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The Debate: Does Social Media Make Protests Possible?

Do the tools of social media make it possible for protesters to challenge their governments? Malcolm Gladwell argues that there is no evidence that they do; Clay Shirky disagrees.

Gladwell:

The lesson here is that just because innovations in communications technology happen does not mean that they matter; or, to put it another way, in order for an innovation to make a real difference, it has to solve a problem that was actually a problem in the first place. This is the question that I kept wondering about throughout Shirky’s essay-and that had motivated my New Yorker article on social media, to which Shirky refers: What evidence is there that social revolutions in the pre-Internet era suffered from a lack of cutting-edge communications and organizational tools? In other words, did social media solve a problem that actually needed solving? Shirky does a good job of showing how some recent protests have used the tools of social media. But for his argument to be anything close to persuasive, he has to convince readers that in the absence of social media, those uprisings would not have been possible.

Shirky:

The competitive landscape gets altered because the Internet allows insurgents to play by different rules than incumbents. (Curiously, the importance of this difference is best explained by Gladwell himself, in his 2009 New Yorker essay “How David Beats Goliath.”)…So I would break Gladwell’s question of whether social media solved a problem that actually needed solving into two parts: Do social media allow insurgents to adopt new strategies? And have those strategies ever been crucial? Here, the historical record of the last decade is unambiguous: yes, and yes.

Read the Short Article at Foreign Affairs.

Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference, Blink, Outliers and most recently, What the Dog Saw.