Blogs, Bullets and Bullshit

by Henry Farrell on September 30, 2010

“Matthew Yglesias”: describes this “Malcolm Gladwell piece”: as a ‘smart’ take on ‘how the kind of “weak ties” promoted by online social media can’t do the kind of work of the kind of “hard ties” that the leaders of the civil rights movement used to knock down an authoritarian system.’ I did a “bloggingheads with Julian Sanchez”: yesterday where we discussed this piece – and, to put it mildly, we didn’t find it smart (Julian describes it as his ‘most recent excretion’). Not because it was necessarily _wrong,_ but because it did the usual Gladwell trick of taking a vaguely counter-conventional-wisdom argument (in this case, a rehashing of what Yevgeny Morozov has been saying for the last couple of years), adding some quasi-digested social science and a couple of illustrative anecdotes, and then spinning out a _New Yorker_ article. He’s a good writer (for pre-masticated values of ‘good writing’) but a quite mediocre thinker.

I’ll confess to being _particularly annoyed_ by the Gladwell piece because it seems like the purest possible distillation of the intellectual-debate-through-duelling-anecdotes that has plagued discussion over the Internet and authoritarian regimes over the last few years. As this “new report”: (PDF) for the US Institute of Peace (co-authored by Sean Aday, me, Marc Lynch, John Sides, John Kelly and Ethan Zuckerman) discusses at some length, we more or less have _no idea_ of whether Internet based media hurt authoritarianism, lead to group polarization or anything else.

bq. The sobering answer is that, fundamentally, no one knows. To this point, little research has sought to estimate the causal effects of new media in a methodologically rigorous fashion, or to gather the rich data needed to establish causal influence. Without rigorous research designs or rich data, partisans of all viewpoints turn to anecdotal evidence and intuition.

The report provides a kind of toy investigation of the Iran protests using network analysis and basic data on informational diffusion to discipline the anecdotes, but is primarily focused on pushing for _actual research_ (which would take substantial investments in developing tools and gathering data) that might try to answer the relevant questions. Without such research, we’ll be left relying on Malcolm Gladwell articles to guide our thinking. And that is not a particularly good place to be.



Jurgen Stizmuller 09.30.10 at 3:19 pm

Without such research, we’ll be left relying on Malcolm Gladwell articles

There’s always Kierkegaard


Salient 09.30.10 at 3:56 pm

…I like the bloggingheads deviation to the topic of online friendships (some of which can be quite geographically targeted, actually — the internet makes it quite possible to locate, contact, and meet up with local geeks).

Thanks for disdaining Malcolm’s piece. Working by anecdote and intuition is inappropriate and even dangerous, in this particular setting: did y’all hear criminologist James Alan Fox say that the fact that the UT shooter didn’t have a Facebook account, should have been taken as a ‘warning sign’ and a ‘clue’ that he’d turn out to be violent?


Hidari 09.30.10 at 4:29 pm

Without getting into the broader question I want to ask a question about one particular para from the Gladwell piece.

‘In Germany in the nineteen-seventies, they go on, “the far more unified and successful left-wing terrorists tended to organize hierarchically, with professional management and clear divisions of labor. They were concentrated geographically in universities, where they could establish central leadership, trust, and camaraderie through regular, face-to-face meetings.” They seldom betrayed their comrades in arms during police interrogations. Their counterparts on the right were organized as decentralized networks, and had no such discipline. These groups were regularly infiltrated, and members, once arrested, easily gave up their comrades. Similarly, Al Qaeda was most dangerous when it was a unified hierarchy. Now that it has dissipated into a network, it has proved far less effective.’

Putting aside the political naivety (yeah the Govt was just as upset by right wing terrorism as by left wing terrorism. Sure they were): isn’t this definitely wrong? And isn’t the reason that ‘hierarchical’ groups ARE more easily infiltrated (and decapitated) than ‘distributed groups’? Again, I thought the classic example was the ‘Ndrangheta and the Mafia: the Mafia is a pyramid: hence the reason that when Provenzano was arrested the whole organisation was brought to its knees. Likewise, the PIRA was nearly destroyed in the 1970s, until they adopted a more ‘distributed’ organisation.

