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Last week the author Malcolm Gladwell poured cold water on the idea that revolution could be instigated by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
He centres his argument around the American civil rights movement, claiming that the strong bonds forged offline were required to spark action in the streets, where millions ultimately gathered in the 60s to protest against segregation and oppression. Social media, by contrast, forges only “weak ties”, says Gladwell. Not the kind of bonds required to make a difference where it really counts.
I think he’s completely missing the point. Martin Luther King’s status updates and tweets would have helped to spread awareness quickly, encouraging activism, had Facebook and Twitter been available in his day. You can bet your life he'd have used them to spread word.
A connected world cannot be a bad thing for change, in whatever form it takes.
Revolution requires information, communication & networking, people, passion and action. The difference today might be that while we’re strong on the first three, there is a definite sense of political apathy in the West. But not so everywhere, and as other commentators have pointed out we’re seeing the social web at the heart of political – and other – action all over the world.
And besides, not all revolutions are of the political kind. Revolutions don’t have to result in a change of state, nor the overhaul of some anti-human law. They come in all kinds of different shapes and sizes. Revolution can often be a very personal thing, or it can occur on a massive scale.
Some revolutions do not require any physical action whatsoever: a change of collective mindset might be enough to kickstart something much bigger. The irony is that Gladwell knows a thing or two about tipping points. If enough people make enough noise then the powers that be might take notice and be influenced by the masses. After all, that’s why brands are desperate to make sense of social media, isn’t it? They want to influence the crowd, and to encourage brand advocacy, as opposed to public complaints and other forms of bad noise. Listen. Consider. Respond. Learn.
Real revolution is already taking place. There is an information revolution happening, there is a media and news revolution happening, there is a consumer revolution happening, there is a communications revolution happening. And all of this is all based on real people doing real things. The social web is at the heart of it.
So here are my 10 arguments against Gladwell’s notion that the admittedly overhyped social web is a rubbish tool for revolution. It is in fact quite the opposite, despite all of the bluff, bluster and bullshit that we try our very best to ignore…
Reality vs virtuality
Gladwell infers that social media platforms like Facebook are somehow virtual: the friendships not really friendships at all, the ties are weak. In some cases that may be true, but as an observation from a serious author it leaves a lot to be desired. The idea that the ‘social’ bit of 'social media' does not represent ‘real people’ is a thoroughly misguided. People power these platforms. People revolt.
Yes, relationships can be different online and they may initially be “weaker”, but that’s not to say that they aren’t valuable and will never develop into stronger offline friendships.
Volume and frequency of messaging = awareness
Everything counts in large amounts, right? If I see enough repetition in my tweetstream I’ll probably check out a story, click a link, or participate in the conversation, and that can extend to Gladwell's beloved offline environments.
This is the basis for advertising as we know it: the more people are exposed to a message, the more likely they are to notice it and take some form of action. I'm a sucker, as it often works for me.
My tweetstream helps me to become aware of - and ingest - new information. Sometimes it encourages me to do something, to take action (though I have yet to start any kind of political revolution).
Fact vs fiction
As Richard Dawkins says: “Don’t believe what your parents tell you. Don’t believe what your teachers tell you. Look things up for yourself. Draw your own conclusions.” That is the big difference between 1960 and today: nowadays it is so much easier to investigate stories, check facts, balance opinions and wade into the fray. If you want to.
Because it is easier more people will do it. Guaranteed. Eyes are being opened every day, all over the world.
I trust my network. Not in the same way that I trust my brother, but I trust the people I follow to some degree or other because I choose to follow them. I try not to follow idiots, trolls, con artists and shady bastards. I guess I trust some people more than others.
Gladwell is wrong when he talks about "weak ties". It's a lame thing to say. All relationships are founded on trust, and trust becomes stronger with exposure and interaction with people (both of which occur in many forms).
You don’t have to agree with everybody in your network - different strokes for different folks - but opinion, and divisive opinion, is what’s required to challenge your thinking in any given area. I like to follow a few contrarians who I don’t always agree with, but who always make me think for myself.
