Online Activism Isn't Dead
July 2, 2009
Filed under Internet Openness & Standards
The social and political impact of the Internet is growing at a rapid pace. After all of the successes credited to President Obama's social media campaign network in last fall's election, we still find ourselves at the earliest stages of development of the social layer of the Net. Still, some are quick to dismiss the activist power of the Internet and still are not convinced that this medium will continue to change the way the world organizes around issues. Take a piece in today's Washington Post by Monica Hesse, which commented on the "trendiness" of online activism and discounted these "click to join" groups as nothing more than numbers on a Facebook page. This completely misses the impact that social networks have had on increasing the awareness of many issues and building communities around these issues. As we gear up for our nation's 233rd birthday, we are reminded of how colonists planted seeds of activism and organized against oppressors from abroad. Instead of Facebook fan pages, they had militiamen; instead of asking others to click a link, they asked them to help gather supplies; instead of Twitter feeds, they used horses to get messages across. From top to bottom, they created organization that allowed supporters to thrive in any role or level they chose. The mother who allowed soldiers to sleep in her cabin, was as vital to their success as the soldiers themselves. It didn't matter what a supporter of the revolution was doing, their support alone was enough. Today there are groups on Facebook aimed at gathering supporters for just about any cause. Just like any other advocacy effort, supporters join for a variety of different reasons. That's where the Hesse piece really misses the mark. The assumption is made that to participate in any activism online, one must be willing to fight hard and organize physical results to be "worthy" of being a supporter. This claim ignores the power of community building and the very essence of grassroots advocacy. My support of a specific issue is not measured by how much I donate or how many rallies I attend. To discount followers of causes on social networks engaging in conduct that is a "trendy and easy virtue" ignores the impact that supporters have on social networks at every level of involvement. The person simply receiving message updates on the issue is just as vital to the success of the cause as the top-level organizer who sends tasks and ideas to the group's followers. It's especially disheartening to read about Anders Colding-Jorgensen and his little social experiment of creating a fictional Facebook cause and group just to "prove" how little the followers of a social media group matter. The time spent on rounding up supporters for a fake issue could have been better spent organizing supporters for a real global issue. While not all social media activist campaigns are built with the same number of leaders and organizers, every level of involvement in these mediums is important. These networks are valuable at even the base level of getting information to hundreds of thousands of new supporters, regardless of how involved those supporters might ultimately be. Rather than simply dismiss the power of social network organizing, we should focus on developing its use further as we have only begun to explore the possibilities of organizing masses online around global issues. If several thousand people can use a Facebook group to save an outdoor movie festival in Washington and one man can organize millions to take to the streets in Columbia against the FARC then there's no telling what the future holds for social networking.