Or am I wrong about this?

Read more


Hidari 09.30.10 at 4:40 pm

That report from the Institute of Peace is extremely politically naive, incidentally, not to put it in stronger terms.


Lemuel Pitkin 09.30.10 at 5:10 pm

Mostly OT, but Yglesias has really been sucking lately, no?


Henry 09.30.10 at 5:11 pm

Hidari – if you can say more about its naivete, I’d be interested to hear your criticisms. It surely is framed, quite deliberately, in the usual Washington vernacular, with the assumptions about American power and purpose that go along with that, but (at least as far as I am concerned) this is more a standard rhetorical trope than anything else.

On the mafia – it isn’t really a pyramid, but a very messy organization with limited coordination at the top (through the ‘cupola’) and nasty relations between families. The analogy I like to use is that the cupola/commissione is best compared to the United Nations, and families to miniature (and pretty unpleasant) nation states. Like all analogies, it’s inexact, but it gives a better flavor than the hierarchy story. Rocco Sciarrone’s work (in Italian, unfortunately) is good on this.


Jonathan M 09.30.10 at 7:56 pm

Agreed on the problem with ‘argument by anecdote’ (we need a latin term for that stat argumentum ad storiam perhaps…)

I’ll go you one better. Online thought is driven not by ideas but by pitches for ideas. They are to ideas what meetings with Joel Silver are to screenplays. Ideas that catch on online can effectively be boiled down to a couple of sentences. These are then expanded into articles and books but somehow the ideas never seem to grow in detail or complexity. The long tail? Carr’s shallows? Everything should be free? Cognitive surplus? They never develop into anything more than their initial soundbite.

As a result, the internet has given birth to this generation of snake oil salesmen and self-help gurus who pose as internet intellectuals. We should know that we’re in big trouble when Cory Doctorow gets the rep of being a serious thinker.


Malcolm Gladwell 09.30.10 at 9:36 pm

Let me get this straight. The problem, you are telling me, is that we don’t have actual research yet on the question of how digital networks and social media affect political activism. If that’s the case, then what choice do I have but to use anecdotes and rely on “quasi-digested” social science? Am I supposed to hold my tongue until the academy gets its ducks in a row? :-)


Henry 09.30.10 at 10:17 pm

Well yes, you _are_ supposed to hold your tongue, if the alternative is reaching extremely sweeping conclusions on the basis of entirely insufficient data. That is – if you view your job (as I hope you do) as informing rather than entertaining. Or at the very least, make it clear that your conclusions are tentative, exploratory and so on. This isn’t just an academic debate. It plausibly implicates people’s lives and deaths, important aspects of US foreign policy, and many millions of dollars. It’s quite possible that the claims about weak ties versus strong ones are right. It’s equally possible that they are wrong. If you don’t have good reason for _knowing_ what you confidently claim, you shouldn’t confidently claim it.


tom bach 09.30.10 at 10:49 pm

If you don’t have good reason for knowing what you confidently claim, you shouldn’t confidently claim it.

But then he wouldn’t be Malcolm Gladwell, would he.


Alex 09.30.10 at 11:39 pm

Veronika Khokhlova does not think Evgeny Morozov thinks what Malcolm Gladwell thinks he does, and she did an actual revolution (unlike Morozov, Gladwell, Henry, self, etc, etc).


lemmy caution 09.30.10 at 11:44 pm

Not because it was necessarily wrong, but because it did the usual Gladwell trick of taking a vaguely counter-conventional-wisdom argument (in this case, a rehashing of what Yevgeny Morozov has been saying for the last couple of years), adding some quasi-digested social science and a couple of illustrative anecdotes, and then spinning out a New Yorker article. He’s a good writer (for pre-masticated values of ‘good writing’) but a quite mediocre thinker.

I don’t see the problem with this for an audience who is unfamiliar with Yevgeny Morozov. Moving ideas from something most social scientists know to something most upper middle class people know is pretty useful.