The truth is probably out there, and it's up to you to choose who to believe. It could be that you have most faith in Wikileaks, or Wikipedia, or the mass media, or the bloggers, or @StephenFry. Ultimately, you always need to decide for yourself, but your trusted network can help you.
The network as a personal content filter
In a pre-Digg, pre-Twitter age I used to tune into news aggregators like Google News and NewsNow dozens of times every day. When I was a journalist it was a core part of my job, but that behaviour soon became a broader habit. I stopped visiting news sites so much, preferring the aggregators.
Now, I still visit the aggregators intermittently, but I have Tweedeck constantly running in the background, and most news of any importance tends to find its way into my tweetstream. It's useful like that.
This is a revolution in itself. News travels fast on social networks, is very direct and highly relevant. Twitter and Facebook are all about word of mouth, when it boils down to it.
Yet Gladwell says online discussion counts for much less than a face to face conversation. You can't ignore somebody who is looking you in the eye when they're speaking to you. True, but there is still much value to be had from online messages and conversations. Again, volume counts.
The News Renaissance
Now this is a revolution, and it shouldn't come as any shock to you. The media business has changed remarkably in the past 15 years, but I’d argue that the quality and variety of news is better than ever before. Yes, traditional business models are screwy and this is no time for complacency, and yes, there is a lot of low value content out there. But if you follow the scent trails you can really dig into a story, as never before. That applies to both journalists and readers. Do your own research. Because you can.
Despite the business model problems (which have been exacerbated in many cases by poor decision-making at management level) I remain incredibly optimistic about the future of ‘proper’ journalism, which is ultimately about unearthing truths and joining up the dots for readers. But we can’t always rely on Big Media to do that, as sometimes they won’t bother: note how the Murdoch press suppressed publication of the phone hacking / Andy Coulson story, but also note how that story has refused to go away despite the efforts of a dominant media organisation like News Corp.
Questions will continue to be asked of Coulson, as the story is kept alive in a fragmented media landscape that now includes millions of Twitter users / nanopublishers. Reach is very important in messaging: don’t underestimate the network effect of sites like Twitter. In addition, the background noise is often pretty interesting – and can be full of more truths - than the sensationalist headlines that frequently scream at you from the front page of our newspapers.
On Twitter you follow your favourite curators of news / links / comment. They are in a sense ‘presenters’ and ‘reporters’ themselves, delivering content through their own lens directly to your tweetstream. News can be hyperlocal and everybody can become a ‘publisher’. As such news can be bespoke, more immediate, and perhaps more subjective than ever before. You buy into a version of a story, just like you always do. It’s just that the narrator is now introduced to you by (or is) one of your friends, and you might be able to check 100 different versions of the same story if you really want to.
Gladwell should also consider how social media impacted on the Trafigura story / injunction. The mass media were almost entirely bound and gagged, until the Twitter hordes windmilled into the action.
The media revolution is driven by tools
What is powering this News Renaissance? Technology, and cheap technology at that. The recording, documenting, communication and distribution tools available to the average man in the street are staggeringly powerful, compared with what were available as recently as a decade ago. If there is a God then may I suggest it is George Orwell, and on the eighth day he did duly invent the smartphone.
Consumer-powered sites such as Youtube and StumbleUpon are fantastic resources for anybody who wants to share stories or search for information. Wordpress is one of the web’s true treasures, as a means for publishing your own content (I launched my first magazine when I was eight – today it would have been powered by Wordpress). Anybody can start a Posterous or Tumblr blog in minutes and start publishing immediately. I cannot recommend these free resources highly enough.
But surely journalists and reporters need training? Well that remains one option, if you're taught the right skills for a career in the modern media world, but you can learn pretty much anything you want to from the comfort of your own bed and there's a lot to be said for a DIY approach. I didn't train to be a writer but did a lot of reading, immersed myself in the subjects I planned to focus on, learnt from my mistakes and I am naturally inquisitive so I've managed to do ok. In the pre-internet glory days I'd have had far less of an opportunity to carve out a career in content.
Besides, experience is a great teacher, and there’s nothing to stop wannabe writers from getting that experience by starting up their own websites. You can really get noticed that way. And sometimes these sites will become more powerful than long-established media titles. Some eventually sell for big bucks.
