I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s disheartening dismantling of social media’s revolutionary potential in the latest New Yorker. As Leo Mirani pointed out in the Guardian, it was disappointing to see the author of The Tipping Point, a book about “how little things can make a big difference” dismiss the activist potential of all social media.
I bump into a lot of academics who, like Gladwell, think social media is a complete waste of their time. Most of them, of course, have never even tried it. It’s one reason I’m giving a talk at the 140 Characters Conference tomorrow about “Twitter in the Ivory Tower.” I think it’s the ethical responsibility of all academics to communicate their research to the general public and to allow their research to become part of a public dialogue. Twitter is perhaps the easiest tool to accomplish that goal.
The frustrating thing about Gladwell’s argument — and I do give him props for making distinctions between weak-tie and strong-tie social activism — is his assumption that any engagement in social media makes it harder for a would-be activist to have any real impact on the world. While he dismisses social media, and particularly Twitter, for demanding so little of its users, that’s precisely its strength. Supplement some serious, on-the-ground, grassroots activism with a little tweeting, and there’s a very good chance you’ll attract more attention to your cause than you would have received without tapping into a social media network.
Out of curiosity, I had to check Gladwell’s Twitter account: of course he has one (anyone who’s written a book called The Tipping Point is basically required to have one), but his last tweet was in April, when he meekly apologized to his 5,000 plus followers (he only follows 5) for bad-mouthing the potential of social media:
What a great day in Vancouver at the #f5expo. Sorry for giving social media such a hard time. I’m exhausted. Early flight tomorrow am.
Sigh. If we were all tweeting about our flights and how tired we are, I too would be dismissive of Twitter.
You can watch a live USTREAM of the 140 Characters Conference on October 4 and 5, 2010.