Salient 10.01.10 at 1:32 am

Since Gladwell’s about:

The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.

Nice elide-slide use of “seem” there. They sure don’t seem to believe any such thing to me. But maybe you’re reading other pontificators idly pontificating, which is exactly what Henry is rightly and righteously complaining about. Whereas I [try to] restrict my reading to folks who take on specific case studies, and don’t try to generalize from them, because in part they’re aware of how easily one can seem to be saying something truly ridiculous.

And alas, common sense and anecdata are against you here. Know what’s weird about signing up for a Facebook group? They… send you messages through the group, by posting them to the group page. And those messages… tell you about stuff you can do. In real life. In person. (Or maybe they don’t! It depends on the group! Which is, in part, why you can’t generalize universally!) Seriously, how do you think lil’ ol’ me kept up with myriad Tea Party events in my state, so I could attend them?

Sure, I attend with a few companions. But we as a small group, find out about these things to do through social media. We’re the type to do stuff and go to protests and so on, but we’d probably only do 1% of what we actually currently do, if we didn’t have the Internet to find out about what other people are doing.

So. If a Greensboro lunch-counter protest happened today, by Day 2 it might spread across fifty cities across the country because the people who would do that sort of thing are a subset of the kind of people who would sign up for a Facebook-page/Twitter-feed/etc announcing that sort of thing is happening, and so they are notified by their various social action pages that it’s happening and should be happening everywhere. Or — if I may, we might say — the threshold, the tipping point, if you prefer, is made much easier to reach.

Or hey, it might not work that way at all. I’m just pontificating. (Though I don’t get paid for it.) We really just don’t know how efficient these networks are for that kind of interaction. We don’t know how well they’re set up, or whether the degree to which they are well-set-up corresponds to any demographic, or whether people who want to get off their butts will replace that activity with Facebook page-joining instead of Facebook-joining to learn about new ways to get off their butts. Replacement or augmentation? Do we know how efficient these things are? Or that they work? We just don’t know enough to be specific, useful, and rigorously predictive.


Tom West 10.01.10 at 1:46 am

I have to say, if we were limited to what we actually reasonably know, it would kill about 2/3rd’s of the interesting magazine articles and 4/5th’s of the interesting conversations (9/10th’s in university).

A lot of people find Malcolm Gladwell consistently entertaining and I suspect much of the reason is his willingness to go rather farther with some interesting ideas than would be acceptable in a Ph.D. thesis.

At this rate, we’ll be complaining about unrealistic movie physics next :-).


bh 10.01.10 at 2:09 am

Mostly OT, but Yglesias has really been sucking lately, no?

Yes, yes he has. And has been couching that suckiness in the most infuriating Serious Grownup-ese imaginable.

It’s made me wonder if that sort of general interest blogging has a limited lifespan. Sooner or later, it’s probably worth really knowing something in detail, or you’re going to run out of interesting things to say. It’s either that or move to the New Yorker, I suppose.

(Henry, should you feel it appropriate, feel free to delete this OT snarkiness w/o any offense taken from me… )


Charrua 10.01.10 at 2:22 am

I didn’t found Gladwell article SO annoying, frankly. I see him as a kind of middleman between a regular journalist (who would do a piece full of the CW du jour) and a true academic specialist (who would write an extremely informative piece…that nobody would read). He fulfills a role and if you want to attract attention to a field, it’s a valuable one.


Malcolm Gladwell 10.01.10 at 4:22 am

I suppose its worth pointing out, in my own defense, that my article draws very heavily on some very fine academic work: Doug McAdam, Aldon Morris’s brilliant history of the civil rights movement, a great paper by Mette Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Calvert Jones in International Security, among others. I realize that does not include the supposedly definitive work that Henry says may or may not be coming at some undetermined point. But as one of the commenters pointed out, if we always had to wait for the perfect future paper, then we wouldn’t have much journalism–(or academic writing, for that matter)–would we?


