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.