Friday, November 12, 2010

A whisper to a scream.


Last month’s dustup between Malcolm Gladwell and everybody on the internet is over and mostly forgotten. The chalk lines on the pavement are almost washed away, the police tape is fluttering in the wind, and the pundits have moved on to the next streetfight. For those who missed it, here’s the digest version: Malcolm, waving his erudition around like a rapier, asserts that social media cannot be instrumental in social change. The internet gang, ably represented by the likes of Mathew Ingram and brandishing its recent history like so many broken beer bottles and switchblades, parries back that this is not so. Even Biz Stone is moved to hold forth. But détente eludes them all. Nobody is persuaded. Everybody moves on.

The debate kind of got under my skin, though. And not just because it ended at the kind of binary side-choosing that ruins so much political discourse these days. It also seemed to me that not chasing the debate to a conclusion caused a lot of people – Mr. Gladwell most especially – to miss the real point of what social media are doing to that discourse, and to all discourse. Maybe with politics it’s just too hard to see any truth in the middle, but I can assure you that in marketplaces it isn’t, and maybe that can teach us something.

Once upon a time, marketplaces really did seem to be binary systems. People bought products or they didn’t. This made marketing and consuming alike into a sort of gambling, with brands being the only way to really mitigate risk and blind experimentation the only way to figure out what people wanted. This, I think, is what the social web has really changed. Now, we can see spectrum. We can see shades of sentiment, and degrees of engagement and commitment. By lowering the barriers to self-expression, we can see revolutions at their nascent moments. We can see the size of the formerly silent majority, whether it’s on its way to activism or not, and how soon it will matriculate. Whether the vocal few are the tip of some kind of iceberg, or merely outliers. We can see the state of the world drawn in infinite detail in what was once the space between the empty threat of a focus group and the hard reality of a ringing cash register. Or, if you like, between the empty threat of polling data and the hard reality of tear gas. The world has always been a dangerous place when only radicals get to talk. Sentiment – whether in marketplaces or among electorates – is more like the weather than it is like a switch. And now we can see it coming.

What Gladwell ignored in his evocation of the civil rights movement is this: A few people who do something radical to make social change are just terrorists if everybody else isn’t ready for that change. In the past, in societies and marketplaces alike, the only way you could identify a bellwether was in the rearview mirror. As a citizen, as a marketer and as a consumer, I like this new world better. It may be messier and feel less certain, and it may be full of people who are undecided or more willing to talk than act. But, by not being so black and white, it is a lot more inclusive, and a lot more true.

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