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What Malcolm Gladwell said

"Social media is not a tool of radical and transformative change. It's an instrument of the status quo. What do I mean about that? I thought I would take the long way around and explain what I mean by talking about Fidel Castro."  Thus began Malcolm Gladwell's talk at the F5-Expo last week at Canada Place, a talk that detailed how small groups of committed friends can change the world. In fact, Gladwell postulated, just as the anthropologist Margaret Mead did years ago, that small groups of deeply related people are the only thing that ever has changed the world, and, Gladwell said, the only thing that ever will.

Gladwell's talk aimed to shoot down the idea that social media in and of itself is transformative or revolutionary.  In true Gladwellian style, the New Yorker writer and author of four bestselling books, took a simple idea and illuminated it with extensive research.  In this case, his research detailed how revolutions have unfolded historically, starting with the one launched by Fidel Castro in Cuba with only 300 highly committed people, Gladwell said. 

Each time a revolution takes place, whether it was the French Revolution or the fall of the Berlin Wall or Obama's victory in 2008, Gladwell said, "there is always an argument that says that behind that social transformation is some new technological change that without which it...has been impossible to more cheaply...organize people into some kind of subversive mass movement.  In the French Revolution there was the argument made that this was a revolution born of the very recent revolutions in the printing press...it was those pamphlets that spread the message that fueled the revolution."

"The telegraph allowed far flung movements to communicate.  I could keep going. You've got Vietnam..the living room war....television is unwittingly  used to bring that war home to the American people and to sap their moral and their ability to fight."

He cited the Iranian Revolution of 1979 "...made possible by the audio cassette. People were able to tape Khomeini 's speeches."

Inevitably, he turned to Al Qaeda saying, "think how brilliantly the leaders of Al Qaeda have used the internet to build that revolution over the last ten years."

In all of these cases from the French Revolution to Obama's victory "the argument goes that revolution had its roots in the transformative communication technologies of the time. We have celebrated these technological changes with a kind of triumphalism that says at the root of any successful revolution is technology. What I think is that that view, that notion that technology is always at the core of social transformations is hopelessly and completely naive."

Gladwell said that the internet was good at fostering "weak connections".  By that he meant acquaintances.  This might get you a job, or a date, but it wasn't going to change the world, he said. 

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