Malcolm Gladwell’s ideas and philosophy in The Tipping Point, as they apply to Occupy Wall Street Movement

It is instructive to learn what Gladwell thought of online social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, etc.  The Tipping Point was written before OWS, and it fails to foresee the potential for online social media to spur a mass movement.  Writing for The New Yorker magazine in 2010 he contrasts

“today’s online activists with the young civil rights leaders who launched lunch counter sit-ins in the South in the early 1960s. What social media are not good at is providing the discipline, strategy, hierarchy, and strong social bonds that successful movements require. Such connections are what gave the four student leaders in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 the courage to defy racial subordination, despite the likelihood of violence. The instigators were two pairs of college roommates. They all lived in the same dorm, and three of them had gone to high school together.”  (Gladwell, as quoted by Bush, 2013, p.38)

Considering what we now know after the fact, Gladwell had underestimated the power of social media. The Occupy Wall Street movement transpired despite the fact that there are several weaknesses to online social networks.  The numerous ‘friends’ we have on Facebook and Twitter are thought of as ‘weak ties’ by sociologists. Though they expose us to a broad range of new ideas and information, our associations with them are not strong.  Some even contended that “the value of social media to the cause of democracy should be measured over the course of ‘years and decades, not weeks and months’. Yet the OWS proved all these presumptions incorrect.  What the OWS has shown is that online activists, with the help of new technology, were even capable of toppling authoritarian regimes.  The Arab Spring (although it has petered out now) that closely followed OWS is a case in point. Nowhere in The Tipping Point do we see Gladwell predicting such possibilities let alone recognizing the power of social media for creating large movements.  Over time, social media may acquire more capability to enhance civil society and hand over power to the people.  In this context it is pertinent to ask what does social media offer that conventional communication modes do not. In response, we can find a set of mass movements in recent years that were built on the back of new digital technology.  For example,

“The protesters who brought down Philippine president Joseph Estrada in 2001 spread word of their street demonstrations via text message. Social media are not magical. Insurgents may not always prevail (as in Iran in 2009). But on balance, social media will bring “a net improvement for democracy,” much as the printing press did.” (“Tweeting toward Freedom? A,” 2011)

His famous quote “The revolution will not be tweeted” has continued to haunt him since the event. In the Tipping Point he argued that “social media tools fail to promote the type of strong interpersonal ties necessary for successful social movement organizing… waves of e-petitions and online public comments will swamp federal agencies in low quality, redundant, and generally insubstantial commenting by the public, drowning out more substantive citizen participation.” (Karpf, 2012, p. 8) In the absence of stronger and real democratic participation, the author reckoned, token digital activism was dismissed as ‘slacktivism’ or ‘clicktivism’. He reasoned that when all that clicking produces no change, citizens will turn bitter or tune out. For example, “high-risk social movement tactics, by contrast, are based on strong ties. Ergo, he suggests, online communications tools are of relatively little use to social movements and political activism. They leverage the wrong type of social ties.” (Karpf, 2012, p. 118)

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