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.

8 Responses to "Why Malcolm Gladwell and Clay Shirky are Both Wrong (and Right)"
  1. Happ. Do people still use the term “real world”? Okey..

    When speaking of emotional connections being important in the decision making process, it seems social media ought to be the space where more customized (hence, personlized ‘emotional triggers’) are more applicable than what I’m assuming you refer to as traditional media.

  2. you really should link to the articles (sources) mentioned :)

  3. I believe I did? Must check.

  4. I’m really not taking sides here, but merely challenging behavioral motives. Only when we understand those can we start deciphering human behavior.

  5. jesus christ, me neither- i’m not even in advertising thank God (just kiddin :P)

    It was in response to what seemed like a statement. Nevertheless, it’s a shame it’s all gotten so polarized. Why can’t we all just be friends and live n harmony.

  6. Polarization is inevitable and even necessary in times of change. There are always first movers who need to polarize themselves from the laggers in order for anything to happen.

  7. Therése says:

    Would be interesting if you elaborated on how you think the discussion ties into marketing and sales, as Gladwell’s article and stand point is primarily based upon social activism. Social activism has indeed been influenced by marketing tactics, not least in the ways they spread their messages and to create “stickiness”.

    Personally, I agree with Gladwell that social activism at it’s very core require stronger ties than those today offered through online social networks. However, I think the “two camps” can work together as excellent compliments and that social media can be an important addition to the personal relationships and face-to-face meetings these causes excel through.

    I have had first-hand experience in this area when I was working with non-profit Invisible Children in the States. They consist of a core group of tech-savvy people and have been able to mobilize and build momentum through their online activities, and fully brought their cause to life through on-ground organized activities (which in my opinion did include what Gladwell refer to as a degree of “suffering”). Most recently people all over the States came together and slept outdoors, protested outside of council offices for days and nights till they finally received response (I’m talking about meeting with Obama personally to get a bill signed and being interviewed on prime-time by Oprah Winfrey amongst other things).

    Polarization may be inevitable for progress, you probably know more about this than I do. But in the case of social activism, and in my humble opinion this goes for branding as well, “the two camps” work excellent to-geth-er :)

  8. johnwiththelens says:

    Okay I know this thread is somewhat dead, but here’s a couple of point I’d like to make.

    Firstly, Gladwell is right in pointing out that we have forgotten that communication has history that predates television. (Although he almost seems to forget this himself!) To explain that revolutions start at the personal level, and rely upon deep personal bonds is to explain what has always been known by the most basic of history’s despots seeking to maintain a power base. The separation of spouses at concentration camps, solitary confinement, and the gagging of prisoners are all age old strategies to serve the purpose of breaking these personal bonds.
    In order for one man’s actions to come to fruition he needs to have the reassurance that the necessary backup will come. He does not want to put himself on the line in vain.
    So is social media a good measure of this commitment? Can it be used as a means of communication for a revolution? The answer is probably no. Not if we are talking about twitter or facebook or any social media application operating in a vacuum. However theory can be susceptible to missing the point that systems rarely operate alone. And in this case the practice of the matter is that people do use Facebook to communicate with strong-bond real world associates. The main benefit in this scenario of these social networks is that they allow the ongoing conferencing of groups of geographically distant emotionally close people. Of course Gladwell is correct in stating that the heirarchical structures are the ones that maintain direction and eventually succeed over the loosely worked network. But the point he misses is that it is up to the users of the social media tool who decide which structure their organisation will take. That isn’t dictated by the tool. Ultimately it’s people who drive revolutions, not technology. Like any tool, people need to practice using it before they find the best form of it’s implementation. The key to understanding this lies in the history of communication, both pre-electricity and after.
    That said, I have to add that Gladwell raises many interesting points, while Shirky’s rebuffal reminds me of a kid in a playground who tries to win an argument by saying that he must know who the best footballer is because he watches the most sports on television.

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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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