Internet-enabled activism versus Malcolm Gladwell: snarkypants edition

Excellent snark from Graham Linehan, regarding Malcolm Gladwell's infamous pooh-poohing of Internet activism: "Malcolm Gladwell would love to comment on all that's happening in The Middle East, but his fax machine is in the shop."

Malcolm Gladwell would love to comment on all that's happening in The Middle East...


  1. Can I just say that I REALLY dislike the phrase ‘pooh-poohing’ and am bewildered at it’s inescapably in the last, what, two years? I want to say I started seeing it being thrown around during the 2008 elections but it may have shown up earlier than that. It just sounds so juvenile, especially coming from normally eloquent people. Synonyms, folks!

    1. The OED cites the verb “pooh-pooh”, meaning “to express contempt or disdain for” in the Times in 1823. When we consider its subtext, that the pooh-pooher’s contempt is likely fatuous, it’s a remarkably concise and expressive term. Since eloquent and erudite people use it, what makes you perceive it as juvenile? And why should anyone look for a synonym when the apt word is at hand?

      Notwithstanding my bewilderment at your dislike for this phrase, I can hardly take your campaign to eliminate its use seriously. Can I just say that you might as well get used to it?

  2. Haha that’s great. I usually love Gladwell, but for that piece, he was basically saying, “Haha Twitter activists you’re pussies compared to folks in the Civil Rights movement.” Which would be a really lame thing to claim today.

    1. You seem to have missed Gladwell’s point completely.

      In fact, the people with true commitment are the ones facing the police and the troops.

      1. “In fact, the people with true commitment are the ones facing the police and the troops.”

        Yes. And they are also often the people sending out Tweets and Facebook updates, and the people depending on them for coordination/morale boosting/info/etc. Also, in the article, Gladwell claimed that social media had very little to do with the Green Revolution in Iran (a debatable point.) But in Tunisia and Egypt, social media very much seems to be a huge fulcrum.

  3. I’m not sure I understand. Egypt turned off the Internet. Anything happening afterwards did so without the benefit of Twitter. This seems to support Gladwell’s contention that Twitter can’t make these things happen. If Egypt turned off fax machines, well, the events might prove him wrong but the opposite thing is going on here.

  4. I thought Gladwell made a good point. Real social ties are much stronger than those that exist solely by virtue of social networking sites. I think that is true. I also think Gladwell did say that the social networking ties can be used as communication platforms to reinforce the “real” social ties that people already have. Shorter: You can do a revolution with the help of Twitter, and you can do one without it, but you can’t do one with Twitter alone.

  5. Gladwell, infamous dilettante extraordinaire, author of trite anecdotal-ridden non-fiction, inventor of the igon value (google it for a nice laugh), and now ridiculed for his belittling of twittling. To be fair, twitterites often deserve it.

    1. “To be fair, twitterites often deserve it.”


      No no no…they are the twitterati.

  6. I don’t really understand why this article deserves so much scorn, or why it’s apt to mock him as not using technology. His argument doesn’t seem anti-social-media or Luddite to me – just skeptical of the claim that social media are currently producing dramatic and fundamental changes in the real methods and impact of activism. He argues for that skepticism based on contemporary and historical evidence, and empirical data, and supports it pretty well. I think he draws too sharp a distinction between networks and hierarchies near the end, but it’s certainly not an unreasonable or trivial point.

    Is it just that he’s advancing a conclusion other than the infinite power of the Internet to do absolutely everything better than anything else ever could? That’s a pretty shitty reason to reject a not-unreasonable argument out of hand.

  7. Because commenting on what’s happening in Egypt is so much more important than what is actually going on in Egypt.

  8. Cory,

    I love to hate Gladwell as much as the next guy, but his New Yorker article “Small Change: Why the Revolution Won’t Be Tweeted” was brilliant.

    He acknowledges the influence of social media, but points out that people have been rising up without it since the beginning of time.

    Insofar as Egypt is concerned, I heard an NPR reporter speculate that the younger tech savvy generation took the the streets precisely because Twitter and Facebook were shut down in anticipation of unrest. ( see above ANON #5 )

    So in other words without a BBS on which to collectively complain they went analog.

    Just read the article dude.


  9. For the people saying ‘well they just turned off the Internet so that proves Gladwell right’ are kinda ignoring the fact that a government was so afraid of what social media had already done/would do to ferment revolution that they cut off the Internet.

    1. Did you mean foment or ferment?

      The agitators ‘encouraging’ revolution, in a positive sense = foment
      Causing a violent change = ferment

      1. I honestly didn’t know there was a difference between those words and probably would have gone with ‘foment’ if I had known.

