The Fourth Industrial Revolution
What It Means and How to Respond
How to Make Almost Anything
The Digital Fabrication Revolution
As Objects Go Online
The Promise (and Pitfalls) of the Internet of Things
The Rise of Big Data
How It's Changing the Way We Think About the World
The Mobile-Finance Revolution
How Cell Phones Can Spur Development
Biology's Brave New World
The Promise and Perils of the Synbio Revolution
The Robots Are Coming
How Technological Breakthroughs Will Transform Everyday Life
New World Order
Labor, Capital, and Ideas in the Power Law Economy
Will Humans Go the Way of Horses?
Labor in the Second Machine Age
Same as It Ever Was
Why the Techno-optimists Are Wrong
The Future of Cities
The Internet of Everything will Change How We Live
The Coming Robot Dystopia
All Too Inhuman
The Political Power of Social Media
Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change
From Innovation to Revolution
Do Social Media Make Protests Possible?
The Next Safety Net
Social Policy for a Digital Age
The Moral Code
How To Teach Robots Right and Wrong
Focus on Data Use, Not Data Collection
The Power of Market Creation
How Innovation Can Spur Development
The Innovative State
Governments Should Make Markets, Not Just Fix Them
Food and the Transformation of Africa
Getting Smallholders Connected
AN ABSENCE OF EVIDENCE
While reading Clay Shirky's "The Political Power of Social Media" (January/February 2011), I was reminded of a trip I took just over ten years ago, during the dot-com bubble. I went to the catalog clothier Lands' End in Wisconsin, determined to write about how the rise of the Internet and e-commerce was transforming retail. What I learned was that it was not. Having a Web site, I was told, was definitely an improvement over being dependent entirely on a paper catalog and a phone bank. But it was not a life-changing event. After all, taking someone's order over the phone is not that much harder than taking it over the Internet. The innovations that companies such as Lands' End really cared about were bar codes and overnight delivery, which utterly revolutionized the back ends of their businesses and which had happened a good ten to 15 years previously.
The lesson here is that just because innovations in communications technology happen does not mean that they matter; or, to put it another way, in order for an innovation to make a real difference, it has to solve a problem that was actually a problem in the ﬁrst place. This is the question that I kept wondering about throughout Shirky's essay-and that had motivated my New Yorker article on social media, to which Shirky refers: What evidence is there that social revolutions in the pre-Internet era suffered from a lack of cutting-edge communications and organizational tools? In other words, did social media solve a problem that actually needed solving? Shirky does a good job of showing how some recent protests have used the tools of social media. But for his argument to be anything close to persuasive, he has to convince readers that in the absence of social media, those uprisings would not have been possible.
MALCOLM GLADWELL is a Staff Writer for The New Yorker.
Malcolm Gladwell's commercial comparison is illustrative. If you look at
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