Social media is not a tool of radical and transformative change. It’s an instrument of the status quo unless we take steps to change it.
From the outset, Gladwell told a packed ballroom at the Vancouver Convention Centre that he’s enthusiastic as the next person about the potential of social media tools but he won’t be one of its cheerleaders.
“I want to question whether we’ve exaggerated the importance and significance of some of these new innovations in social media or at least that maybe we’ve misunderstood what their strengths and weaknesses are,” he stated.
He used interesting analogies to make his point, one of them being Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba.
“It’s one of the most successful guerrilla uprisings in history and he does this without the benefit of Twitter, Facebook, or a BlackBerry,” he said. “It’s been a constant assumption since the beginning of the Internet revolution and more recently since the beginning of social media age that all of these technological advances are the kinds of natural allies of social transformation, of grassroots organizations, of democratic movements, of egalitarian uprisings, of empowerment on the part of ordinary people.”
During the French Revolution, the argument was made this was a revolution borne of changes made to the printing press. Or the Iranian Revolution of 1979, a revolution we’re told that was made possible by the audio cassette.
“In all of these cases, the argument goes that revolution had its roots in the transformative, communications technologies of the time,” he said. “I think the notion that technology is always at the core of successful social transformations is hopelessly and completely naive.”
Gladwell said the most significant thing about the Internet and all of the social media technologies that derive from it, is they’re tools that build weak ties and not strong ones.
“Facebook, Twitter and other social media engines are all about weak ties. If you have 3,000 friends on Facebook, they’re not actually your friends they’re your acquaintances,” he said. “It’s a part of what is incredibly wonderful, powerful, and transformative about the Internet because weak ties are important . . . most people find out about new job opportunities through their acquaintances or their weak ties.”
But the Internet has been an extraordinary force because of its anonymity, he added.
“It allows people to say what they mean and feel without any fear of retribution and that’s an incalculable contribution to a free society. But what the Internet is also simultaneously not good at is building trust. The two are linked. If you have anonymity you can’t have trust.”
He cited the history of the British homosexual community as an example.
“Up through the 1950s in England homosexuality was a crime. Law enforcement was actively engaged in seeking out practicing homosexuals and prosecuting them. So how did gay culture in England react to that degree of repression? They found ways to build high trust environments,” he said. “For example, in the 50s, gay men had a private language called ‘palare’. It was made up of slang words, bits of French, Italian and words spelled backwards . . . it was a way for gay men to reliably distinguish who was truly a member of their world and someone who was just pretending.”
Trust strategies only grow out of personal encounters. This is doubly true of revolutions. And trust has a strong geographic component to it. But that kind of trust is challenged and undermined by the Internet.
“We’re becoming profoundly more isolated. Our personal discussion networks are composed almost entirely of family whereas 25 years ago they were composed of family and neighbours,” he said. “You can’t blame that on the Internet but you could say the advent of all kinds of Internet-based tools of communication has played a role in eroding those proximate networks . . . and that’s had an effect on trust.”
The Internet favours spontaneity versus organized action. But if you consider moments of truly profound social transformations, they’re never spontaneous.
“We have a tendency when confronted with new and extraordinary innovations to celebrate their benefits and overlook their costs,” he said. “The truth is every innovation always has a cost . . . it’s like anti-locking brakes in cars. You give people improved brakes and they started to drive faster and more recklessly.”
Think of social media in the same context, he said.
“We celebrated Twitter’s role in the Green Revolution in Iran last year because it allows us to gather people together quickly and cheaply,” he recalled. “And what happened in Iran? The government limited the bandwidth and shut down Facebook and Twitter. The point is, weak-tied networks, using things like social media are really easy to put together, but that means they’re also really easy to take apart.”
Networks built through strong ties are hard to put together and impossible to take apart.
“The crucial issue here is the Internet builds weak ties at the expense of strong ties,” he said. “It promotes anonymity at the expense of trust.”
Be honest about the limitations of the innovations that we’re working with, he advised.
“The point of having a ‘friend’ on Facebook or a follower on Twitter is to create an opportunity to open the door toward building trust and a strong tie with someone,” he said. “If we know anything about our world right now, it’s we can’t pass up on opportunities to make meaningful, transformative change.
“All of us need to remember, if social media tools are going to make a meaningful [contribution] to the way this world is run, then we must build trust and strong ties.”