Social media critics keep getting it wrong

Maybe social media can't save the world, but it certainly can unite it

Maria Popova had a great piece in Design Observer yesterday explaining why Malcolm Gladwell was wrong in his recent New Yorker article.  Maria argues that Gladwell uses a narrow definition of activism (the 1960’s lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina) and instead suggests a broader one.

“Activism is any action or set of actions, be it organized, grassroots or self-initiated, that aims to resolve a problem that diminishes the quality of life of individuals, communities or society.”

Her post initiated a quick Twitter exchange about the potential of social media.  I lamented that most critics tend to compare social media to what came before (advertising, journalism, activism, strong tie movements) rather than what it might enable in years to come. Marketers criticize its measurability. Journalists question the accuracy and quality of consumer journalism. Gladwell denies the commitment of social media slacktivists, people who’ll support a cause as long as they don’t have to do too much more than share a link.

Maria’s last note to me summed it all up perfectly.  As far as all this new stuff goes,

“We can’t even IMAGINE the full possibilities today and we can’t judge what we can’t imagine.”

We can, however, begin to imagine, as we’ve seen early signs of what is possible.  Zeus Jones, a small digital agency in Minneapolis, showed us in 2009 that social media has the potential to eliminate waste and increase community efficiency by fostering city-wide sharing.  While this specific model hasn’t been implemented, versions of it have started to take shape. Pickup Pal, the eco-ridesharing platform, now has 150,000 members.

In the last couple of years another social media inspired community called Twestival both elevated awareness for worldwide shortages of potable water and attracted over $250,000 in donations to Charity Water.

On other fronts, individuals like Erik Proulx, with his Lemonade films, has connected hundreds of out of work people to each other and inspired thousands more to re-invent themselves. Sheena Matheiken and her Uniform Project raised $100,000 to send children to school in India and turned the experiment into a new social business model. And a 17-year-old New Jersey student used Facebook to quickly moblize thousands of high schoolers to march in protest of state wide tax cuts. Not quite the Civil Rights movement, but activism nonetheless.

These examples don’t even take into consideration the possibilities inherent in crowdsourcing, a tactic that can both identify a solution and enable each of us as individuals to contribute to something greater.  If you aren’t familiar with Open Ideo, take a look. Its purpose is simple and eminently possible: get a broader group of people to solve some of the world’s most difficult challenges. It may not mobilize a large group of people to collectively revolt against anything, but one of its recent initiatives might save the lives of a few thousand kids by getting them to eat better and avoid diabetes.

But I believe we’re still thinking small. At a recent TEDx conference at which I spoke I met Carl Hobert, the founder and executive director of Axis of Hope, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing in adolescents and understanding of alternative, non-violent approaches to conflict resolution, locally, nationally and internationally.

Today Axis of Hope teaches conflict prevention through interactive workshops.  It introduces students to the study of international conflict and cultural differences. But Carl and I spoke briefly about how social media could connect school kids across countries, perhaps even countries at odds with one another. Via Skype and Facebook it could allow them to share fears, wishes, anxieties, dreams and daily struggles. It could foster a deeper understanding. Create enduring friendships.  All with the purpose of letting young people understand each other before someone else teaches them hatred and distrust.

Then perhaps someday, when they sit across from each other at a conference on global warming, or a summit on human rights, or at United Nations meeting, they’d find common ground and actually work together for the greater good. That’s right, social media could do that.  If we harness it properly.

OK, I’m dreaming.  But hey, we finally have the tools. Let’s stop criticizing them for what they can’t do and think about what we can do with them.

Your thoughts?

photo from: Axis of Hope


Activism is now redefined. The fluidity of our ability to assist and change the world is the social achievement -- even if it is just a SMS text of support. The point is the expansion of social responsibility, the growing belief that we all must stand up and take ownership. Our cultures are more connected through the new activism and better for it. Change is happening. The examples you gave are good, Edward, because they prove context. Relevance always moves the needle faster. Mini-activism is the new power push.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

I think you mis-understand the critics Edward. I wrote a pretty scathing comment on that blog post. Most of the people you call critics are supreme Social Media Champions and dedicated users. We just want reality. And when you have the Mashable's and the Facebook's promoting exaggerations and falsehoods, folks like me get testy when it comes to the hype. We just want reality. Much of Malcom's article was very accurate. If you want to use Haiti as an example, the Red Cross did a huge money raising effort via Social Media and Mobile. But giving $10 via SMS is not activism. That is fund raising.

I feel she tried to nuclear bomb Malcom's views vs taking a more tactful approach. And folks like myself who agreed 'mostly' with what Malcom had to say of course reacted to the nuclear bomb. Bob Hoffman once wrote that we have a very myopic view on things based on ourselves. And obviously Maria has built her young career to date via Social and views everything through that looking glass.

I also agree with the weak bonds. Most of the people in my network are weak bonds. Not to say I can't grow strong bonds, because I have a few growing that would never of happened (nor met the people) without social media. And not to say a large network of weak bonds isn't very beneficial, because it is.

I have found the most amazing thought leaders and networked for my business via Twitter. Something that might never of happened before. That includes getting to connect with you Edward. I also feel Social has many successes I have personally experienced and are not to be slighted or laughed at.

I like Maria. She is sharp. But the reality is the two examples she used (Columbia, and I forget which Eastern European Country) have very low computer access/social network numbers. So while maybe the leaders connected via Social, there is no logical way the masses did. So its the framework and honesty that gets people in a huff. Remember a lot of people's careers now are riding on the glamorization of social beyond what it currently is today. Time will tell but we can't fly until we run, we can't run until we walk, and we are just learning to walk today in my opinion.


When I saw Gladwell's name on the new New Yorker, I snapped up a copy. Right or wrong, he is always interesting. For what it's worth, I found his article very compelling. Is social media as lame as he proposes? Of course not. But I think his bigger point was that big changes will come from people whoa re willing to take a pretty big risk and social media hardly requires much in the way of risk. Sure, in a place like Iran it does, but not here. I don't know, I have to think about this more, but in my gut i think Gladwell had a point. Off to read the article again...


I've been absent from your blog for the past few months to my own detriment, Edward. It's interesting - as a Gen Y marketer, I've gone from riding the coattails of social media to the top of my agency (I was the only guy that took the time to learn it), to becoming an outspoken critic of the sub-culture. Reason being, I've observed hoards of platform-obsessed "social media consultants" who consider the content secondary to the platform and its capabilities. As a content developer and a strong believer in the power of great content and ideas (no matter the platform), I cooled on the social media culture and even began to resist it.
Thanks for reminding me how blessed we are to be in this business right now. Who can really argue the point that we're doing a poor job as activists, marketers, whatever, if we're ignoring the tools at our disposal? We have more tools than our toolbelts can possibly hold, so we (critics) tend to start taking them out until we're comfortable again. Here's to doing my part to create a NEW subculture in my city that views social media and tech innovation as opportunity to mobilize and share great content; not as a movement to displace creativity. Thanks for the reminder.


Hey Ed, I agree with you, social media has a lot of potential to change our future in many good ways. Just looking back at what it has recently done is amazing.I'm looking forward to seeing how social media will improve in the future. It should be a fun ride. Thanks for the article.