A Political World: Malcolm Gladwell Invents Friendship, Disses Internet

For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?

-Matthew 5:46-47

Thank God for Malcolm Gladwell. If it weren’t for him, we’d have no faith in our snap judgments, we wouldn’t try to get our kids into good schools with computer labs, and we’d have no idea ketchup tastes good or that punk-inspired fashions are trendy.

Fortunately, however, he has personally initiated all of these revolutions, and now he’s revealed, in a fairly recent New Yorker article entitled “Small Change,” that close friendships are important. This seems like such an astonishingly blatant claim that one has to wonder why, exactly, it needed to be made at all. The reason, apparently, is a political one. As Gladwell puts it, “The revolution will not be tweeted.” He draws upon studies of participants in the civil rights movement:

What makes people capable of this kind of activism? The Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam compared the Freedom Summer dropouts with the participants who stayed, and discovered that the key difference wasn’t, as might be expected, ideological fervor. “All of the applicants—participants and withdrawals alike—emerge as highly committed, articulate supporters of the goals and values of the summer program,” he concluded. What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts—the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon.

Gladwell then finds similar correlations between friendships and activism in various other political outbursts, such as the people’s movement that led to the tearing-down of the Berlin Wall. He contrasts these instances of effective activism with the relatively impotent protests that scurry across the Web (such as indicating with a mouse click, on Facebook, that you “Like” efforts to Save Darfur). He is scornful of new books about new media, texts that attach revolutionary significance to the power of the Internet to find stolen cellphones, bone marrow donors, and the like.

Gladwell isn’t necessarily wrong that there has been too much hype about the political power of new social technologies. All the same, why this advocacy for “strong ties,” something that people crave instinctively and create on their own? I’m reminded of James Joyce’s comment about Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which he described as selling something that needed no advertisement.

In part, Gladwell’s position seems interesting because he’s writing in a post-Gladwell world. In his bestselling study The Tipping Point, Gladwell argued that our society is shaped largely by “Connectors,” individuals who maintain a large number of “weak-tie” contacts, and create synergy by linking together people who might not otherwise have met. Reading Gladwell’s book, it seems there isn’t much Connectors cannot do — in fact, one of Gladwell’s primary examples of a Connector is Paul Revere, who is able to rouse the Minutemen because he knows the right people in every town. (Surely the American Revolution ought to count as an instance of successful political activism?) By default, the immense work required to forge “strong ties” out of weak ones comes across, in The Tipping Point, as something of a waste.

Thus we have the unsettling specter of Malcolm Gladwell arguing against an earlier incarnation of himself, for the benefit of an audience ready to applaud anything they already believe. Networking and maintaining weak connections with lots of people is a good thing, surely. Gladwell argues that our acquaintances are our “greatest source of ideas and information.” The Internet, he writes, “lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world.” But maintaining strong friendships is also important, since it makes “high risk activism” possible, and we need activists in a world where there are still “lunch counters that need integrating.” (All this talk of life-threatening activism is wonderfully thrilling for the readers of The New Yorker, who still totally remember how they used to go to protest marches in college.) According to the latest research, that is, you should make new friends and keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.

***

When I reached the end of Gladwell’s diatribe, I felt both confused and disheartened. This is, I would argue, often our state of mind when we try to analyze new technologies that we ourselves use daily. We can’t stop ourselves from joining the dance, and yet we feel threatened all the same by what these technologies, from music players to Facebook, are supposedly doing to impoverish and enfeeble our lives.

However, most of the arguments against these technologies present us with a dilemma. Either we are at home, tweeting and writing status updates, or we are out in the world among true friends. Either we are listening to an iPod, oblivious to our environment, or we are conversing with neighbors and interesting strangers. These are false dilemmas. I walked lots of places without an iPod when I was younger, and I almost never had life-changing interactions with strangers. In fact, I’ve probably had more interactions with strangers since I started wearing an iPod, because people ask me what I’m listening to. Similarly, I never spend time doing social networking that I once would have spent with a friend. Like most people, I use Facebook when it’s convenient and nothing else is going on (for example, because it’s three in the morning).

Moreover, Gladwell is wrong that acquaintances are our best source of new information and ideas. That may be true for a subset of the population, but in my case at least, I get most of my new ideas from books and pop culture, and most of my new information from the Internet, where it has been posted by strangers. I would say, instead, that loved ones and acquaintances are the best proving-ground for new ideas: does this idea work? Is it socially acceptable? Does it tend to catch on? Does it create positive outcomes for me and the people in my life?

Our social circles are not, for the most part, our source for reliable information. Instead, they determine what information we need: what illness are we researching on Wikipedia and WebMD? What kinds of pop culture references are we looking into further? What city should we investigate, in case we want to join friends and acquaintances by visiting or moving there?

Political activism is not always a blessing — just consider the absurd Fox News “Tea Party” movement — and so strong ties are, politically speaking, not inherently good or bad. Many times, I have seen strong ties with family erode the political convictions of friends and loved ones. I have seen practical considerations, enforced by strong ties, deter individuals from following more idealistic and risky paths. It goes the other way as well. I’ve seen inflexible political stances wither bonds of great love. Whatever political hopes Gladwell is nursing, strong ties will not be enough to get us there, and weak ties will continue to have their place. For example, on Election Day, weak ties on Facebook create a chorus of voices encouraging us to vote. We carve out a personal nation via social networking sites that delivers, not new ideas, but encouragement and goads to our memory.

Fortunately, however, the point of being in love with our families, partners, and friends has nothing to do with advancing the revolution (or accessing blue-chip information). The two “notebooks,” as Doris Lessing might frame it, only overlap because revolutionary ideas ought to be founded on the same principles of curiosity, compassion, and tolerance that ignite friendships and relationships. If anything about Facebook makes me melancholy, it’s that, when I scan my list of friends, I see so many people I know only scarcely, who I once knew better or never really knew at all. Facebook sometimes looks a bit like a graveyard filled with missed opportunities, but it is not that. All those people write status updates, and provide links, and change their lists of favorite movies, and we remain Facebook friends out of hope for stronger ties.

(It is even worthwhile if one, discussing later and in person something they posted to their Wall, should say, “that is not it, at all. That is not what I meant, at all.”)

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