Cornell West

On journalists' & pundits' attitudes about new media: It's the privilege, stupid!

Plaque for Common Sense

For years now we've seen people entrenched in, married to, paid by or validated by old media attack new media, "those bloggers," Twitter, Facebook … the Internet in general. It's been fading lately as publishers especially have started to embrace and integrate new media into their publishing strategies. But there are still holdouts, many of whom seem not just ignorant but willfully ignorant.

Malcolm Gladwell's weak dismissal of "weak ties"

Gladwell's New Yorker article was the buzz on Twitter. One excerpt:

The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.

…proving that old media journalists are as adept as anyone in the straw-man rhetorical technique.

Gladwell's main argument seems to cling to the notion that things like the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s could not have happened in new media. The thing is he seems to think that this is a notion that all of us "evangelists of social media" cling to. His is a rant against ghosts and phantoms to make a point, not an investigative exercise.

I love Gladwell's books, especially Blink. But this column is more an expression of his attitude towards social media rather than an insight into social media. It's a tract for dismissal, not a lesson towards understanding.

In a Guardian article on Gladwell's thoughts, journalist Tim Adams, who, by the way, describes us all as "insects":

The twitterers have responded to his provocation by swarming on to blogs and websites to protect their uniting belief: that the future belongs to them.

…does end up revealing a truth behind Gladwell's views:

The New Yorker, for which Gladwell is a stellar correspondent, sees itself as the spiritual home of a kind of reading and writing and engagement that could seem threatened by the attention overload and surface concerns of online skimming. I spoke to Gladwell a while back about his use of computers: he never spent much time on the internet, he said: "I run out of things to look up really quickly."

So Gladwell in fact doesn't even know much about social media, doesn't have a use for them, and doesn't even find the internet of much use. Obviously he's not interested in what other people might have to say. Why would he? He has his saying machines (The New Yorker, his books, his occasional appearances on television). What could anyone possibly offer to a man on top of the literary heap?

So why would Gladwell even bother to take on a subject of which, he admits, he knows little? Because he's a writer for The New Yorker, and that in itself makes his views relevant? I not only like Gladwell, I love The New Yorker (as a subscriber for years). But his taking on social media strikes me as hubris at best, enabled by the blindness of privilege.


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