Malcolm Gladwell is right. When the famous pop psych theorist posits the theory that social media (and by extension the Internet) are not necessary for movement-building and revolution, he is right. Revolutions have occurred in the past, without the aid of iPhones, Twitter, Wikipedia, WordPress, or Facebook.
Gladwell rightly points out that Mao, East Germans, and French peasants did not have such tools, and yet were able to bring about radical and profound change in their societies using other means of communication.
But Gladwell is also wrong. He misses the primary point being made by those who repeat the conventional wisdom – that revolutions like the one in Egypt and the 2009 protests in Iran are different from revolutions in the past because of social media. Today, social media is doing for political activists what passwords, secret handshakes and flyers did for revolutionaries in the past – providing a way to communicate that gets around the machine.
Just like oppressive regimes that have banned writing, or refuse certain classes the right to vote, Egypt’s leadership took the pains to shut down Internet access for the entire country. The revolutionaries were forced to communicate among themselves and to the world by other means, including mobile text and Twitter. For this, Twitter comes under fire from those who align with success and leadership, like Gladwell, an author of motivational books read by business and government leaders and a journalist for a corporate-owned mainstream magazine.
Similarly, non-social Internet media such as Wikileaks is threatened with retaliation by governments and corporations, primarily because it is another means of communicating ideas that the leaders consider verboten.
So the revolution may not be tweeted, but social media will continue to be treated the way flyers were hundreds of years ago, as a tool used to communicate and build movements by the downtrodden, and bashed by those who do the trodding. Twitter and Facebook will be a major driver of revolution in both politics and business.
And remember, the success of those flyers is why we in the US have freedom of the press.