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The Tripping Point
February 8, 2011 1:26 PM   Subscribe

Generate the next Malcolm Gladwell book. Perhaps soothing if one is annoyed at Gladwell's piece in the New Yorker last week regarding the nonimportance of twitter in Egypt's turmoil.
posted by angrycat (46 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Seems to me there's a big difference between something like texting, which is still a personal communication, and tweeting, which is a mass medium potentially unmediated by the state. The first is like samizdat, and Gladwell has a valid point there, that people will find ways to communicate privately with like-minded people. Given enough like-minded people, that communication can spread through a whole nation. The internet, though, is more like pirate radio. It can reach many more people, but is easier for the authorities to shut down (as seen in Egypt).
posted by rikschell at 1:36 PM on February 8, 2011


People will find reasons to feel offended if they want to find them, but I'm having trouble imagining what those reasons might be with respect to Gladwell's piece. It seems a perfectly straightforward point.
posted by Mars Saxman at 1:36 PM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Is this actually a generator? It's hilarious, but there's no way these are being created on the fly.
posted by zvs at 1:37 PM on February 8, 2011


it seems that the few books that cory & brett made follow a loop from a random start point.
posted by the aloha at 1:39 PM on February 8, 2011


This is really weird---not a generator at all, but a series of static images served up in sequence (based on a counter stored in your browser cookies). See, e.g., here. The images are pretty funny, but I can't remember seeing a site adopt the format and semantics of a "generator" before when it was actually serving up static content. Interesting rhetorical move.
posted by aparrish at 1:39 PM on February 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


I liked the Lando one. Also, I'm not much into Gladwell but his point about Twitter/social media being secondary in Egypt's uprising certainly seems square enough. The internet is not and never was the Wild West. It's a state-funded project run by companies with high level intersects with government. As we saw, any so-called freedom of speech or assembly via the 'net is pretty much at the pleasure of the powers that be.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:41 PM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well if the internet was unrelated to the protests, I hardly imagine the government turned off the internet for fun.

His article sounds like someone who can't accept that they are wrong.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 1:47 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Malcolm Gladwell versus The Twits.... I'm as confused as Buridan's Ass standing between two equal piles of snark.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:49 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


People will find reasons to feel offended if they want to find them, but I'm having trouble imagining what those reasons might be with respect to Gladwell's piece. It seems a perfectly straightforward point.

I rarely find Gladwell's views interesting or worth arguing over. I don't think that he is saying much that is controversial, here. Twitter is just another form of communication. What's incorrect or annoying about that observation?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:50 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's about time we stopped expecting the internet to do everything for us: porn, friendship, goceries, truth and democracy. It's just a neato gadget
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 1:51 PM on February 8, 2011


My favorite one is "Subtitles". My dad has made a similar joke for years, although his is:

Subtitles: The Inability of Modern Writers of Non-Fiction to Limit the Length of Their Titles
posted by brundlefly at 1:52 PM on February 8, 2011 [8 favorites]


On Gladwell. Great ideas, great prose, but he is after all a journalist not a social scientist and his smugness about things he doesn't quite know enough about can get a bit annoying. Steven Pinker has a sharp little review of Gladwell that hits this nicely. (I especially like The Igon Value.)
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 1:57 PM on February 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


Yeah, that New Yorker article is about the least annoying thing I've read of his in quite some time. In fact, it's a good point. Examining the role of the internet and new media (I always feel like I should enclose that phrase in quotes) in the current situation in Egypt is interesting, but it's not the most interesting thing about what's going on, and yet an inordinate amount of the coverage seems to be focused on it. The revolution might be tweeted, but twitter is not the revolution.
posted by Nothing at 1:58 PM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


The best Gladwell pastiche remains gompa's Muddle: How Vague Plans and Hazy Half-Thoughts Created The Industrial Revolution, Defeated Communism and Put This Shiteating Grin On My Face.
posted by Iridic at 2:00 PM on February 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'm having trouble imagining what those reasons might be with respect to Gladwell's piece. It seems a perfectly straightforward point.

