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BATTLE OF WORDS: After untold scholarly citations and umpteen colorful historical references — The Green Movement, Red Shirts — Malcolm Gladwell and New York University professor Clay Shirky are still in a deadlock over the question: Do social media make protests possible? The two won’t let this one die.
Last October, Gladwell penned a 4,000-word response to Shirky’s 2008 book (“Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations”) for The New Yorker. “The evangelists of social media” — Shirky, for example — “don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend,” Gladwell wrote. Shirky came back to defend his book in the January/February edition of Foreign Affairs, reaffirming “The Political Power of Social Media” with a few thousand words of his own. Gladwell’s “critique is correct but not central to the question of social media’s power,” he wrote.
In the March/April issue of FA, the fight roars on. The two have side-by-side columns, but don’t share much more than the page. “[Shirky] has to convince readers that in the absence of social media, those uprisings would not have been possible,” says Gladwell. “Here, the historical record of the last decade is unambiguous,” retorts Shirky. As one or the other said thousands of words ago, “Viva la revolución.” Or, better yet: agree to disagree.
— ZEKE TURNER