The Revolution will be Tweeted

Like there is a Greenwich Mean Time that determines precisely the correct time on which all correct times are based, there should be a standard by which we measure bad timing. I propose such timing be called Malcolm Gladwell Time.

Gladwell, the New Yorker writer whose book, Tipping Point, has become required quoting by millions of people who have never read it, recently wrote what historians will forever point to as proof that contemporary accounts of events should never be confused with what actually happened: the October 4, 2010 article, Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.

In it, Gladwell spent several thousand words attempting to prove a point that social media like Twitter and Facebook have “scant” impact on social upheaval while receiving far too much credit. The basis for his hypothesis is, in Gladwellian fashion, a story-telling exploration of weak-tie networks and strong-tie networks. He might as well have been writing about bow-ties as the events of the past few weeks in Egypt have so convincingly crushed his complete dismissal of weak-tie Twitter/Facebook networks — networks, he concluded, that are good only for things like “helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls.”

I thought about those Wall Streeters and teen-age girls this morning as I read about Wael Ghonim, who was released from imprisonment in the past 24 hours. The Los Angeles Times is describing Ghonim as, “the impassioned but reluctant symbol of resistance.”


“Ghonim has become a symbol, however reluctant, for a generation of middle-class Egyptians seeking broader freedoms who are among those involved in the protests: computer geeks, market researchers, corporate executives and urban professionals.

It should be noted that Ghonim is head of Google marketing operations in the Middle East and his leadership of the movement came from the creation of a Facebook Page called, “We are all Khaled Said.” (Inside note to internet marketers: A Google marketing employee leading a movement using Facebook and a Twitter account is fodder for another post, another day.)

Today, Ghonim is being credited with giving the movement new momentum — a record number of protestors poured into the streets today — but in an interview (see embed) he said, “I’m not a hero. I was writing on a keyboard on the Internet and I wasn’t exposing my life to danger. The heroes are the ones who are in the street.”

No doubt, Malcolm Gladwell touched upon some truth in his essay: Social upheaval like that we are witnessing in Egypt is the result of factors and events that pre-date social networking and smart phones. And organized “strong tie” networks have formed over the years in opposition to the oppression found there.

But his problem is the same that all analysts have when trying to understand and explain Twitter and Facebook, a dilemma I first wrote about exactly three years ago in what has become one of the most linked-to posts on this blog, “Twitter is something you’ll never understand, so stop trying.”

Twitter and Facebook don’t fit nicely into such pop-culture buzz-speak terms as “strong-ties” and “weak-ties” because, as I explained in that three-year old post, Twitter and Facebook are like the telephone: It can be used for prank calls or to dial 911 and save a life. It’s not Twitter or Facebook that matters — it’s what users do with Twitter and Facebook — that makes them revolutionary.

It’s not Twitter and Facebook that caused the revolution in Egypt. It’s what both strong-tie and weak-tie and bow-tie networks are doing with social media that is proving that the revolution will be tweeted — by Wael Ghonim and countless others.

  • “Strong tie/weak tie” explanations of community bonds are hardly anything new. One of the fathers of modern sociology, Ferdinand Tu00f6nnies used a similar distinction in 1887 in German: gemeinschaft/gesellschaft, categories which influenced a whole tradition of social theory.nnHowever flawed Gladwell’s theories are, use of these categories cannot be reduced to “pop-culture buzz-speak” since they operate in a historical context beyond pop culture or spoken buzz.

  • Thanks, Mike. So noted. I appreciate you providing that context and I love it when anyone uses German words in a comment. I guess what I meant to say is that Gladwell has, like with the term “tipping point,” can pour old wine into new buzzword skins and sell lots of books. My apologies to Ferdinand Tu00f6nnies.

  • campo fino

    It is funny, that people so intent on getting the point across, that what people do matters, should miss that what technologies can do is not determined but decided by what people do WITH them. Thank you for making this point so clearly. And thank you to that someone I don’t know for retweeting through soneone else I do not know, but whom I follow because I want to keep up to date on what is going on in #Egypt… It sure does feel like a revolution was tweeted….

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