Deep Thoughts

De-Meming Malcolm Gladwell: Virtual Worlds, Social Media, and Success

Malcolm Gladwell is a threat to the economy. He is dangerously depleting the supply of memes at a time of economic distress and political change. For each Gladwell meme there is another - something more useful, something that means something, a whole series of unborn memes that will never see the light of day because there’s Malcolm again, slurping from the meme pool like a drunken sailor.

Even his hair is a meme. Sure, once we would have called it his “trademark” but those days are long gone. In a world of social media and Web 2.0 and whatever, Gladwell’s hair is Twitter hair, the personification of Twitter, a walking, literal Twitter stream: unruly and going off in all directions, sure, but it MATTERS, it’s social, it has stickiness, it’s, well, it’s meme-y.

OK, so look - I try to be nice. Honey and bees and whatever. But every now and then I just get pissed off, and Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, has had me pissed off for weeks now. And when I get pissed off about something it generally means I’ve got something else that’s bugging me, I’m just taking hostages or whatever, and maybe that’s true, and we’ll get to that, but it still doesn’t negate the fact that this book is a menace to society.

Dusan Writer Saves You $27.99
So first, I’m going to save the world a little here. Maybe a tree, or a branch of a tree, will be spared because you don’t need to buy this book. Or more importantly, maybe a few hours of your time can be shifted into something more productive like, I don’t know, applying to join Obama’s cabinet or whatever.

So first: Malcolm Gladwell somehow cadged work at the New Yorker where he’d go out and find quirky people and quirky stories and write quirky anecdote type things in that arch New Yorker-y way, and somewhere along the way he came to believe that quirky anecdotes actually meant something really important, and so he started writing books like Tipping Point and Blink, and in so doing began his relentless depletion of the meme-pool.

New Yorker gives good memes

I mean, you know the Tipping Point meme right? It’s the one that goes like this: there is something, like a little fad kind of, and then suddenly it becomes popular because it reaches a tipping point. Or it’s corollary: things spread, like viruses almost, such as crime. Crime, for example, can be fairly contained, and then suddenly it reaches a tipping point and your whole neighborhood looks like the Bronx circa the 1970s.

Um, yeah, I know, that’s what I said. You can write a whole BOOK on this? Yup. And that’s why it’s so easy to save you $27.99, because here’s what his ENTIRE new book is about:

Depending on when and where you were born, you might have a better chance at being successful.

That’s it. But I don’t want you to feel cheated, so I’ll give you some of the highlights so you can sound intelligent around the water cooler, or in your Twitter stream, or talking to your dog:

- If you’re born in January you’re more likely to become a star hockey player because you’re the tallest on the team based on the cut-off date for admission.
- If you spend a lot of time practicing something, you’re probably going to be better at it than if you don’t. The magic meme-like number of hours, by the way, is 10,000.
- If you’re Korean you’re more likely to crash a plane. They’ve spent a lot of time fixing this fact, however, so don’t cancel your Korea Air flight.
- Some people who live in communities where people get along and talk to each other are healthier and live longer than people who don’t.
- If you’re asian, you’re probably better at math, because growing rice is very mathy.
- The grand children of Jewish immigrants to New York are more likely to be doctors and lawyers.
- If you had a bad teacher in school, you probably got turned off and maybe missed your calling, or your shot at success.

For the Love of All That is Sacred - WHY?
I know what you’re thinking. Well, I hope I know, because if you’re not thinking what I was thinking then we need to talk. (Comment below and we’ll hash this out):

You can write a whole book on this? And WHY? What does it MEAN?

Well we’re in luck. Because I don’t watch TV but I do tune in now and then to watch Anderson Cooper squint. I don’t generally care what he has to say, but his squint is an art form, and I’ve been trying to learn how to squint like that so that I too can have that serious, inquisitive, yet vaguely skeptical look that he’s perfected after, oh, 10,000 hours of training I suppose.

Is the squint a meme or an artform?

In any case, there was the Squint AND the Hair, together in prime time, and the Squint was asking the Hair about the new memes, like the one about 10,000 hours, and if that’s true about the 10,000 hours then how come Mozart was writing symphonies at 4 or whatever, and the Hair actually DISMISSIVELY WAVED (I saw it! I’m not sure I’ve ever actually SEEN a dismissive wave before, but there it was) and said “Oh, but everyone AGREES that Mozart didn’t write anything really GOOD until after 10,000 hours” and the Squint squinted and nodded.

Which is one of Gladwell’s devices: when you run across anecdotes that don’t fit your model, wave your hand dismissively. He does it with basketball, for example, which he claims is unlike hockey because “anyone can play”.

