Malcolm Gladwell on Twitter

In the latest New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell says Twitter and the like are less revolutionary than claimed.

A month ago a friend and I discussed Gladwell. The friend said that after Steven Pinker’s review of What the Dog Saw, he couldn’t look at Gladwell the same way.

I said that was a silly review. Sure, Gladwell has faults, but he also has strengths. He chooses interesting research to write about and writes about it in an accessible attractive way. An example is the Korean Airlines chapter in Outliers. It had little to do with the rest of the book but it was excellent journalism. Pinker barely mentioned these strengths but did point out spelling mistakes. It is silly to judge something by dwelling on what’s wrong with it. (Exhibit A: correlation does not equal causation.)

Gladwell’s latest piece is one of his best. It makes four points:

1. The strong-tie/weak-tie distinction in social networks. An old idea, but worth being reminded of.

2. Strong ties were behind the civil-rights lunch counter sit-ins. The movement they helped start was long and dangerous. Strong ties helped.

3. Twitter and other social media create weak ties. It isn’t clear they create strong ties. Donations based on weak ties were in several cases a few cents/person. Much less than the cost of participation in the civil-rights movement.

4. If you’re going to claim something is “revolutionary”, as Clay Shirky did about Twitter and the like, you should start your book with a better example than a rich guy getting his Sidekick back.

Perfectly good points, especially the last.

Tyler Cowen’s reaction.

6 Replies to “Malcolm Gladwell on Twitter”

  1. Gladwell claimed on a popular sports show that he strongly believed that football would end in the future due to the fear of concussion related injuries.

    It’s a major issue. But to say the sport will end is beyond ridiculous.

    There are other better examples of how Gladwell doesn’t take empirical evidence very seriously. It hurts his credibility.

    I find it difficult to take him seriously (I think that’s a growing trend. His popularity is diminishing).

  2. That’s a really interesting article. Gladwell cites boxing as a sport which witnessed a dramatic decline in popularity due to serious head injuries. He sees it as a precursor to football.

    But I don’t think that’s right. Boxing has been horribly managed. MMA, which is in many ways more violent, is better managed and extremely popular despite serious concerns about safety (indeed, it’s illegal for MMA events to be held in many states).

    I’m sure many parents refuse to allow their kids to play football due to injury concerns. The number of parents who do that will probably increase. But when there is such a large demand for the sport, there will be players. Football teams might have to compensate players more for the risks they endure. But I find it highly unlikely the sport will disappear.

    Part of me really doubts that Gladwell fully believes that claim. It often seems like he tries to be more interesting than accurate.

  3. Your choice of the KAL chapter is interesting. My brother, a professional pilot, says he got the story entirely wrong, and that the important change to flight deck procedures was to hire American pilots. The supposedlyl all-important English lessons for existing crew were just so they could talk to the new pilots.

  4. I have to agree with @thehova. Gladwell has been called out too many times. Many sports, but particularly football, are also rites of passage. As such, risk of injury is a necessary component and likely adds to the allure.

    On the other hand, although I agree that boxing has been mismanaged, I disagree with @thehova on MMA being more violent. MMA is more bloody. Because of the different types of strikes allowed (e.g. elbows), cuts are more frequent. Also cuts to the head tend to bleed a lot, as does damage to the nose.

    The big difference is that an MMA fighter can close the distance and clinch (nullifying much of the force that can be generated with a strike) and the referee will not force a break to maintain striking distance. In boxing, striking distance must be maintained and striking must continue. Repeated strikes to the head by a professional fighter are going to do permanent damage and can lead to death (not unheard of in boxing, but so far not a factor in MMA w/ only 2 deaths resulting from sanctioned bouts…I suspect these numbers could get worse as MMA gains popularity).

    @Nathan I fly in and out of Korea. More often than not, when the Captain addresses the cabin, he has an American accent. Less frequently, I hear an Australian accent. Only once have I heard what appeared to be a Korean captain address the cabin.

    @Seth My problem with Gladwell’s article was that it left me with the impression that he was elevating the importance of long and violent struggle and discounting the possibility that less dramatic means, that take advantage of weak bonds, could facilitate change, perhaps without so much violence.

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