Malcolm Gladwell, Bill Maher: We Don't Care What Bloggers Have to Say

Syndicated

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.

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.

See, 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 such as the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s could not have happened in new media. 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" says,

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.

Yet he 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.

Real Time Privilege with Bill Maher

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 21: ( CESS, Premium Rates Apply) Bill Maher visits the Extra set at The Grove on September 21, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Caulfield/Getty Images for Extra)

On Real Time with Bill Maher [warning: heavy Flash site] this past Friday, we were treated to the entertainment of Professor Cornell West, journalist and former political flack Joe Klein, and Bill Maher ruminating over why people would want to "share" — i.e., blog or use Twitter or participate on Facebook — as if that were some great mystery.

And mystery it is to these privileged gentlemen.

At one point, Arianna Huffington, who, along with comic actor David Cross rounded out this evening's panel, makes the point that social media can be used for good or ill. She runs through several examples of people using social media for good:

Maher: But most of it is bullshit.
Huffington: Not at all!
Maher: Oh come on! See, this is my problem with Facebook, is this kind of stuff, to me, makes sure no one will ever read a book again, because they just don't have time, because it's so easy to spend all your time, [mimics texting on a handheld] "I took a shit and ate a banana." And that's posting on Facebook and 8 people go "I like that" and "I did, too" and it's — Betty White, I mean I love Betty White said it right when she said, "Now that I know what it is, it sounds like a huge waste of time!"

Huffington: But the same people, the same people who are doing that now would probably have spent seven hours sitting on the couch watching bad television and you would not be complaining about it. Self-expression is the new entertainment. Some self-expression is trivial and some self-expression is great. But it's no different than watching bad tv.

West: But it's still narcissism on the one hand. You got narcissism on the one hand, all the forms of narcissism, [gestures with other hand] you got the courage to be empathetic, sympathetic, concerned about the plight of others, sensitive to the pain of others.
Maher: Why is it that this generation, though, wants to share everything?...
Cross: Because you can get famous….
Maher: You mean like Tia Tequila?

Klein: …The difference now is that, because of these technologies, it's in everybody's face….

—transcribed from second video embedded on http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-tv/arianna-maher-elections-2010-tea-party-big-tent_b_747795.html

Maher is a pig-headed, but entertaining, boob. Klein is a Washington insider. But I expected West to know better. At one point in the same episode, he observes:

Rahm Emanuel exemplifies contemporary cynicism and old-fashioned arrogance in American politics.

And yet, in his broad-brush dismissal of all of us who don't get to appear on talk shows, he expresses his own brand of cynicism and old-fashioned arrogance towards people who express themselves online. He, Klein and Maher all seem blind to their own privilege as media celebrities. Their privilege is that old media have granted them camera time and space in print.

What these men did not ask is why they themselves feel the need to share. And why their motivations would be any different than the motivations of the unwashed masses who are not privileged by old media but are newly empowered by publication technologies that bypass the old media scarcity controls.

And Yet, When There's Blame to go Around ...

It seemed this past several days that everywhere on the old media we were presented with talking heads wringing their hands over the tragic Rutgers student suicide after being outed and mocked by his roommate and dorm neighbor … and how Facebook is the problem. The best response I've seen on this is from Anil Dash:

It's important to note that blaming technology for horrendous, violent displays of homophobia or racism or simple meanness lets adults like parents and teachers absolve themselves of the responsibility to raise kids free from these evils. By creating language like "cyberbullying," they abdicate their own role in the hateful actions, and blame the (presumably mysterious and unknowable) new technologies that their kids use for these awful situations. Somehow, when I was frequently cross-dressing or wearing makeup or identifying as queer as a high schooler, I was still able to be threatened with violence, even though my tormentors had no mobile phones or laptop computers….

...Despite my own misgivings about many of Facebook's social impacts, I still think old media as exemplified by the Associated Press and the film industry has a concerted agenda to demonize new media and social media [emphasis added –LS].... There's also the ugly reality that coining bullshit words like "cyberbullying" will sell papers or page views.

And for My Own Straw-man Argument ...

These denigrators of new media and defenders of old media would say to tall this, But we are trained professionals! We have the special insights to determine what's important! Who wants to hear about what you had for breakfast?

While there are many people in journalism and media who understand what the new media are about, it does seem that all to often these attitudes are held and expressed and get a ton of exposure … not because their views are particularly insightful, but rather by the simple fact they have the privilege of mass publication via the old media. They are still louder than the rest of us, and need to keep reminding us of this, as if that were validation in and of itself. Why being louder somehow makes them better than the hoi polloi is not clear. Why do they feel the need to keep doing this? Maybe Cornell West had it right: narcissism.

Or maybe it's something more generally shared by all of us: wanting our voices of hope/concern/anger/fear/despair/delight to be heard in an increasingly bustling, insecure, unstable, chaotic world.

Originally posted on rare pattern.

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Laura Scott has been writing for BlogHer since 2006 on technology, the web and media. She blogs at rare pattern and PINGV. Follow her on Twitter @lauras.

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