That's my problem with it. It's far too straightforward a point for a more subtle issue. OK, it's clear enough that Twitter is neither necessary nor sufficient for an effective protest/revolution, and that's probably worth pointing out to would-be new media evangelists, but an analysis that stops there is almost glibly contrarian. I simply find it completely unlikely that social media tools don't play some role in forming the kinds networks Gladwell talks about in his earlier piece -- not an irreplaceable or central role, but I'd be willing to bet they magnify or accelerate certain things already at work.

And I say all this as someone who quite enjoys reading Gladwell (I think he's a great voice in leading certain journalistic conversations about the social sciences in particular), but I can see why a lot of people don't. You have to read him as food for thought rather than as an authoritative voice, and I think this particular pieces is a good example of why.
posted by weston at 2:04 PM on February 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


> You have to read him as food for thought rather than as an authoritative voice, and I think this particular pieces is a good example of why.

This particular piece just looks like he phoned it in as filler, really.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:06 PM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Gladwells' blog posting is notably only in that he's been silent after publishing a lengthier lengthier piece in the New Yorker last October: Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. This piece was a broadside at Clay Shirky and generally dismissive of social information technology to really matter at all in politics.

I pretty much agree with that Gladwell Still Missing the Point About Social Media and Activism
posted by donovan at 2:06 PM on February 8, 2011


Well if the internet was unrelated to the protests, I hardly imagine the government turned off the internet for fun.

and yet the protests somehow continued while the internet was off.
posted by chrismc at 2:19 PM on February 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


Pamphleteering was the big new thing in the American Revolution, and it succeeded where muttering and grumbling had not.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:25 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


and yet the protests somehow continued while the internet was off.

My point is that it clearly facilitated effective organization of the protests, otherwise the government would not have suffered the economic damage caused by severing all lines of communication. Once you have a few hundred thousand people near each other, internet communication is (obviously) less essential.

My early comment was with regard to Gladwell's previous article about the internet not really making a difference to activism.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 2:27 PM on February 8, 2011


I think he makes a fair point, and I also think that it's a point worth making because plenty of people have exaggerated the role of social media in recent protests. I think new technologies facilitate communication and do have some impact, but that impact has surely been grossly overstated by some people.
posted by snofoam at 2:30 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love Gladwell and your favorite band sucks! He also responded to the Pinker review. Maybe this is faint praise, but if you take Gladwell's work for what it is, and don't try to read it as a professional member of the disciplines he's dipping into--it can be pretty awesome. That said, if he wrote about my discipline I would probably take out the sharp knives, as many others have done. I do not get the Gladwell bitterness. Oh, and love the "generator." Makes me wonder if there are any Gladwell drinking games.
posted by mecran01 at 2:31 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I also think that at least some of the Western fascination with the role of twitter and facebook comes from the fact that the reporters here probably know a lot about twitter and facebook and very little about contemporary Egypt.
posted by snofoam at 2:36 PM on February 8, 2011 [10 favorites]


(apologies for the linkdump and the semi-derail)

I actually didn't mind the Gladwell piece. It touches on a really interesting debate going on right now, about the role of social media and the internet in fermenting democracy and freedom around the world, and the U.S.'s apparent leading role in it all. See for instance the U.S. government's spirited defense of social media in Egypt during the past couple weeks.

Evegny Morozov's new book is on a very related topic, how it is naive--and dangerous--to assume that the spread of social media and the Internet will lead to more open and democratic societies, and, in fact, Facebook and Twitter are just as likely to help keep dictators entrenched as they are to overthrow them. He has also argued that the U.S. is hurting itself by promoting internet freedom around the world and declares that the internet breeds as much "slacktivism" and cyber-hedonism as it does political engagement. Furthermore, by pushing social media so strongly across the world and by so closely aligning itself with the movement, the U.S. gov/state Dept is perhaps tainting future instances of online activism, giving cover for paranoid regimes to crack down when faced with mobile-phone wielding citizens in the streets (they're American stooges!). Not surprisingly, Morozov has been getting a lot of flak.

