Gladwell, social flows and what we don’t know

Lindsay asked for thoughts a few days ago on Gladwell’s new piece. Then a friend studying Gladwell texted to make plans for tonight. In reply and prep, and skipping the philanthropic field’s obviously correct arguments about various engagement levels, let’s look at Gladwell’s core mistake…

I agree with those who say Gladwell’s comparisons are off-base. In the Bowling Alone era, the social nets maintain weak ties that would otherwise be lost. Then they’re there when strong-tie situations come along. Consider the college kids planning the sit-in late at night in their dorm. They now wouldn’t have the shared time or shared life channels to develop that closeness. The social nets compensate for that shift.

Would the social nets alone create the sit-in movement? Heck no. But, again, weak ties keep us close for when we need to get strong. When someone leads a march or makes a greater cultural move, awareness is in place. The strong-tie work then feeds back into the weak-tie info exchange. There’s an information diversity at work. As complicated as the 21st century is, lone acts are rarely enough. A social effort needs to match the complexity of the society and its workings that maintain the opposition or ignorance that make the social effort necessary.

The problem: This complexity doesn’t make it easy to explain causes, roots, influences, and reactions. The stories from Shirky and others are indeed weak. Gladwell sees that, but he doesn’t realize this makes his attacks weak too. Shirky assumes the impact of what we can’t track is everything. Gladwell assumes the impact of the untrackable is nothing.

In the scope of potential calculations, it’s relatives easy to count bus boycott ride-shares, how many people drove and who called whom to arrange what. It isn’t easy to calculate why, when watching the Daily Show, we understand a joke we’ve never read an entire story about. And I think the examples get much bigger. Consider the Tea Party. No matter how well its formal candidates do in November, beliefs tied to the party have essentially shaped the campaign-year conversation.

I think Gladwell loses his thin-slicing potential in this debate because he has minimal material. There aren’t valuable statistics available. The thinnest of slices aren’t nearly thin enough. Without tactile, observable bases, there are no frameworks that can be applied, and there are no stories that can be truly captured. This is hell for a storyteller. Gladwell realizes such shortcomings in his opponents, with their linking directed but often abstract pervasiveness to real-world results. But assuming directed pervasiveness has no real effects is an even greater leap.

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