  10. a government was so afraid of what social media had already done/would do to ferment revolution that they cut off the Internet — According to the conversation about the situation on tonight’s NewsHour, the protests were much smaller pre-internet shutdown. The numbers exploded after they shut it down.

    STEVEN COOK: This — what transpired on Tuesday and continued on Wednesday was essentially flash-mob protests. It was done through social media. It was done through Facebook and blogs and Twitter, in which people were communicating with each other where to go, where people were meeting up, and then suddenly…

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And now that’s been shut down, a lot of that.

    STEVEN COOK: And now that has been shut down. So — but that was a much smaller crowd. Now you have a wider and deeper section of Egyptian society out on the streets. There isn’t real need for coordination.

  11. I don’t know if it is Malcom’s point about a revolution not being because of Twitter or FB or whatever. But, those are just lines of information. Are they more direct or faster than lines of information during the civil rights movement, or any others? It doesn’t matter that much.

    The revolution is people and their physical circumstances, not (as many who spend way too much time on the internet seem to believe) access to social media. In his article he starts with a few kids and shows how it grows across the south to and through thousands of people, all without “social media tools”. Are these tools used now? Of course! Is there a “Twitter Revolution”? No! Egypt and Tunisia would be doing what they are doing without the internet, because those people believe they need to protest what is happening in their countries.

    The use of the catch phrases in describing what is going on over there, I believe is at best, news organizations trying to garner mare attention for their ratings or at worst just bad journalism, latching onto catch phrases and filling in areas the reporters don’t know about with pop culture instead of actually delivering informative reporting of the events.

  12. Gladwell is wrong in so many ways/things.

    Most of what is written in his books is wrong (much of it provably) or questionable, and this comment on online activism is just funny. Shows his logic circuits escaping through his ears.

    For the “most of what is written in his books is wrong” comment; YES I can back it up, NO I’m not going to write multiple pages on the matter. Seeing as I’ve already written around 25 pages on the matter elsewhere. Suffice to say that if you read Blink slowly and critically and fact check it, then few facts check out, and if you go through his logical constructs you find that most of them are missing pieces or even directly contradicting what he claims to be saying.

    Master of logic? Nope.
    Good at writing evocative/provocative texts? Sure.

  13. In this case, the Friday prayers at mosques around Cairo probably did more to mobilize the Egyptians than social media.

  14. Not to sound too passive, but many people have been waiting and watching for the Internet’s opportunities. For example during Seattle’s WTO protests, I lived next to the convention center. Watched out my window while listening to NPR with the local tv news on & teaching me about anchormen. (They respond with helpless emotion to the mélange of most exciting footage their stations have been able to cull.) When I heard the cops were attacking on a different corner, I ran down to tell the guy with the bullhorn. Twitter may be more useful than that.

    Harry Shearer describes life in the US as “life inside the bubble,” and it certainly is. We’re separate from the world, people invent their own realities here based on what they hear and tend to triangulate off into the ether in group think. Maybe at the moment the ties binding the networked aren’t as important as the information that is shared? I think a huge gap has been allowed to grow that must needs ground itself.

  15. What a load of bull (and arrogance from Gladwell, if indeed this is his intended message) if you people think the Internet isn’t integral to what is going on in the Middle East, and which started with Iran in 2009!

    This miracle medium is connecting people in their aspirations for political freedom and democracy, fomenting collective courage and coordinating their united action like only telepathy could better achieve! It spreads news like wildfire and allows for a collective consciousness to be raised quickly.

    Of course the action happens on the ground, but without flexible communication and exchange of information (ideas!), there would be no speed.

    You think it is for no good reason that these regimes block Facebook and Twitter?

    – An Iranian-Canadian

  16. Gladwell on Gladwell, from the article:

    “Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model.”

    Right. So Malcolm is either an innovator or a solipsist. Guess which one he thinks he is?

  17. Oh, well played. Since we’re now living in the 21st century and Twitter (which I’m very fond of, by the way) seems to be here to stay, we can expect all future social upheavals, natural disasters, public celebrations and so on to involve some Twittering.

    But assuming that Twitter will be responsible for any of these things is to confuse cause and effect.

    Indeed, as Dave Faris points out above, Twitter may have helped limit the disturbances in Egypt. But that’s difficult to prove; since Twitter and other net-borne social media are pretty much everywhere the hypothesis that Twitter et al may produce revolution is untestable and hence also unprovable.

    The hypothesis makes for good snark, though.

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