Many writers have weighed in, including Lee Siegel, Craig Calhoun, who you can almost hear the sigh in this comment as he gently corrects the clearly out of his element Roger Cohen, and Cory Doctorow, who finds fault with the book in a long, thoughtful piece in the Guardian.2 Shirkey has also been a longtime critic of Morozov's skeptical take on social media, with a number of amicable debates3 between them (on Edge.org, in Prospect Magazine, at Brown University [skip the inane intro and go straight to 6:30], and most recently in the comments section of Gigaom).

Though it sounds like most folks agree that the book has its rhetorical flaws, the debate about the issue of whether the Internet will lead to greater freedoms globally and how one should go about not squandering its value has been absolutely fascinating. See for instance Dave Parry's, Milton Mueller's [you may need to manually enter the address as it appears to be restricting follows], and Zeynep Tufekci's nuanced takes on the issue.1

As the NYT published an article last week about social media's role in the recent Middle East protests and after reports have came out about how Facebook was hacked by the Tunisian government, a U.S. security firm's software may have been used to monitor and crack down on dissidents in Egypt, the ease with which Vodafone caved to Mubarak, and how Liberman has once again been pushing for an internet kill switch, Morozov certainly lucked into some timing with the book. Might be worth reading alongside Tim Wu's The Master Switch.

1. See also Ethan Zuckerman, Jillian York, and Nicholas Thompson for more about social media and the Middle East.

2. Though I thought Dctorow's piece was incredibly smart and brings up all sorts of critical discussion points, he's probably going to regret this prognostication:
Meanwhile, the internet has become so integral to the daily functioning of the world's states that it's hard to credit Morozov's fear that in the event of a real revolutionary threat, governments will simply pull the plug.
3. Shirky debting Gladwell on Foreign Affairs.
posted by jng at 2:51 PM on February 8, 2011 [12 favorites]


Subtitles: The Inability of Modern Writers of Non-Fiction to Limit the Length of Their Titles

Reading the 30th anniversary edition of Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" he adds in a note about the title that he wouldn't have been able to publish the book in America today without adding a subtitle, as the publishers view them as a requirement to sell. This implies that the over-abundance of subtitles on non-fiction books is probably not the fault of their authors.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 2:57 PM on February 8, 2011


The Power one already exists.
posted by drezdn at 3:14 PM on February 8, 2011


My favorite is

"Monster Cocks

by the author of The Tipping Point

The Last Book You'd Think I'd Write"
posted by tempythethird at 3:20 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


What is a "shit-eating grin" exactly? I never got that phrase. Does it mean, they're pretending to be happy to eat shit, so it's a fake smile?
posted by jcruelty at 3:25 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'll wait to pass judgment on Gladwell's take on this issue until we start seeing some anthropology/journalism that bothers to quote the actual folks involved in Egypt about exactly how important or unimportant social media sites have been to them during the past few weeks. I kinda wish Gladwell had bothered to, you know, chat with some actual protesting Egyptians before making his pronouncements from on high, but that isn't really his thing, is it? He Observes From Above and Points Out Patterns. That said, here's a much closer-to-the-ground look at the role of Twitter in the Egyptian protests, from someone who was actually there until the end of January:

Written right before I left for the airport:

It's amazing to me that despite the fact that the internet blackout here is near-total, people on the news are still asking if this, too, is a Twitter Revolution ™ , leading me to wonder if there's anything talking heads and e-literati do not think is a Twitter Revolution. In the early stages, sure, lots of people were communicating by facebook, but the major action happened after the internet went out. Much of the protesting was organized the old-fashioned way, by word of mouth, and, once service came back on, by phone. I'm not sure if it's an irony, or a straightforward rebuttal to the people who think that technology is an agent rather than a tool, that Egypt, among the most social media-savvy of Arab countries, finally rose up after the internet went dark.


