Incomprehension vs. disagreement

I’m not usually one to engage with the social media dispute-of-the-day (nor to blog about anything at all, for that matter). But I’m riveted against my will to the teapot storm initiated by Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker piece on social media and activism. I’m a pretty committed Gladwell fan, and as his is an exercise in hype deflation — if social media is good at anything, it is good at generating an endless supply of hype and pseudo-academic triumphalism — I’m naturally predisposed to like the piece. Some folks, however, have offered smart and substantial quibbles with it, most notably Alexis Madrigal (and his commenters) and Jonah Lehrer.

But here’s one statement that I unequivocally agree with, from Gladwell’s live chat today:

[Comment From from indiafrom india:] Angus Johnston in the Huff. Post says you don’t understand social networks. If you had a chance to read the article, what is your take on his perspective?

Malcolm Gladwell: I think what he means is that I don’t agree with him. Incomprehension is simply what a narcissist calls disagreement.

This style of argument — such and such just doesn’t get Twitter, or the Web, or Facebook — is epidemic in online discussion, particularly as it pertains to social media. I hate to break it to all of the new media experts out there, but these things are not actually difficult to comprehend. And arguing that Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t understand the terms of the debate, rather than that he takes a particular stance that you disagree with, is the kind of haughty dismissal that just makes you sound defensive.

But wait

Donating bone marrow isn’t a trivial matter. But it doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.

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. [emphasis added]

Damn. Well, nevermind.