What Happens When Malcolm Gladwell And Clay Shirky Can't Agree On Social Media?

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Two of the smartest thinkers when it comes to media and business are Malcolm Gladwell and Clay Shirky.

Gladwell is the best-selling business book author of, Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers and What The Dog Saw and Shirky penned the "must-own" book, Here Comes Everybody along with being both a world-class media academic, speaker and pundit. Both have some of the most progressive business perspectives that have been put forth in the past decade, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that those perspective are not always on the same page.

Watch this..

The TED conference held a TED@State event in Washington, DC last June at the U.S. State Department. This is Shirky’s 15 minute presentation (and it a "must-see"): TED Talks- Clay Shirky: How social media can make history.

But this might not be the Tipping Point for Social Media…

On Sunday, April 4th, 2010 the Globe & Mail published an interview with Malcolm Gladwell titled, Malcolm Gladwell: The quiet Canadian. Gladwell isn’t big into Social Media as this article points out: "His blog posts are biannual, his Facebook page is a placeholder and he has never ventured on to Twitter."

So, what gives? What’s Malcolm Gladwell’s gripe with Social Media?

"There’s only so much you can do in a day. And I don’t feel I lack for platforms for expressing myself. I have books, I write for the New Yorker. If I gave people any more, they’d get sick of me. I have a Blackberry, like any good Canadian. I’m from Waterloo – how can I not have a Blackberry? I’ll leave it in my bag for a while or I leave the office and go and work in a café. I’m right now working on something and I printed it off so I can work away from a computer for a while. There are just all kinds of little techniques one uses to restore alone time."

Fair enough, it’s not relevant to Gladwell because he already has many popular publishing platforms to spread his ideas, but does Social Media work for others? Can Social Media help bring ideas to a tipping point?

"Do ideas spread through social media? I don’t think they are vehicles. People aren’t spreading ideas on Twitter, they’re spreading observations, perhaps. The point of Tipping Point is that I was very interested in face-to-face interpersonal reactions. If social media or online communication is the means to the creation of a personal connection, it’s a fabulous thing. But if it’s an excuse to not make a connection, it’s ultimately a trivial thing."

…And they’re both right.


  1. Gladwell is successful without socmed, not because of it. He’ll continue to be a best selling author, a revered columnist and sought after public speaker whether he tweets or not.
    He’s already a guru sitting in a mountaintop cave and no amount of tweeting can make his position more lucrative or successful.
    He’s the anti-Godin. Seth is in a similar spot, but still finds time to crank out 80 words of wisdom each day. And that’s okay.
    For those just starting to climb the mountain, social media is an efficient way to cheaply spread the message and build a tribe. Gladwell doesn’t need that. His tribe is already built.
    Social media is important, but it’s not vital. Especially for those who are already vitally important.

  2. I don’t see a dichotomy… Also the questions in the Gladwell interview weren’t too nuanced.
    I feel some confusion here: we talk of social media as a single concept and as examples we give Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Social media is not about media nor about social.
    Expressing everything today in old patterns will only hijack the future. The first worry of printing press publishers was that people could not read. Telling them that books are the future of fresco painting wouldn’t have been a very engaging argument.
    So presenting social media, and I caricaturize a bit, as newspapers where random people are journalists who organize themselves around causes and ideas is just meaningless baby boomer slang.
    We all know that the current goal of those funding social media platforms is to find ways of making money on the feeble minded who surf on trends. Providing value and spreading ideas are just a couple of fortunate side-effects.
    I personally prefer those who focus on technological and scientific literacy, on paradigm shifts and on creating a discourse free of old and restraining analogies.
    Thanks Mitch.

  3. It depends who you are, what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Steve Jobs, successful, doesn’t use social media himself, other people do it for him. His power is his real live personality.

  4. I agree with buzz, except I see something interesting happening in fashion media. If you say the big magazines, Vogue etc are the gurus on the mountain top, you’re right they’re barely twittering, blogging. But Vogue et al are starting to lose out to upstarts who DO blog well and twitter, like Susie Bubble, bryanboy. Bryanboy’s getting the front row seats at fashion parades that used to be reserved for Vogue et al. (Vogue’s just an example, I mean the entrenched, respected old media)
    Be interesting to see the upstart Malcolm Gladwell. The upstart but purely soc med based pundit, who never bothers with newspaper columns, or books. I’m sure s/he is starting out around about now…

  5. I think because Gladwell has so many available channels of communication at his ready he personally does not have a need for a twitter account. This is a rational claim by Gladwell. However, I totally disagree with taking social media as just another innovation. Gladwell responded in his interview that “People aren’t spreading ideas on Twitter, they’re spreading observations, perhaps.” …yet I would argue that observations drive ideas.
    Essentially I side with Shirk to some extent; online communication is growing at an exponential rate and allowing individuals to collude much easier. This will lead to further collusion which will inevitably lead to big ideas. I am making this premise on the same notion that when you combine computers you get a larger, more pwerful computer. When you combine the people behind those computers in a quicker, more organized fashion, innovations are bound to happen.

  6. Face-to-face interpersonal Gladwell prefers. I can’t help harping on the damage we do when we confuse Internet DISCOURCE with personal DIALOGUE. Starky refers to Obama’s campaign and the (non-contolling) convening of a community. The ‘conversation’ veined the many-to-the – many. Yet obama’s campaign manager told the Convegence 2009 Vancouver audience they had targetted the traditional non-voters and swing ridings. They wanted to manage issues by quickly getting their spin to the community so they could ‘go next door’ and have a conversation about why Obama was not a terrorist sympathizer, or whatever other smear was circulating. Discource to guide in-person dialogue. Ultimately, the audience was told repeatedly, this was first and foremost a grassroots campaign and social media were simply one of many strategies.
    I think Gladwell was merely trying to put SM in context. Yes, written and media rich discourse have proliferated exponentially. And this type of communication is becoming ubiquitous. Yet are worldviews changed while sitting in front of a monitor/ screen? For Mitch’s paraidigm shift

  7. I think this is key too. When you have as many platforms to spread your ideas as Gladwell has (and has had for a long time), the Social Media channels are simply not as appealing. Flip that concept and think about a journalist just starting out. A Blog or Twitter platform can literally help shape a career.

  8. I recently listened to Malcolm Gladwell speak at the F5 conference in Vancouver. He spoke on the importance of “strong ties” over “weak ties” throughout history and how social media usually only provides for “weak ties”.
    Of course, if your “selling pop” than who cares if all you build are “weak ties”, but that is not what he was speaking about … some of us aren’t trying to change the world Malcolm 😉
    I kind of got the feeling from his talk in Vancouver that Malcolm Gladwell is still churning in that very, very smart brain of his what his thoughts are on social media. I don’t think he has made his mind up either way yet. He’s got this thing of “strong ties” and “weak ties” that he is mulling around, but nothing is solidifed yet.
    When he finally does have a bigger speach that he wants to give on social media, I’ll be dying to hear what he has to say. For now, I think his Vancouver speach was a testing ground for ideas he is still kicking about.

  9. Well, this could get interesting. You should check out the book, Connected, which discusses the power of our Social Networks (not just the online ones) and the science behind them. It turns out that our “weak” ties tend to have the most impact on our lives than we suspected. Maybe Gladwell is looking at something that others haven’t seen/thought of yet? He does tend to do that very well.

  10. Gladwell doesn’t need to spread his ideas through social media: he’s got us to do it for him! But he is consciously giving up the opportunity to get to know us, his readers.

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