The Complexity and Peril of Either/Or Thinking in Systems and Social Media

Malcolm Gladwell recently authored an article for the New Yorker that has been widely circulated and debated within the social media world. The piece, entitled Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted, takes the stance that Twitter and other social media tools are not much better at facilitating social change than the coffee houses were before.

The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns.

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If you read Mashable, TechCrunch, Wired, GigaOm or any of the other major social media sites as I do, it becomes easy to get wrapped up in each device announcement with the idea that the world had indeed changed. The term “game changer” is used both as hyperbole, but also because many in the tech world really do believe that their game is changing with these new tools and technologies. Listening to podcasts like Search Engine or Spark, it’s easy to get seduced into the idea that everyone is using new media and cares when something new comes out.

I know people who are genuinely shocked to find out that certain folk don’t know the model number of their Blackberry, or give a hoot whether there is a new tablet computer. They aren’t in line for an iPad and can’t even imagine why one would do such a thing in the first place.

The problem with “everyone” is that they don’t exist. Outside of breathing oxygen, consuming nutrients and water, and life-sustaining bodily functions, there is pretty much nothing that “everyone” does. Indeed, there are actually few things that “most” of us do. But yet, this doesn’t prevent people from trying to proscribe things that are good for all of “us” or trying to show how terrible other things are for that same group of “us”

Gladwell’s essay is just another volley in a ping-pong match between the techno-utopians and the techno-skeptics, the true-believers and naysayers, the Jets and the Sharks and so on. It is so easy of a target to focus on the bad and the good and lump things into Black or White.

Grey is a much more difficult: it is not a solid colour.

We inhabit a world of greys. To defend Gladwell, he is right on many points. Twitter may have added a lot of context to the uprising in Iran, or the Moldovian revolution, but to hear those on the tech side speak, you would have thought that such events could not have happened without them. Look closely at the numbers and you’ll see that to be folly. However, what I would argue is that these tools made these two events much more visible to the world outside of those countries. If you were out of the loop on politics, but active on Twitter, the tweets from those countries could have awakened you to an entire social world — literally — out there that you were not aware of. That is where social media comes in.

Either / Or thinking makes for great copy in the news media business, not for policy and programming. For organizations working to reach their audiences, for health professionals looking to advance knowledge translation, and for people wanting to learn, eschewing social media because it’s no better than anything else before it is silly, just as foolish as embracing it to the point of believing that it can transform the world without paying attention to the social context in which those tools exist.

Social media is a “complexifier” of sorts. It adds more variation into a system, promotes networking among divergent perspectives (although not nearly as much as many techno-utopians would suggest according to research (see example)), and is dynamic and flexible. Social media permits voices to be heard in ways that could not be done before to the same extent, by offering multiple media channels. It is also global and mobile, but at the same time it only serves to connect those who are interested in using it, have the technological means (devices, networks, skills, resources), and are in a position where they can actually use it.

So as Canadians sit down for our Thanksgiving dinner today, consider how useful that Tweeting the play-by-play is when you’re trying to eat your turkey, stuffing or whatever you might be fortunate to have served. Perhaps talking to your table mates face-to-face might be more effective and leaving the tweets for later. In doing so, you’ll see how some conversations work at a distance, some work face-to-face and some will occur with people who have no idea that you can do both.

Happy Thanksgiving!

1 thought on “The Complexity and Peril of Either/Or Thinking in Systems and Social Media”

  1. Nice, succinct piece, Cameron. Sometimes the desire to make everything simple just plain fails. Because it’s not.

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