AnnMaria 10.01.10 at 6:42 am

Gladwell has some very valid points. For most of us friends includes tangible support – lending money, watching the cat while you’re on vacation, editing your dissertation – and emotional support. That’s why measures of social support asks questions on both of those dimensions.

More than that, as he notes in the article, you feel like you can’t let your friends down.

There is plenty of academic research to support Gladwell’s points, but he was writing for the New Yorker and not some academic journal that no one was going to read voluntarily.

Where he perhaps overstated his case is that these kind of strong relationships CAN happen in digital form – I can give you leads on a job, or write supportive things. The probability that these relationships become deep reciprocal relationships is certainly low, or as he noted, we would all have a thousand “real friends”.

The trust to participate in something that could be dangerous to one’s person or livelihood, the obligation to do something that is inconvenient to help a friend, the belief in the leaders of a cause – all of that ought to take longer to develop digitally when each interaction gives you less data, you don’t know well other people who can tell you that guy is all right or a big jerk.

[On the other hand, back when the Internet was limited pretty much to university faculty and graduate students, I met someone, from a university thousands of miles away, and have a twelve-year-old – and husband – as proof that these ties CAN develop!]

A second place where Gladwell perhaps underestimates the effectiveness of digital activism is in the potential of a million small efforts to make a difference. Yes, I may not be very politically active, but some tweet I see about the Tea Party may lead me to say, “That’s f–ed up” and make a donation to the Democratic Party. (More than the nine cents in Gladwell’s article!)

A blog I read on biology might remind me that the local aquarium is doing good work for conservation, and I’ll send a donation to them also.

Actually, both of those things did happen.

It was mentioned that when King got to Montgomery he had a million dollar budget. Getting people to give money is one way that social networks could have a significant impact. It appears that the Darfur facebook pages have not done that, but, as has been said repeatedly here, it is early in the game and maybe someone can find a way to move more people from the weak to the strong side using digital media.

I would think one way to do that would be to make it personal. I gave money to the Democrats because I’m Latina, live in California and the anti-immigrant rhetoric sickens me. I gave money to the aquarium because I live a few minutes walk from the ocean and I see the pollution.

If those who are concerned about Darfur, Iran and other causes could find a way to make it personal, they might get more of a strong commitment, even from a digital relationship.

(Like that physicist from California, who wrote a program to create fractals, made a pink fractal and sent the fractal as an attachment to an email – a new idea back then. We named the baby after the Julia set. )


bh 10.01.10 at 7:04 am

So AnnMarie, in reponse to criticism that the article was n0thing but a series of anecdotes, you give us… a series of anecdotes?

I think you’re pretty much making Henry’s point — in the absence of clear evidence, it’s not at all hard to construct a series of plausible-sounding, pleasing-to-your-prejudices set of stories. They don’t mean much, though.


bh 10.01.10 at 7:48 am

At this rate, we’ll be complaining about unrealistic movie physics next :-).

The thing is, no one thinks the bus jump in Speed is teaching mechanics. But in my experience, most people reading Gladwell think they’re getting something substantial. I think everyone here understands that the standards for peer-reviewed journals and The New Yorker are different, so there’s no real point in setting that straw man. For a lot of readers, Gladwell’s gloss on a topic is will be their first and last exposure to it. So when said gloss isn’t just simplified, but actually misleading, that’s genuinely bad.


Phil 10.01.10 at 10:54 am

The thing is, in the red corner we’ve got perfectly genuine, solid, scholarly work on the Civil Rights movement, and in the blue corner we’ve got… some gosh-wow stories about social networking making Everything! Totally!! Different!!1! I’d rather have Malcolm Gladwell being intelligently sceptical about the latest from Clay Shirky or Chris Anderson than Malcolm Gladwell boosting the latest, ect, ect, but what’s being set up here isn’t really a fair fight. Apart from anything else, the weak-links/low-entry-barriers/low-exit-barriers stuff is revisiting stuff that was being discussed five years ago (Dean campaign, anyone?) – not least by Clay Shirky.

But the Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Jones paper (“Assessing the Dangers of Illicit Networks: Why al-Qaida May Be Less Threatening Than Many Think”) does look interesting; Gladwell can have that one.


