Why Twitter will not change the world

by Carl Natale on September 29, 2010

Normally, I’m dismissive of intellectuals who dismiss social media to prove their intellectual chops. So I circled the wagons as I started reading Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker.

He starts out with a moving account of how lunch-counter protests became an important part of the civil rights movement. And all that happened without Twitter and Facebook. Which reminds me that man discovered fire, went to the moon and elected a black president without Twitter either. So it has to be irrelevant. (By the way, there’s a good chance that the phone you’re using to update your social networks has more computing power than the Apollo modules.)

Then Gladwell tackles the hype generated by those claiming social change through social media.

He contends that all the friending and liking going on represent weak connections. It takes more commitment and organization than that. The civil rights movement was the product of strong organization and the efforts of people connected to each other in real life. This activism ran in the family and in social circles. People deeply care about a cause and take serious risk.

I’m going to agree with Gladwell. Twitter is great and all but it’s not transforming the world. Don’t believe me. You must read his argument. I wish I could write that well. Here are some Gladwell-inspired takeaways:

It’s a network

Twitter and Facebook are  tools that allow us to extend our networks. Sure these networks aren’t anything resembling the connections seen in most families and circles of friends. But these conversations and networks have some value. Our stories now reach further than our strong connections.

Drop a pebble in the water. It splashes at impact then sends ripples away from center. The ripples move less water the farther they get from impact. That’s the best analogy I have for how strong networks are. I know it doesn’t account for viral effects. I’m working on a better metaphor. Until then, let’s stick with ripples.

Keep that model in mind when you design a social media campaign. Keep your goals proportional to the ripples.

Words matter – but not as much as organization

I remembered President Obama’s speech about the value of speeches. But think about one of his examples. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes he was a great orator. But go back to Gladwell’s description of the civil rights movement. Did it need those powerful words? Yes. But the highly organized network worked in concert with King’s oration.

Obama’s words didn’t get him elected. His organized campaign did.

Each movement needed their leaders’ messages as symbols. But the organizations were key.

What if…

I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if cellphone cameras captured the image of four black college students seated at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. Then those photos were uploaded to Flickr, Facebook and Twitpic accounts.What would have happened? It makes me wonder if that would have diluted or amplified the existing iconic image.

Organizations control the message

The civil rights movement was able to influence the words and images coming out of the south for maximum impact. Again I wonder if social networks make it too difficult for any organization to control the message like that again.

If you accept any part of that premise, you need to decide if that’s a good or bad thing. Guess it depends if you’re part of the movement or the opposition.

About 4,300 words

That’s the word count on Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker. Despite the studies that tell me that nothing needs to be longer than 350 words, I read his whole essay. It took thousands of words to persuade me that he’s right and clarify in my mind the value of social media.

Sometimes you need more than 350 words or 140 characters to change someone’s mind. But no matter how many words you string together, you’re going to need more than that to change the world.

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