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Malcolm Gladwell Does Egypt

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, February 3 2011

Photo by Tarek/gr33ndata

The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, who set the Internet afire back in October when he argued in favor of the idea that social technologies weren't going to up and spark revolution, is back to comment about what's happening in Egypt. The rebellion happening there is fascinating, writes Gladwell, but:

[S]urely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along.

One really wishes there were more meat on this bone. Surely the world is crying out for some well-done critical analysis on the subject. But, frankly, the premise doesn't make a tremendous amount of sense. Of course, people have long been oppressed, frustrated by dysfunctional governments. People have long rebelled. But hasn't the Internet managed to shape other fields of human endeavor that somehow existed before it came along in the late 20th century? People consumed the news of the day before social media. That doesn't mean that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube haven't changed how people learn about and discuss the world. People somehow dated before the Internet. But that doesn't mean that Match.com, JDate, and OkCupid haven't influenced what it means to meet, hook-up, and maybe marry in 2011. People somehow made social plans before cell phones. But that doesn't mean that pocket mobile technologies haven't changed what it looks like when we try to round up a group of friends on a Friday night.

Or a more political question: Could Barack Obama have become President of the United States before the Internet? Before he had the ability to cheaply and somewhat easily organize millions of people (and inspire some of them to self-organize), not to mention raise many millions of dollars, using the world wide web? Dunno. Tough to say. But the answer either way doesn't mean that the Internet didn't shape that campaign or the arc of his life.

A last point: "revolution" isn't a pre-packaged consumer product. It's full of human nuance, complications, hinge points. When it comes to Egypt, we don't really yet know whether new leaders might emerge because of Facebook, or whether the protesters' sticking power is affected by what they're hearing on the Internet, or whether the tremendous global clamor that greeted Mubarak's cutting of the Internet shaped the reactions of world leaders like Obama or Hillary Clinton or David Cameron, and thus, possibly, Mubarak's own further actions. That seems plenty interesting enough to want to pay attention to.

For more on this, the Nation's Ari Melber dives into Gladwell's take in more detail.

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