find their own levels. One is wide and flat; one is deep and narrow. The world has room for both. They will sort out.

 Maybe it’s me showing my age, but I find the debates interesting, yet ultimately boring. 

I prefer, of course, to think of that as wisdom, borne of perspective. 

You, of course, will think what you will. That’s what we as humans do.   

The Revolution Will Not Be Twitterized

Arguably the inventor of rap music—and undeniably a unique voice of our time—Gil Scott-Heron is today most famous for an April 1971 track called “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” 

“…the revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruption…will not give you sex appeal, nor make you look five pounds lighter…will not go better with Coke…”. 

The message—as I hear it—making change is not a casual, part-time activity. Done seriously, it can be hazardous to your being.

Here’s a short video of Scott-Heron:

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Uploaded by mallox. – Music videos, artist interviews, concerts and more.

Decades later, Malcolm Gladwell nods to Scott-Heron to say something similar about the television of our age—New Social Media (New Yorker, October 4, 2010: "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted.")

In his inimitable style, Gladwell first digs deep into the early days of the Civil Rights movement in the US—February 1960, to be precise—to show how a 4-person sitdown strike morphed into sitdown strikes across the south involving 70,000 students. All done, as he notes, without Twitter.

Then—as usual—Gladwell brings in the counterpoint. In this case, new social media. With an undertone of annoyance, Gladwell quotes State Department officials, old media reporters, and new media darling Clay Shirky. They all gush about the power of Twitter and Facebook to affect global political events, and to mobilize masses of people behind crucial movements.

Bahh, says Gladwell. Don’t confuse getting people to contribute thirty-five cents from the comfort of their armchair with a willingness to go get your head broken in support of a cause. And, suggests Gladwell, it is the latter—not the former—that turns out to be at the heart of social change.

Change requires risk. Serious change is done in numbers; but in small numbers, with real ‘friends’ beside you. The ‘friends’ you have on Facebook don’t deliver that kind of support.

Personal and Impersonal Trust

The debate Gladwell is raising is nominally about social media. It does raise a related trust issue, however. To what extent does our extended connectivity and interdependence increase trust?

Let me go back to the Trust Equation to suggest an answer. The Trust Equation (actually an equation for trustworthiness) is

(C + R + I)



C = credibility

R = reliability

I = intimacy

S = self-orientation

 When people talk about new technologies allowing for the creation of greater trust, they are often talking about the first two elements of credibility and reliability—especially the latter.

·    We ‘trust’ that the sun will rise in the east;

·    We ‘trust’ Amazon’s suggestions for us because they are hugely data-based;

·    We ‘trust’ eBay’s ratings of sellers because they are aggregated and mediated;

At the same time, that kind of trust doesn’t mean I’d introduce my daughter to anyone at Amazon or eBay, or even lend anyone there ten dollars. Because that’s not the kind of trust you get from knowing people. 

A site like is a more interesting case, because it uses large impersonal aggregation to go after the kinds of interpersonal trust that are missing in a low-dollar commercial purchase. Scale alone is a huge attraction; but the impersonality of the medium, applied to a relationship game, means the dating sites have had to evolve various ways of mimicking the very personal process we have of getting to ‘really’ know other people. Winking, poking, are a few; they mimic the range of halting gestures people make toward each other in early stages; profiles and the ‘just lunch’ concept are others.

Gladwell’s specific point about revolutionary politics is an instance of a more general point about trust: Trust Is Personal. I’m talking about the Intimacy and the Self-Orientation kinds of trust mainly. I mean the kind of trust we need if we’re to do serious interactions, one on one, or movement-on-establishment.

If I don’t ‘trust’ my Toyota, I may go find a Ford. If I don’t ‘trust’ my ‘friend’ on Facebook, I may complain about him to my other ‘friends.’

But if I’m a civil rights activist in the 1960s, or an Iranian dissident today—I’m not going to risk my behind if the only one who’s got my back is a Twitter friend. 

Said Scott-Heron, “You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out…the revolution will not be on instant replay…there will be no highlights on the 11:00 news…the revolution will not be…” twitterized.

The Real Stuff is still pretty Personal.