Yeah, Gladwell's an annoying hack whose shallow driblets of "insight" are perfect for the mass pablum market, but the idea that Western media types might tend to overhype the influence of sites like Twitter because they themselves rely on those sites heavily to keep up with fast-moving situations in non-Western countries makes a lot of sense.
posted by mediareport at 3:51 PM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


My favorite one is "Subtitles". My dad has made a similar joke for years, although his is:

Subtitles: The Inability of Modern Writers of Non-Fiction to Limit the Length of Their Titles


Have you ever checked out the full titles of nonfiction books from the 1700s and 1800s? Here's a typical one:

THE
MARKET ASSISTANT,
CONTAINING A BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF
EVERY ARTICLE OF HUMAN FOOD
SOLD IN THE PUBLIC MARKETS
OF THE CITIES OF
NEW YORK, BOSTON, PHILADELPHIA, AND BROOKLYN;
INCLUDING THE VARIOUS
DOMESTIC AND WILD ANIMALS, POULTRY, GAME,
FISH, VEGETABLES, FRUITS, &c, &c.
WITH
MANY CURIOUS INCIDENTS AND ANECDOTES.

posted by waitingtoderail at 3:52 PM on February 8, 2011 [8 favorites]


iThe first is like samizdat, and Gladwell has a valid point there, that people will find ways to communicate privately with like-minded people.

Like what, sorry?
posted by Samizdata at 5:41 PM on February 8, 2011


That said, if he wrote about my discipline I would probably take out the sharp knives, as many others have done. I do not get the Gladwell bitterness.

Sounds like you get it perfectly. Funnily enough, I'd say the same about Pinker.
posted by Marty Marx at 7:19 PM on February 8, 2011


Clearly, media is very much involved in revolutions. Be it handwritten manifestos passed in coffeehouses or facebook events coordinating protests, communication technologies made revolutionary activity possible. Gladwell's piece amounts to "yeah, but, that's always been the case," which seems to be true, but that hardly means it isn't worth studying. I would hypothesize that for revolutionaries to successfully conspire against the state, they need some means of communicating which is outside the purview of the state. This is probably why the USA's massive surveillance apparatus has grown up alongside the internet.
posted by mek at 7:58 PM on February 8, 2011


At first, I also thought it was weird that this isn't really a generator. I clicked a few times, then thought "Hey wait, I'm not really making anything happen here, I'm just clicking mindlessly." Then I realized it's a perfect metaphor for social media activism!
posted by AlsoMike at 11:25 PM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, Gladwell's an annoying hack whose shallow driblets of "insight" are perfect for the mass pablum market, but the idea that Western media types might tend to overhype the influence of sites like Twitter because they themselves rely on those sites heavily to keep up with fast-moving situations in non-Western countries makes a lot of sense.

Agreed, but it was the crudeness with which he tried to make this point in his anti-Shirkey article that sunk him for me, now forever a hack (him not me. Well probably both of us). Instead of writing a very important "let's stop the hype and look at what's really going on" article, he went all the way to "hey the hype is not merely overblown, it is exactly wrong".

His point WRT social media is that there's nothing there.

There is clearly something there!
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:55 PM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I like Gladwell, but he often uses the 'enough research will support your thesis' approach to writing, and he's a journalist, not an academic.

Here's one example where he was wrong - a relatively fanciful article about 'a machine to predict hit movies'

But in other cases, like this article about criminal profiling by the police he's absolutely brilliant.

He's currently taking a very contrarian view re twitter and new media, and I think that's more useful than if he was just another cheerleader.
posted by DanCall at 1:30 AM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Gladwell vs. Pinker seems like two blind drunks having a boxing match.
posted by kyrademon at 1:31 AM on February 9, 2011


What's incorrect or annoying about that observation?

I can see why people are annoyed. It isn't that he's incorrect. Twitter is just another form of communication, albeit a faster one than Mao whispering to a friend.

But take this: Whoa. Did you see what Mao just tweeted?

What is the fundamental difference between saying this and saying Whoa. Did you hear what Mao just said?

It's almost like he's arguing against his own point. He wants to claim Twitter irrelevant while at the same time stating that communication is essential to uprisings.

in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice.

What is Twitter if it's not just another extension of the human voice? Aside from being unnecessarily defensive (a dead tree writer, wouldn't you know), he is being contradictory, confusing and highly unfocused.

How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.