Go on: dive in. The water is lovely.
The crowd isn’t always wise. That includes offline crowds too.
Ok, so I’m not a big believer in the ‘wisdom’ of crowds. People behave differently in groups. Some become sheep: they don’t think for themselves, can’t make decisions and are easily influenced by more powerful voices. That in itself doesn’t make those voices morally correct, or trustworthy, but it bestows them with influence, and amplifies them.
You don’t need social networks to coalesce the voices of millions of madmen supporters. Was the Third Reich really a natural expression of the German national character? It is a weird thing to imagine a world in which Facebook and Twitter existed during the Second World War. Would the myriad benefits outweigh the darker risks?
In a socially-connected age we are in a better position to make people aware of – and rise up against - the various flavours of crazies. They live on the web too, but isn't it better to live in a relatively open world? Visibility is key to understanding: better that people explain their beefs openly, than for them to pursue hidden vendettas. People still have the tools to help them think for themselves if they really want to.
Meanwhile crowdsourcing - as opposed to ‘group thinking’ - is a more positive trend, and has been warmly embraced by publishers and brands alike. Mining the collective brain can be incredibly fruitful. Crowdsourcing is of course at the heart of the mighty Wikipedia, which – as Gladwell rightly states – has its own problems (editors who have their own agenda to follow) and cannot be relied upon to deliver 100% proof truth.
But Wikipedia gets a lot of bad press. Show me a media platform that doesn’t have editors, or agendas, or misreport ‘facts’. The mainstream news media is a hysterical beast nowadays, and is far from the objective creature that we’re supposed to believe it to be. Major news organisations take sides, just like bloggers and Facebook users do. Let’s once and for all bury the myth that Big Media is objective and faithfully reports the truth. Journalists don't report truths, they interpret them.
So despite its flaws I think Wikipedia is one of the greatest gifts to the world’s knowledge-seekers / pub quiz cheats ever created. Anybody can access it instantaneously, and there's no cost involved. And for that the world should be at least slightly grateful, before scuttling off to double check its facts.
Discovering new voices
I have always been a music nut. I have spent countless hours leafing through magazines, browsing for treasure in underground record emporia and exploring any number of music-related sites to search for pointers and insight. But the past five years has been a real music revolution for me, largely powered by the wonderful Last.fm, which has helped me to find new (and old) music that ticks all of the right boxes, and some of the wrong ones too.
The joy of Last.fm is that it is based almost entirely on the information it gleans from its community. It monitors and makes sense of listening habits, and then helps users to expand their musical palette. It cannot be beaten as a highly relevant discovery / recommendation engine, not even by mighty Amazon.
Many other communities exist on the internet, and the best websites really know how to harness them. The internet is a wonderful place for anyone with a passion for knowledge. The communities are out there if you look for them. They can help you to discover wonderful - and horrifying - new things.
The consumer revolution
Since the birth of the commercial internet there has been a massive gold rush, a Google land grab, and most companies have been heavily focused on customer acquisition. In the next decade I believe we’ll see a revolution in customer retention, with firms adopting a user-centric strategy based around listening, participation, and delivering amazing customer service (which should never again be seen as a cost burden by businesses).
This is in part demand-led. Consumers have become a) fed up with rubbish service and b) empowered by social media, and they are quite happy to bitch and moan about brands in public. Despite this, some people aren’t so sure that social media is a good thing for businesses, when it seems patently obvious that increased engagement via social media will help brands understand how to keep customers satisfied. Happier customers normally means higher profits. It’s a no brainer to interact with them.
By tuning into consumers via social media platforms companies can improve customer satisfaction and service levels. Some firms don’t care about that kind of thing, but all consumers do, and they are increasingly noisy. Firms that listen and learn from their customers will - if the theory stands up - be rewarded with increased customer lifetime value, as loyalty rates increase, plus customer referrals.
I think a more joined-up world is a good thing for all sorts of revolutions, no matter how big or small. The years ahead are full of promise and opportunity, as far as I can tell.
I’d love to hear your own thoughts in the comments below.