Why Malcolm Gladwell and Clay Shirky are Both Wrong (and Right)

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Malcolm Gladwellhttp://blog.intoscana.it/intoscanatrepuntozero/files/2009/10/technology-guru-clay-shir-001.jpg

Can you trust bloggers, writers or speakers to be completely objective? Can you trust consumers, journalists or humans in general to be truly objective?

To me, the answer is a resounding NO. Our opinions will always be colored by some sort of agenda, wether conscious or unconscious. That is simply human nature and even if we would be perfectly in control of our conscious morals, we are only consciously in control of a small fraction of our mind’s activity leaving most to our unconscious drives.

I understand it is controversial to say that our own personal and selfish agendas color our political, professional and ethical standpoints, but nevertheless I believe that it is an absolutely crucial thing to accept if you want to be able to truly understand, analyze and predict human behavior. And as this is my job, I will take the liberty to assume this to be true in the following.

One example of this is social media. Or more specifically, the debate over the importance of social media. There is a group of social media experts out there who have gained much in status over the past couple of years at the expense of those less savvy in this arena. I have myself been one of these “experts” and have built part of my career on writing and speaking about these topics. My feeling is that the status of social media experts is in decline.

It’s been a rather prevalent polarization between the social mediaists and the traditionalists, and they’ve both tried to claim parts of each other’s territory. The problem for the traditionalists has been that learning technology and suddenly trying to understand  APIs, data mining, systems thinking and different types of syntax has been challenging. It simply takes to much time away from their other activities – or at least so they think. The problem for the social mediaists has been that storytelling skills, personal & professional networks and… well… plain audacity to charge for ideas is not something that you acquire overnight.

So instead there has been a positioning battle driven largely by personal agendas. As wrong and immoral as this may sound, if you think about it is really simple logic. People want to survive and thrive, and they can do this by either 1) getting better at adapting to the world, 2a) adapting the world to themselves, or 2b) reframe the world to raise their perceived status. In a world where social media is framed as extremely important for example, social media specialists will have higher status. Or for that matter, a world where old music industry business models are framed as laws of nature, laws of man will be created to conserve these business models. (This frame recently won over the “what the hell is the purpose of record labels anyway”-frame in a Swedish courtroom).

One writer who recently picked up on this was Malcolm Gladwell in an article for The Guardian. In his article he explains how weak tie online activism wins in scale but looses in punching power to real world strong tie activism. He also delivers a blow to social media evangelist Clay Shirky for “overselling the potential of wiki-activism as a tool for social transformation”. Shirky strikes back in the same article calling Gladwell’s article “weird”, pointing out that Gladwell in fact is not a very active internet user and that perhaps he’s running his employer’s (The New Yorker’s) old school business model protecting errands. The whole thing smells of personal positioning á la traditionalists vs social mediaists with “…clay is overselling…” on one side and “…Malcolm doesn’t use the internet..” on the other. Objective it is not.

(As an interesting side note, Malcolm Gladwell did in fact write “The Tipping Point”, one of the most influential books in the social media movement of all time).

In the case of traditionalists vs. social mediaists I’m here to tell you my opinion – that they’re both wrong. And both right. Social mediaists tried to raise their own status while traditionalists tried to preserve theirs. Both of these strategies are both logical and ethical. It’s how humans work. But objectively speaking, I would like to suggest that these two groups are perhaps rulers of different kingdoms.

The social mediaists are right in that social networks are in fact extremely powerful in spreading sparks of information quickly and over large areas, providing a very good way for people to have a hunch of what is going on in a lot of areas. They do create lots and lots of weak ties that can be useful to trigger small action such as buying a $3 app online or signing up for a $29/yr Flickr account. Strong real world ties are on the other hand good for spreading deeper and more profound understanding and emotional connection and is perhaps important in triggering large decisions such as buying a car or a house. I don’t have the research to back this up, but it seems reasonable that this is the case, and thus we need to do our homework in figuring out what types of decisions we want to trigger and what modes of operation are appropriate for each. And as our agency is built for delivering on both the traditionalist side and the social mediaist side, I guess that this conclusion is not a very objective one either.

About the Blog

This blog is written by Walter Naeslund and has been around since 2007. The blog is about the journey of starting an advertising agency and a sneak peek behind the scenes of what goes on at the Honesty HQ in SoFo, Södermalm. It is also a blog about communication & technology. The blog has gathered almost a thousand posts over the years with several longer and shorter breaks. Welcome and enjoy.
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