Malcolm Gladwell has attempted to create a unique style of scholarship that navigates between science and popular culture. As a result he has earned the wrath from both quarters. For example, scientists accuse him for being simplistic or lacking in rigor. On the other side, commentators from mainstream media accuse him of bringing esoteric scientific concepts to popular discourse. Yet, his book The Tipping Point has sold more than a 3 million copies. His other titles such as Blink (2005), Outliers (2008), David and Goliath (2013), etc, continue to fascinate and provoke in equal measure. Despite the controversies surrounding some of Gladwell’s inferences, his ideas and philosophies have become assimilated into popular discourse. It is an interesting exercise to study how the most important social movement of recent times – Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) – measures up in relation to the author’s theories. This essay endeavors to perform the same.
The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement witnessed in recent years is one of the most significant socio-political events to have taken place in the history of the United States of America. Measuring merely by the weight of popular support and enthusiastic participation evinced by the movement, it could be equated with the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s respectively. But nothing in popular culture currents of recent years would have led to an anticipation of this sudden collective uprising by a majority of American citizens. The protests and public discussions were centered on the flawed policy priorities of the body politic. It also addressed the greed-based actions of Corporate America which put profits ahead of social responsibility. The movement had sprung from the failures of the political and business establishments which have hurt a vast majority of ordinary Americans – the other 99%, as the slogan proclaims.
One of the famous assertions in The Tipping Point is that “ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do”. Gladwell equates the birth and progress of social movements to that of epidemics. One of the features of this process is the ‘law of the few’, whereby 80% of the work is done by 20% of the participants. Gladwell deems it necessary to have charismatic leadership for the sustenance of mass movements. He posits that these leaders with “a particular and rare set of social gifts” will take up responsibility for 80% of the work. (Bush, 2013, p.38) According to Gladwell these leaders could be of three types – connectors, mavens or salesmen. But when we study the birth and spread of OWS, it is difficult to identify who the leaders are. In many ways, the OWS does not fit the description of epidemics that Gladwell posits. In fact, the OWS may not even have a ‘tipping point’, whereby a gathering stream broke into a forceful torrent. It is a movement characterized by steady sharing of information and gradual increase in collective organization. The OWS is also remarkable for its lack of central leadership. It is just through word of mouth publicity and a shared sense of social solidarity that the mass movement materialized. Eschewing the theories of epidemics formulated by Gladwell, one could even argue that the OWS was nothing short of a nation getting in touch with its revolutionary spirit. After all, the short history of the country, starting with its fight for independence, is studded with movements of public collective action that have induced progressive changes in the political, legal and cultural domains. (Farhat-Holzman, 2011) The OWS movement is the most recent in that noble tradition of civil disobedience and collective public action that the country is so proud of.
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)