The Squint asked what you and I asked, which is why do these meme-y anecdotes matter and the Hair said something like this:

“We have this idea that successful people are self-made, but they’re not. Successful people are successful because of circumstances that we often don’t notice. So I hope my book awakens people to the idea that we should look more carefully at why successful people are successful and try to set the conditions for success for others.”

Did you get that? In other words:

YOU may be a loser because you were born in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong parents, in the wrong year, in the wrong culture. But maybe your KIDS can be successful if we’d throw out the myth of the self-made man and realize that there’s “stuff” that happens which is a precondition for success.

The Art of the Story

Now, I should probably debunk Gladwell’s methodology, but I’m sure there’s others out there who have done so far better than I ever could. It most likely has to do with selective filtering in the research methods. I mean, his whole premise is to find stories that fit the hypothesis and tell them in a charming way which makes you believe that his micro discoveries have a macro meaning. Rubbish. But anyways.

What he’s truly perfected is a methodology for storytelling that, frankly, has me poking my eyeballs out with an ice pick after 3 or 4 chapters. Because they’re all the SAME. It’s like a story-crafting-rhetorical-device-machine that happens to also use up more precious memes.

To further give you value, I’m not only going to save you the cost of the book, I’m now going to give you a definitive look at one component of the Gladwell methodology. Here goes:

“Roseto Valfortore lies one hunded miles southeast of Rome in the Apennine foothills of the Italian province of Foggia.”

“One warm spring day in May of 2007, the Medicine Hat Tigers and the Vancouver Giants met for the Memorial Cup hockey championship in Vancouver, British Columbia.”

“The University of Michigan opened its new Computer Center in 1971, in a brand-new building on Beal Avenue in Ann Arbor, with beige-brick exterior walls and a dark-glass front.”

“In the fifth episode of the 2008 season, the American television quiz show 1 vs 100 had as its special guest a man named Christopher Langan.”

Those are the first sentences of the first four chapters of the book. Note how you have a sense of specificity. How you feel as if Gladwell was almost THERE. This specificity assures us that, well, if he can be SO accurate about something so seemingly trivial, then all the grand pronouncements that follow must, in fact, be TRUE!!!

What Is YOUR Story of Success?

But aside from the methodology, from the shoddy approach to research, and to the rhetorical device of presuming that truth lies primarily in anecdote, there’s something else that strikes me about Gladwell’s book, and it comes to the heart, I think, about why I find it so insanely irritating.

The entire premise of Gladwell’s book is that we need to debunk our notions about why someone becomes successful. In his world, the truly successful are healthy because they were born in the right little sub-culture somewhere. They are star pilots because they know how to speak up, and aren’t Korean. They are all star hockey players because they were born in January, or mathematicians because they planted rice, or they are Bill Joy because he had 10,000 hours of programming and you DIDN’T.

So to extend this, Gladwell suggests that hockey leagues should rotate their start dates, and pilots should be trained to communicate better, and we should all practice, practice, practice (just like mom always said) and, I suppose, we should hope that we’re a Jewish tailor if we want our kids to be lawyers.

But what Gladwell fails to question is the notion of success in the first place. And, I feel, fails to acknowledge that none of it matters much anyways. You couldn’t PREDICT that Jewish tailors would all have kids that were doctors and lawyers. There’s ALWAYS going to be a reason why someone failed and someone else succeeded.

But in the end, and what’s more important, I think, is whether success matters. I mean, what’s YOUR notion of success? Is it being the next Bill Joy? Or is to follow your OWN joy? Doesn’t it matter more that we’re happy? Because other, far more rigorous studies have shown that success and happiness aren’t even correlated in the first place.

Social Media, Virtual Worlds, and the Courage to Create
And isn’t it ironic, that Gladwell is dangerously using up the meme pool and yet in his definition of success and what precipitates it he ignores what I believe is a fundamental new reality: that our notions of success are changing…slowly, maybe, and in pockets.

I’ve written at length about how I believe that virtual worlds are symbols, working landscapes of new concepts of sociality, culture, and ideas. How they may represent a new Renaissance.

Virtual worlds are pointers to deeper change: what we see in them are visible manifestations of trends that are also occurring elsewhere, out in the Twitter streams and classrooms, the Nings and the Facebook widgets. And this change is rooted in what Tom Boellstorff calls “techne” - or a return to craft.

Social media, virtual worlds…these things are helping to reshape paths to innovation and access to success, but they’re also affirming that often we are successful because we are HAPPY, and we are happy not because we’re a star hockey player, but because we’ve contributed in some small part to those around us, or because we created something we’re proud of, or because we just lived another day realizing that we’re not alone in the world, and that in not being alone we maybe don’t need to be “better” - we just need to continue to be more human.


speak up

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site.

Subscribe to these comments.

*Required Fields

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.