Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker column questions the efficacy of social media while raising several questions about social media’s impact in a community. While Gladwell cites several historical points to support his view that “social media can’t provide what social change has always required,” his argument fails to note that social media as a network should not just be compared to the hierarchies seen in social movements, but should, perhaps more accurately, be compared to the means of communication used during the civil rights movement and also during periods of civil action throughout the contemporary world.
Describing how a sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina grew from four college students to thousands of people through the country, Gladwell writes:
By the end of the month, there were sit-ins throughout the South, as far west as Texas. “I asked every student I met what the first day of the sitdowns had been like on his campus,” the political theorist Michael Walzer wrote in Dissent. “The answer was always the same: ‘It was like a fever. Everyone wanted to go.’ ” Some seventy thousand students eventually took part. Thousands were arrested and untold thousands more radicalized. These events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade—and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.
What’s missing in Gladwell’s assessment is the impact of radio, television and even the telephone. Seventy thousand students could not have come together through silent agreement nor through a lack of transmitted information. They came together through the sharing of information, and that’s what social media continues to provide. The main difference, however, is that social media puts more control (literally) into the hands of the people determined to take action. Of course this does not mean that everyone who participates in a Twitter or Facebook campaign will take more action than retweeting or “liking” something, but it does mean that private individuals have the capacity to “spread the word” to a degree that they’ve never had before.
So what does this mean for social media in terms of marketing? To the same degree that the spread of information has opened up to private individuals, so too has the push of marketing. An individual in Cleveland can now Tweet about a particular hair product or pen, and a follower in Seattle can see that Tweet and, if she trusts the twitterer’s opinion, might go out and try a new product herself. Twitter might not be part of a hierarchy of social change, but it is nonetheless a tool of contemporary social interaction – and in so far as people use it to share information with strangers with a common interest, it has become an indispensable part of spreading the word. Facebook does much the same thing, though with a message spread more among friends and acquaintances in overlapping circles.