Stanford Business School Professor Steps into the Malcolm Gladwell Anecdote Box, Gets Assigned Bad Opinions

Sept. 28, 2010, 2:39 p.m.

Stop the presses! Malcolm Gladwell just wrote something counterintuitive. Or is it? In this latest debunking in the October 4 issue of The New Yorker, Gladwell gets into why social media (Twitter, Facebook) are terrible for social activism. The three main reasons:

  1. These people on Twitter and Facebook aren’t dependable friends; at least not nearly as dependable as connections made in face-to-face interaction, and certainly not as vulnerable to peer pressure
  2. The anti-hierarchical nature of social media makes it hard to organize online
  3. The types of activism social networks are best at producing: getting lost cell phones, and finding a bone marrow donor are nice, but not actual revolutionary activism along the lines of the Greensboro Boys’ sit-in in 1960.

All true! And there are all kinds of the epic idea battles that Gladwell has made his name on: Networks v. Hierarchies! Strong Ties v. Weak Ties! Motivation v. Participation! If this sort of thing grabs you, do click through to the article—it’s a fun read, and has a nice and grouchy conclusion that really sticks it to those people who believe Twitter and Facebook are going to be pivotal in any revolutions. And good news, Stanford’s own Evgeny Morozov and Doug McAdam get shout outs for their research.

The news is less good for Stanford Business School professor Jennifer Aaker who along with her co-author Andy Smith is the victim of some rather vicious innuendo at Gladwell’s hands.

From Gladwell:

In a new book called “The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change,” the business consultant Andy Smith and the Stanford Business School professor Jennifer Aaker tell the story of Sameer Bhatia, a young Silicon Valley entrepreneur who came down with acute myelogenous leukemia. It’s a perfect illustration of social media’s strengths. Bhatia needed a bone-marrow transplant, but he could not find a match among his relatives and friends. The odds were best with a donor of his ethnicity, and there were few South Asians in the national bone-marrow database. So Bhatia’s business partner sent out an e-mail explaining Bhatia’s plight to more than four hundred of their acquaintances, who forwarded the e-mail to their personal contacts; Facebook pages and YouTube videos were devoted to the Help Sameer campaign. Eventually, nearly twenty-five thousand new people were registered in the bone-marrow database, and Bhatia found a match.

But how did the campaign get so many people to sign up? By not asking too much of them. That’s the only way you can get someone you don’t really know to do something on your behalf. You can get thousands of people to sign up for a donor registry, because doing so is pretty easy. You have to send in a cheek swab and—in the highly unlikely event that your bone marrow is a good match for someone in need—spend a few hours at the hospital. Donating bone marrow isn’t a trivial matter. But it doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.

The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.

Setting aside that the idea that social networks can increase participation and motivation is dismissed out of hand, Gladwell ascribes “The evangelists of social media,” a whole bunch of beliefs that don’t really apply to anyone, least of all Aaker and Smith. Here’s an excerpt from their book, The Dragonfly Effect, which tells the story of two Swedish investigators investigating a gruesome series decades-old murders as mysterious forces conspire against them published in Fast Company on September 21:

There’s another dark side to social technology: the appearance of activism where in fact there is inaction. Using social media to make someone aware of a cause is half the battle; getting him or her to take real action is the ultimate goal. And though the Internet has the capacity to engage a worldwide audience in social good, it also can breed apathy. Facebook groups like Save Darfur or Campaign for Cancer Awareness can amass hundreds of thousands of members, yet there are times when members of these groups, including the organizers themselves, fail to contribute in real ways to the cause. Membership in an online group does not equal true commitment; it might even make people less likely to take action, because they feel that their online group membership lets them off the hook. In one study, researchers showed that when people talk about their intentions, they can be less likely to act on them because the talking gives them a “premature sense of completeness.”

Listen here, Aaker and Smith: when Malcolm Gladwell turns your years worth of research and writing into a pithy anecdote so that you can be his ideological foil even though you agree with his premise, you may be presented as if you believe ridiculous things, among them that bone marrow donation and taking on centuries of institutionalized, government-backed racism are the same, and that Facebook friends are as good as real friends.

Tough break. Hopefully the thousands upon thousands of extra book sales that result from getting your book mentioned in a Malcolm Gladwell article will ease the pain.

If you read the Gladwell article and are interested in more, Tyler Cowen and The Economist have worthwhile critiques.

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