Monday, October 25, 2010

I Beg to Disagree, Mr. Gladwell

When You Get Stuck on a Long Conference Call And the Camera’s Within Reach,

You Shoot Anything, Even Your Own Foot, 2006

I enjoy reading Malcolm Gladwell’s writing. I don’t always agree with him. But I admire the way he draws seemingly disconnected facts, science and history across time into coherent insights and conclusions.

In the October 4 issue of The New Yorker, Gladwell writes (Annals of Innovation: Small Change) that social media cannot replicate the experience of personal contact when seeking to effect serious social change. He tells the story of how in 1960 four students from North Carolina A&T University held a sit-in at a Woolworth’s Department Store lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, store. If you’re too young to remember this, let me just say that those guys were putting their lives on the line doing this. Within days, though, their action inspired thousands of other people to hold sit-ins in cities throughout the South.

Sure, there are all kinds of flash mob stories. Yes, personalities like Glenn Beck can summon hundreds of thousands of people to rallies. But to do as those four brave young men in Greensboro did, to put their lives on the line, Gladwell states, there had to be close proximity between the four men. Their touch had to be more than virtual. In fact, Gladwell believes you can’t effect serious social change using social media.

I don’t know if I agree with Gladwell, or not, though I can’t think of any time I’ve ever been challenged by anything I saw at Twitter or Facebook to put my life on the line the same way those young men in Greensboro did. But I can tell a true story of when I believe a life was saved by the loose network of connections at Fotolog.

Fotolog is one of the early online photo-sharing communities. Its founders imagined that people would post snapshots of nothing more serious than what they were eating each day. But Fotolog quickly grew into a much larger phenomenon, one so vast that it soon outstripped its founders’ capital, technology and managerial know-how.

Even in those nascent days of social networking, though, like-minded groups of online friends started assembling. One of the people whose photographs some of us followed was a young lady in London who posted photographs of her legs and shoes. Before you jump to conclusions, let me assure you there wasn’t anything tawdry about her photographs. They were artful studies—almost like ads you’d see in Vogue—of lines and colors that just happened to be her legs and footwear.

It was during this time that I learned how when you follow a person’s pictures on a day-to-day basis, you can learn a lot about a person. If the person is up or down, you can tell. If the person suffers from depression, you could tell when the person was cycling down.

That’s just what happened in the winter of 2004. The young woman’s photos started taking on ominous tones. I don’t recall what it was about the photos or their titles that clued us in, but I could tell from the comments people left at her Fotolog site that those of us who followed her work were becoming concerned about her condition.

[I’ve done a lot of marketing research about and among people with mood disorders, so I’m attuned to noticing the symptoms of such conditions.]

Let me add that none of us knew each other by anything more than our screen presences. We didn’t know anything about this woman but her first name. But when things became so dark in her photographs that we suspected she was in some kind of trouble, we came together as a group, this disparate group of friendly strangers, and took action.

Keep in mind this woman was in London. Most of us were in the U.S. Our action took the form of an informal “six degrees of separation” game. Using what information we could derive about this young lady from her pictures and titles, we were able to contact people we knew or knew of in London who lived nearby. It involved a few more than six degrees of separation, but we were eventually able to find someone who knew the woman and send a neighbor who was closer to her to check on her. The neighbor found the young lady seriously considering suicide and was able to convince her to seek help.

Take that, Mr. Gladwell!

The photo above is in honor of Jackie, our English friend. She got help, but never returned to Fotolog.


  1. And we have the more recent example of Haiti. Without electronic social media, there is no way souch funding could have been sent so quickly! Who can say how many more lives were saved?

  2. I had a similar experience just a few months ago. Someone who was a daily blogger had mentioned on several occasions that he hadn't been feeling quite himself. When he hadn't posted in several days a few of his longtime readers put their virtual heads together, figured out where he lived and convinced another blogger in the same Canadian city to check on him. The following day his son posted the final blog he had written along with a post script saying his dad had passed away in his sleep.

  3. I read that article in the New Yorker on a plane the other day, and was pondering similar things. What a wonderful way the fotolog community jumped in and helped out.