Tunisia Teaching Gladwell

Perhaps the most dismissive part of of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” article was the closure: “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.” Tunisia’s recent revolution demonstrates that social media can be a powerful tool purposed by revolutionaries for change. And in doing so, Tunisia teaches the Malcolm Gladwells of the world a lesson or two.

Gladwell’s conclusion found its basis in the weak ties theory from The Tipping Point, and lack of hierarchies in social networks. But Gladwell’s absolutist view of social change and activism online failed to grasp that it’s not the media that causes revolutions. Social media are but tools.

Further, recent research from Pew demonstrates that adults who participate in social networking also engage in more group activity than their peers. Stronger ties are the result. The Tipping Point precedes the online social networking era, and while it certainly has great insights into influence, it may be dated.

These two points prove that Gladwell was dead wrong in his New Yorker article. The Tunisian revolution was tweeted, YouTubed, Facebooked and blogged, but not here in the United States. It was done where it mattered most, in Tunisia. It was done because revolutionaries had no access to state controlled media. It had to be delivered on social channels because their were no others available to revolutionaries to counter expelled dictator Ben Ali’s propaganda machine.

Does that mean social media created the revolution? No, technology is not a cause. It does means that Gladwell was off on his assumption that finding lost phones would be the great result of social connectivity. Tunisians took real action when they saw news of suicide protests (primarily on Facebook). A chain reaction ensued when people realized that their brothers and sisters were protesting. The spark happened at the right moment, and triggered the tidal wave that cause Ben Ali to flee the country.

Another tip-off about how important Internet tools were to the resistance was the Ali government’s persistent use of phishing attacks on Gmail and Facebook in the years leading up to the climatic ousting. The government waged a bitter cyberwar against online activists, and in the end started arresting Tunisian bloggers.

It’s the Message, not the Medium

Thích Quảng Đứcimage from Listverse

There are other parallels to past non-Internet events. The tidal wave of offline protests that spread across the country via social media began with Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide by self immolation in Sidi Bouzid. In 1963, a Bhuddhist monk named Thích Quảng Đức burned himself to death in a widely broadcasted event, that triggered the Buddhist crisis and a change in regime in South Vietnam in 1963.

Did TV cause the South Viet Nam regime change? No. Were the relational ties created by broadcasted images stronger or weaker than social media? Arguably weaker. But the tools helped get the word out. Just like in Tunisia social media tools helped combat propaganda. Intentional use of media tools to affect change worked in both cases.

Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message, and Gladwell’s arguments primarily focus on social media itself as the revolutionary message. McLuhan said not to get lost in the message, that the medium changes us in its capabilities. Both are wrong. Whether it was photographs and broadcasts in 1963 or user generated videos and Facebook messages in 2011, when the situation is right and the message is on target, revolutions can happen. The media used were but tools to affect these two governmental changes.

The only difference that social media brings to bear is a much less controlled networked media set that can circumnavigate authoritarian control. In the right situations, it can catalyze political revolt. If successfully accessed it can become a great equalizer, empowering citizens to rise up against state controlled media. The theory of an empowered Fifth Estate resonates strongly in Tunisia, and in past examples, albeit failed ones, like Iran.

One thing is for sure, regardless of punditry, autocratic governments across the world took notice of the Tunisian revolution. What do you think about Gladwell’s theory in light of these recent developments?

  • Exactly – the use of the medium is the message, not the medium itself. Blaming divorces on Facebook is erroneous; the marriages, plus society are what’s weak, FB just provides a faster way to break up. I don’t think all that much of Gladwell’s books; kind of faddy.

    • Anonymous

      I was never a big fan of the NRA, but I do think the guns don’t shoot people, people shoot people argument is 100% accurate with this. How we get to social networking causing revolutions and only being as good as finding a lost phone is weird. What social network does do is expose human behaviors and motivations in a group environment. Thanks for your comment!

  • I found the whole Tunisia Revolution fascinating. It just sort of came out of left field and then there has been all this debate about how big a roll social media played. What I think many, including Malcolm Gladwell, are missing about Twitter is how many people in developing countries are using mobile phones to access it. You have people in refugee camps or living in huts with no electricity (not talking Tunisia here) on Twitter. It’s an extraordinary game changer in organizing and getting news to people.

    • Anonymous

      Truly, mobile phones are the great equalizer and in some developing countries the infrastructure is better than the U.S. Facebook is a huge differentiator as they protect people’s IDs in cases of government interference.

      • Yes, indeed, Facebook is a huge differentiator too. FYI, I am still looking for good analysis on what role Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, etc. played in Tunisia. Much I’ve seen, such as http://www.quora.com/Journalism/What-role-did-social-media-play-with-regards-to-the-revolution-in-Tunisia, seems off to me. Tunisia has 90 percent mobile penetration but only 35 percent Internet penetration (with the majority in cities and the richer coastal areas). Sidi Bouzid, where the riots started, is a small town in a poorer region??? If you run across any great analysis about Tunisia (or what’s now happening in Egypt), I hope you post about it!!!

        • Anonymous

          I’ll check it out, Monica. Thanks for the heads up!

    • Anonymous

      Truly, mobile phones are the great equalizer and in some developing countries the infrastructure is better than the U.S. Facebook is a huge differentiator as they protect people’s IDs in cases of government interference.

  • I’m sorry but I don’t agree with the broad generalisation. Possibly this author has not seen a great TED video by Evgeny Morozov: How the Net aids dictatorships – http://www.ted.com/talks/evgeny_morozov_is_the_internet_what_orwell_feared.html

    • Anonymous

      That’s an interesting video. I am not sure I take anything that comes with a TED label as literal though. If anything the Internet has proven to be more democratizing than not as lessons continue to show. Even in China where revolution is far from reality, the pressures of the Internet have forced change upon the government. I wouldn’t be so quick to accept extremes on either side. Thanks for coming by.

  • I think what’s interesting is you point out that the government had been arresting bloggers, waging war on internet activists. That suggests it feared the power of the internet, and why not trust them that it’s something to fear?

    Great piece.

    • Anonymous

      It’s truly the great evidence. China and Iran also police Internet voices, and that’s off the top of my head without doing research.

  • Great post, Geoff! Important to note. Gladwell is a smart guy, but he’s been way off base on all of this (as has Foreign Policy magazine, and others).

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, it’s not really fair to apply a pre online social networking theory to a current environment. Or maybe it is fair, just erroneous. Hmm.

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