Celebrated writer Malcolm Gladwell seems to have penned the script for the first part of the 21st century, with his provocative bestsellers on ideas such as contagion ( The Tipping Point), the power of instant conclusions ( Blink) and the genesis of genius ( Outliers). But Mr. Gladwell, who returns home to Canada briefly this week, is conspicuously and deliberately absent from a central part of modern life: social media. His blog posts are biannual, his Facebook page is a placeholder and he has never ventured on to Twitter. On Wednesday in Vancouver, he speaks to the F5 Expo, an executive conference on changing online technologies. But first he spoke to The Globe and Mail on the social media - and why he's cut himself off from much of that world.
On balance, are the social media a positive or negative thing?
I'd like to think that on balance any innovation, at the end of the day, is usually a net good. But that doesn't mean there aren't significant and sometimes adverse consequences that we need to find another way to deal with. While we're in the midst of the revolution, we need to stop and talk about its broader consequences.
Can you give me an example?
The ease with which you can organize people means you no longer have to go to the trouble of things like building strong grassroots organizations, developing a coherent message, forming strong and lasting ties with individuals. That's one consequence. The reason that people did that in the past is that it was really hard, that you had to that to build a broader organization. Now, you can do the broad part so easily, you don't have to do your homework first.
For a lot of people in the media, tweeting is almost obligatory. Why not for you?
There's only so much you can do in a day. And I don't feel I lack for platforms for expressing myself. I have books, I write for the New Yorker. If I gave people any more, they'd get sick of me. I have a Blackberry, like any good Canadian. I'm from Waterloo - how can I not have a Blackberry? I'll leave it in my bag for a while or I leave the office and go and work in a café. I'm right now working on something and I printed it off so I can work away from a computer for a while. There are just all kinds of little techniques one uses to restore alone time.
A Facebook group with 200,000 followers - is that an illusion of mobilization?
It depends on what you're trying to do. If I'm putting together a flash mob, that I want everyone to meet me in half an hour in Times Square, it's really useful to have 100,000 followers on Twitter. If I want everyone to go to my website and buy my new book, it's incredibly useful to have 100,000 followers on Facebook. If I want to start a political movement to overthrow a tyrannical regime, it may be less useful. If you follow me on Twitter, I do not own your heart. I may own your pocketbook momentarily. And I may own your attention for five seconds, but that's it.
In The Tipping Point , you talk about ideas spreading just like epidemics. Do social media accelerate that spread?
Do ideas spread through social media? I don't think they are vehicles. People aren't spreading ideas on Twitter, they're spreading observations, perhaps. The point of Tipping Point is that I was very interested in face-to-face interpersonal reactions. If social media or online communication is the means to the creation of a personal connection, it's a fabulous thing. But if it's an excuse to not make a connection, it's ultimately a trivial thing.
Are you able to identify a tipping point for the social media?
If you're looking for milestones, that would sound to me like a tipping point-ish type of happening. But it's hard to know. The problem is, we're still in the experimental phase. The thing about Facebook is, it's insanely new. This world of the Internet, if we know anything from its brief history, it likes nothing more than to build someone up only to topple them. Who has an AOL account these days? Not that long ago, AOL was the single most powerful player on the Internet. Who has a MySpace account these days? MySpace sold for billions of dollars not that long ago. I'm very reluctant to crown Facebook king of the future. They certainly are flavour of the month. This is not a world that respects loyalties and longevity.