Malcolm Gladwell, Twitter, And The Breaking News Distribution Of Osama Bin Laden’s Death

Few of us can forget the controversy that arose when writer and author Malcolm Gladwell discredited Twitter and Facebook for playing any significant role in the recent uprisings in the Middle East or within activism overall, for that matter. In fact, he appeared just a few weeks ago again on CNN still toting the same message. However, it is the role of Twitter in announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden that should help us to understand more broadly that Gladwell has, in fact, simply not been asking the right question when it comes to the correlation of social media and social change.

Gladwell, for all his wonderful writing skills and interesting posits in such previous work as “Blink” and “The Tipping Point” (though much of the “Outliers” feels like hasty generalization), seems to be missing a vital point in this arena.  For whether one finds social media remarkable or not, the question is not whether or not the platform is the main force behind organisation and incitement of social revolutions but rather: is social media technology a strong factor in the enabling of a larger overall cultural shift in our society today, and, simultaneously, is it reflective of the desire for a true change in cultural structure?

Any other question might seem to be a veritable short-cut to thinking. Take, for example, the fact that Gladwell points out that the major activism behind the Montgomery bus boycotts was organised passionately and in a committed manner without the use of Twitter and lasted a full year. A year! While few would argue that social media alone is the complete impetus behind a revolution or anything else for that matter, one cannot deny that it enables a speed and control we have never before witnessed regarding events. 

There is something about the continued broadcast capability of individuals that enables events to move faster and become more concentrated than they ever have before. To consistently chose an information topic and then disseminate that information at a micro-level seems to shift the balance of control.  Sure revolutions and activism can take place without social media, but they will probably be a lot more brutal and lengthy (see “year” above)  in the dark while awaiting media sanction for consistent coverage. And visibility in a fast-paced world with lots of injustice is more precious than gold. 

In society now more than ever, there are two elements which seem to be determining the Have’s and Have Not’s, the Downtrodden and the Victors: level of visibility and rate of speed of that visibility.  This seems to play an incredible part in creating one’s own social capital which then affects other forms of “real” capital.  Without it, life seems much more challenging. Thus, while we cannot discredit Gladwell’s views on the levels of risk within previous and no doubt upcoming forms of activism; we cannot say that social media, given its inherent form to drive messages in a nanosecond and keep driving them, is not clearly reflective of a cultural shift that increasingly values assertion of individuals, speed and democratization of a message/thought delivery system within that speed which can then contribute greatly to any area from activism to pizza preference. This is quite interesting.

While social media is not the sole factor in this cultural value shift, it certainly seems to be playing an undeniably strong role in the creation of a new type of order.  So to return back to Osama Bin Laden; as we know, Twitter provided the Osama info well before NBC got it together to interrupt “The Apprentice” while viewers had to then wait an additional 45 minutes after the initial interruption for the White House to phone other powers that be. Twitter was the first place to report that President Obama would address the nation on a national security issue — that took place at 9:45pm ET. At 10:25pmET, an individual,  Keith Urbahn, the former chief of staff for Bush’s defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, broke the actual news.

In other words, Twitter was faster and offered more leverage than any other news source out there.  No middle-men, just direct info from person to Twitterverse which then continued to disseminate the information in a organic and very concentrated manner between followers on their own terms.

While Gladwell champions a hierarchical structure (and from that one might assume that he would have preferred network news be the sole gatekeepers of the Osama news, instead),  this system is somewhat falling away – thankfully – via some correlation with social media. And it might seem that it is exactly this hierarchial deterioration which is part of the main source of annoyance for men such as Gladwell when it comes to discussing Twitter and Facebook on any signifcant level. 

With hierarchy, he is able to sit from high and call out “weak-tie” and “strong-tie” in the social realm and without exact definition of those terms, for example. With hierarchy we are better able to create the have’s and have-not’s. Certainly structure and pecking order has its place, but if someone is willing to choose a cause or piece of information which is of interest and broadcast it consistently; this can create pressure, exposure, talking-points – all helpful to or even the beginnings of activists, activism, geo-political events, dare one say, the economy at large. 

Particularly for the young demographic and demo of colour whose stories are often times deemed insubstantial by the barely diverse and older newsrooms of this country, these platforms are absolute vital avenues for voice. In fact, one might even question what the larger agenda might be of one who negates the validity of such access. To discredit these demographics’ use of social media is to, perhaps, to discredit the groups themselves and that’s a dangerous game to play.

In addition, the social media phenomenon becomes compounded when coupled with mobile device access as it enables free movement and the ability to consistently broadcast anywhere, any time — so long as one has enough bars, of course. Most people probably even accessed Twitter via their mobiles at the hour regarding Bin Laden.

But to Gladwell’s credit, yes, there is lots of foolishness across social media too. But that may just be OK.  Anyone seen the lofty and ridiculous of TV lately? They seem to co-exist just fine. And yes, there will always be the need for  those who organise to physically fight the good fight whether it’s the civil rights activists of the ’60’s or the U.S. Navy SEALs this past Sunday in Pakistan. No one is saying there shouldn’t, but it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Society should and does allow not only room for but validation of individuals who want to disseminate and comment on information and events; not as organisations deem appropriate but as they deem appropriate, in their way, on their own terms, on their own time, without being dismissed by others. This action is reflective of an empowerment of the mind, assertion of the “I” and that where the the real change is taking place. This is what terrifies traditional thinkers yet thrills innovators and rebels.

(Conversely, as Gladwell and others are quick to point out, there are disadvantages regarding social media to which one might reply that dualism exists everywhere. We all seem to be subject to tracking and the like, but nay-sayers must remember that technology alone doesn’t necessarily make that happen. People’s wish for control and suppression makes that happen – with or without technology  –  as demonstrated for example by the tracking and round up of Jewish people during Holocaust, for example. Thus, we may just need to check ourselves as human beings and our motives before blaming technology.)

So in short, one might just have to simply suggest, “Get over it, Malcolm” when it comes to the digital landscape of communication, its force and its part within cultural shifts. For there is danger in too often giving our thoughts over to “thought-leaders” and engaging within parameters they set. Perhaps there might be greater benefit in encouraging ourselves to stretch our own minds and continue to “broadcast” and break such news as Osama Bin Laden’s death, and publish our observation and encouragement of  uprisings, organise via Facebook and TwitPic and whatever feels right as we all continue to experiment with tech; and further assert our individual selves and come into our own on our own terms faster than ever before.  We’ve only just begun to witness this curious change in communication style with each other.