Maybe to Gladwell it is, but it is part of the history of the movement. And communication, how it's accomplished and used, will always be a part of history. He can brush it aside if he wants to but nothing happens in a vacuum, like he seems to be implying the revolution in East Germany did (no phones!! gasp!), as if that uprising, that frickin' carnival of revolution was something that just spontaneously happened one day. Fat fracking chance. This kind of empty analysis is what annoys people about Gladwell, and frankly, I wish he'd just go away. Everything he writes sucks.
posted by IvoShandor at 1:54 AM on February 9, 2011


I find it interesting, by the way, that the Gladwell/Pinker contretemps mentioned a few times in this thread inadvertantly proves Gladwell's point. Both of them demonstrate that they are kind of idiots, thereby showing that talent really *doesn't* have all that much to do with success.
posted by kyrademon at 5:33 AM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


he's a journalist

No, he's not. A journalist would talk to people in Egypt before making grand pronouncements about the importance of Twitter to this particular revolution.
posted by mediareport at 6:13 AM on February 9, 2011


Damn, I checked in here hoping to see snark about the next Gladwell book, Generate.
posted by chavenet at 6:55 AM on February 9, 2011


with how many people in Egypt would a journalist need to speak before confirming that Twitter didn't just facilitate how some of the many, many young unemployed college graduates involved in the recent protests coordinated their actions but actually inspired them to take part where they had not previously felt the urge nor communicated the need otherwise? (i apologize for the convoluted framing. )

snofoam nailed it perfectly above: we know Twitter, we know Facebook, we don't know the myriad of forces and factors that contributed to this event in Egypt. so we'll talk about the former, instead.

and many of us will talk about these events as if they were an answer to an American question, or, at least, a sign that confirms our world view. perhaps it would be wiser to take them as an opportunity to learn more about Egypt and stay interested in what comes next.
posted by noway at 7:07 AM on February 9, 2011


cyber-hedonism

Damn, I gotta get me some of that.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 7:47 AM on February 9, 2011


Reading the 30th anniversary edition of Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" he adds in a note about the title that he wouldn't have been able to publish the book in America today without adding a subtitle, as the publishers view them as a requirement to sell. This implies that the over-abundance of subtitles on non-fiction books is probably not the fault of their authors.

On the other hand, if it had been, "The Selfish Gene: how selfish behavior on the genetic level generates altruism on the organismal level", there wouldn't be millions of people out there who think that he wrote a book promoting social Darwinism.
posted by endless_forms at 10:40 AM on February 9, 2011


From the NYT article today about the rejuvenating effect on the protests of Wael Ghonim's TV appearance:

For the protesters, the publicity was a relief. Some of them have spoken with regret about an early tactical mistake in their uprising: the failure to counter the influential role of state-run television, which depicted their movement as foreign and violent. The channel’s coverage of the protests — which often meant ignoring them — helped President Hosni Mubarak’s government regain its balance.

Realizing the importance of the media war, the protesters have fought back, attracting allies like Ms. Shazly and spreading their message on their own, from locations they try to keep secret. One is an apartment near Tahrir Square where a rotating cast of 20 or so antigovernment activists disseminate the news of their revolt on a Facebook page named after the square.

They include wealthy children of Egypt’s ruling class who have settled for a squat with mattresses on the floor, where they smoke cigarettes and trade stories of the revolution. It is a small but growing effort: sitting around laptops, they chronicle history for slightly more than a thousand fans on their Facebook page.

They said the work was a crucial antidote to the negative press their cause had attracted. “I think people should see with their own eyes what’s happening in Tahrir,” said Hana el-Rakhawi, a 19-year-old high school student. Omar el-Shamy, a 21-year-old media student, added, “The Egyptian TV is just brainwashing everyone into believing what we are doing here is wrong, but I think that’s not working anymore.”

posted by mediareport at 3:29 PM on February 9, 2011


What is a "shit-eating grin" exactly? I never got that phrase.

Imagine a dog exposing its gums as it chew on a turd. The phrase usually implies an inappropriate level of self-satisfaction in the bearer of said grin.
posted by Kinbote at 4:03 PM on February 9, 2011


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