I am only human and so contract a social media flu now and then. One too many inane tweets plus a head-on collision with a holier-than-thou clique turned me into Joan Crawford with a case of the Nevada dry heaves last weekend. You’d think, then, that I would’ve greeted Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article on the limitations of Twitter, Facebook, etc., with a righteous fist pump and a spin in the ole bungee-cord office chair. This excerpt crystallizes the best-selling author’s point:
The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn’t interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash—or if it doesn’t need to think strategically. But if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy.
To clarify, Gladwell is talking specifically about social media’s inability to organize on the level of the Civil Rights Movement; political revolutions on that scale will most certainly not be tweeted because of the diffuse nature of a network. Yes, yes, and, well, no. Gladwell had me until, 40 percent through his article, I toggled over to Tweetdeck for a message from someone I barely knew a year ago who has become one of my best friends in the world. I toggled back, waiting for Gladwell to consider a frequent outcome of online interactions—old-school, face-to-face encounters that cement bonds and even originate movements.
He never went there, likely because there’s precious little research to support it (the man likes his numbers) and he’s never gone beyond test-driving a forum like Twitter. Even with my baby case of the grippe, I could not sit back and let this oversight stand. Anecdote, as it turns out, is my most powerful defense. Hierarchy may sustain a revolution, but a revolution begins because of solidarity sparked through the passing and sharing of stories. Sometimes, these stories have to do with hateful oppression and injustice. Other times, they’re as mundane as laundry, bad food, and bad movies. Both kinds kindle a bonding heat, the “fever” that theorist Michael Walzer wrote about and that Gladwell cites.
A story, then: I mentioned a best friend a few paragraphs ago. His name is Justin Hoenke, he’s the teen librarian at the Portland (ME) Public Library, and roughly 365 days ago, he was just a handle (@JustinLibrarian), one of couple hundred anonymous followers on Twitter. At some point, however, we started talking during the dinner-time hours. We found we were both fanatical for The Clash, The Cardigans, The Beach Boys, and so on and so forth into music nerd-dom. An ecstatic trading of YouTube performance clips and album recs ensued. Soon, we graduated to intermingling that information with library shop talk. I posed questions about in-the-trenches librarian workflows, and he enlightened me with the force of Zeus’ thunderbolts.
Fast-forward to April 2010, when he and I met in person for the first time. I remember sticking my head out of my third-floor window looking for his blue car, feeling a little twisty-stomached, wondering if our friendship would carry over into a gorgeous spring afternoon. He called to say he couldn’t find a parking spot, so I went downstairs, flagged him down, and hopped into the passenger seat. We looked at each other, grinning like idiots. I’m pretty sure I laughed (always my instinct in stressful situations). All of my anxiety evaporated, and throughout the course of an incredible day that included pilgrimages to Electric Ladyland and the old CBGBs, we got the fever. We talked about the breakdowns in librarianship and book publishing. The lack of honest, forthright communication in most human relationships. And punk rock. We both believed in the spirit of Joe Strummer and wanted to find more of us.
Two tweet-ups, one ALA Annual, one shared vacation to Maine, and mucho tweets, emails, texts, phone calls, and Facebook wall posts later, we do not have a bona fide revolution on our hands. Our little movement remains mostly unorganized just as Gladwell posited, though because of Twitter we have a much better idea of who’s with us, who’s against us, and who’s gazing through their navels. With more time and, yes, even hierarchy via organizations like ALA we’ll inch closer to reforming publishing and librarianship, two of the most unwieldy bureaucracies you’ll ever encounter.
In the meantime, I would go insane without Justin’s friendship, a revolution in itself, born and sustained every day on the sprawling social web, a force that splinters my attention span only to deliver me a more coherent writer, editor, and librarian.
- “Up the Bracket,” “Radio America,” and “Good Old Days” by The Libertines