Doug 10.01.10 at 12:33 pm

Henry’s right about the stakes involved in some of the choices being made, but will the academic research arrive in anything like the time frame needed for making intelligent decisions about these same choices?

Are the people looking at strong ties vs weak ties in protest situations also looking at research that has been done on what keeps soldiers together? Because challenging white supremacy in the 1960s south could very easily be a capital offense, and deliberately choosing to challenge it was probably much like choosing to go into battle.

In the unlikely event that Gladwell is still looking in, I will suggest The Race Beat by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff (and moreso, the sources it draws on) as a place to start filling in the gap your article mentioned on the interaction between the civil rights movement and the media of the time.


stras 10.01.10 at 1:56 pm

Yglesias has really been sucking lately, no?



Gideon Rosenblatt 10.02.10 at 6:10 pm

People like Malcolm Gladwell open the door for discussion by raising important questions on a public stage in ways that others simply cannot. To do this, sometimes you need to round off the nuances and subtleties to keep people focused on your main point. Sometimes, you need to use anecdotes to point people at the things that need real research – even if it’s not your job to do that yourself.

That is the role that Malcolm Gladwell has played here – and frankly, I can’t think of many people better suited than him to do it. Look at how the twittersphere has lit up on this issue. And, as someone who has been involved in the intersection of social change and technology for the last ten years of my life, I can tell you that it is high time for this discussion.

There are people and organizations focused on trying to assess the social impact of technology. These efforts are not necessarily peer-reviewed research, but in-the-field, hands-on, doing that is followed up with on-going monitoring and feedback. It’s just a start, mind you, but it’s a move in the right direction and there are others engaged in the same thing.

In my view, the problem with online social networking tools has less to do with the tools themselves – and more to do with how organizations fail to connect their social network organizing with their efforts to deepen their relationships with people. Facebook is an excellent medium for using our social ties to expose people to new issues. By “liking” something on Facebook or re-tweeting something on Twitter, I tell my friends and followers “hey, I’m watching this issue – I care about it” and doing that in a networked public forum makes it easy to spread.

That’s the easy part though. The hard part is connecting that interest back to someplace where a person can go deep – someplace where they can build a deep connection with a mission and with others who share that same passion.

The next level of work that needs to be done is building bridges between weak and strong ties. What are the ways to connect the tools (for example – how do you connect Facebook activities and social graphs with the relationship management databases of social change organizations)? And more importantly, what are the ways in which we connect the strategies and organizational processes of the world of online organizing with more traditional community organizing practices?

These are the questions for the next generation of social change engagement, and I’m thankful to Mr. Gladwell for kicking off the conversations that are now rippling out across the web on these important questions.


Shelley 10.02.10 at 6:53 pm

Alas, I’m a writer, not an expert in this field, but I too just read the Gladwell piece. It left me feeling vaguely that he’s probably right about the fact that “strong ties” among participants leads to their willingness to greater sacrifice for a cause; but to me, wrong in at least exaggerating the weakness of ties on the Internet. I feel very loyal to my readers there, and to a few more personal political blogs, like Democracy for America.


Witt 10.02.10 at 7:36 pm

I didn’t watch the video, but I have just read the article.

It primarily seems to suffer from a false starting point. The question isn’t “Are evangelists overselling online-coordinated activism?” Sure they are, that’s what makes them evangelists. The question is “How does format restrict or foster inherently high-risk social change activism?”

I’m not convinced anyone knows the answers. But you’re not going to get there by reverse-engineering a couple of long-ago successes.

But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

Duh. Everything seldom leads to high-risk activism. Being college roommates and having late-night bull sessions seldom leads to activism, notwithstanding Gladwell’s story about the lunch-counter sit-ins.

The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece.

This is misleading; every movement I know of has a pyramid-like structure of supporters, and the ones who actually pony up and give money are closer to the narrow end. So Facebook lets you rack up a large number of people who are doing the equivalent of picking up your bumper sticker while drunk at a Dave Matthews concert, and that drags down the average amount donated by the core supporters. Quoting the average as if it proves depth of support just makes one look innumerate.

Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority.

Erm, what? I was under the impression that networks could have many different structures, including ones with a clear leader.

Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose.

Wait a minute, all networks are Quakers now?

If every entry in Wikipedia were to be erased tomorrow, the content would swiftly be restored, because that’s what happens when a network of thousands spontaneously devote their time to a task.

Gee, wasn’t there some research somewhere that says that a relatively tiny core of editors makes up most of Wikipedia’s contributions? Yes, I believe there is. And “spontaneously”? Really? Voluntarily I will buy, but it’s hardly spontaneous.

And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church?

Hm, I don’t know — a low-risk way for them to share messages during the week, rather than visiting each other’s homes in person? A tool and an adjunct, not a substitute.

The interesting question here is not “Will Facebook launch a new wave of activism?” I’d be pretty surprised if the proportion of humans comfortable agitating for real social change has changed much in the last 500 years, much less the last 50. The question is “How will the dominant communications format shape the activism that occurs?”

You know the Malcolm Gladwell article I’d pay money to read? The one that does an in-depth investigation of just exactly how, and how often, Facebook and its peers are turning over data on their members to law enforcement.

*That’s* the risk — not that we’re going to become a bunch of armchair slogan-changers, substituting a click on the Darfur Wall for more substantive foreign-policy engagement. It’s that clicking on the Dream Act group is going to bring ICE knocking at our doors to deport us.


Witt 10.02.10 at 7:39 pm

s/b armchair slogan chanters


piglet 10.02.10 at 8:27 pm

Hidari 3: “‘In Germany in the nineteen-seventies, they go on, “the far more unified and successful left-wing terrorists tended to organize hierarchically, with professional management and clear divisions of labor.”

That is complete nonsense. The left-wing armed groups were portrayed by the state in that way of professional organizations. They were not, they were just very small groups. The RAF had 20-30 members at most and nobody has ever shown evidence of a hierarchical structure. In fact, German courts have taken the lack of hierarchy as a legal doctrine to convict members of acts that were allegedly committed “collectively”, even when there was no evidence of that particular member being involved. The RAF started out as a group of intellectuals who initially planned to commit some relatively harmless, amateur militant actions to protest the Vietnam war. They suddenly became Germany’s most wanted, the wanted posters with their faces hanging everywhere. They saw no other choice at this point than to try to become a “professional” guerilla but they stood no chance and within a few years, almost all of them had been caught. The second and third generation endured somewhat longer. By what criteria are they called “successful”? The damage they inflicted on the state was negligible.

There were several left armed groups beside the RAF, the Bewegung 2. Juni and the Revolutionaere Zellen, with its feminist off-shoot Rote Zora. The latter, “Revolutionary Cells”, were explicitly organized in autonomous cells and they were actually rather successful in evading arrest (and popular in the radical left). “Bewegung 2. Juni”, by the account of one of its founding members, Bommi Baumann, was infiltrated by the police even before its formation as a militant group and Baumann claims that the first box of Molotov cocktails were supplied by the police informer.


jv 10.04.10 at 1:51 pm

Perhaps “the story” is the standard of the New Yorker. I was once interviewed by a bright young thing who included me in a piece that was quite well written, very charming, and nearly utterly made up. Actions were implied that did not happen and quotes were invented wholesale. The fact checker called me three times – and in the end I think gave up to the writer who had her own agenda.

My point here is that I don’t believe the environment MG works in fosters any kind of regard journalistic integrity and thus he seems flummoxed at having been taken to task. In fact, given his use of an emoticon to justify himself, I would suspect that he is a) a very likeable fellow, b) an insecure fellow who just wants to be liked, or c) 12.


Shaked 10.07.10 at 10:18 am

Social media proves repeatedly it’s significance in social and political activism.
I think, it is exactly the lack of the old hierarchies, which make it so powerful and meaningful.
More about this in an analyse to the blockades on Mayday 2010 in Berlin, which blocked Nazis from marching through the city and was organized and operated through twitter:

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