Over the last month, I have noticed an influx of what you might call “viral” Facebook statuses. What I mean by “viral” is a status update that is copied and pasted from one user to another. Think of it like a chain letter of the 21st century.
One particular message was focused on the issue of gay and lesbian rights. It strongly advocated acceptance and equal rights for the lesbian and gay community, and urged anyone who loves someone within that community to copy and paste the message as a status update.
This compassionate message was originally created in response to the tragic suicides of several bullied gay teens in the US.
But to my surprise, after speaking with many individuals who posted the message proudly on their Facebook walls, I realized that many of them didn’t know of the suicides. To them, displaying the message was simply an act of compassion and support for gay rights in general. After the message was posted, the user moved on.
There is nothing wrong with showing support; no doubt there are many gay youth that would feel a little more at ease knowing that there so many out there doing so. But unfortunately, when it comes to making real social change – like the kind needed to stop the bullying of gay teens throughout North America – simply showing your compassion with a Facebook status update or ‘liking’ a Facebook group is only one step removed from doing nothing at all.
As it turns out, many people are not willing to do much more than that.
This phenomenon has been dubbed “social” or “lazy” activism and has been the topic of much debate recently as to whether any significant social change can come as a result of social networking. Much of the debate is focused around an article in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell.
The Canadian journalist questions the effectiveness of activism through social networking. He claims that major activist movements of the past, such as the American civil war, were the result of highly organized and committed activist groups who were willing to take risks, had very specific goals, and strong emotional ties to one another.
He compares this with social activism, which promotes staggering amounts of users to come together in a decentralized group of members who, in most cases, have never met each other. The absence of hierarchal organization, Gladwell argues, makes it almost impossible for decentralized networks to reach consensus, let alone set goals and create precise strategies for action. Furthermore, the weak personal ties among members creates an environment where participants have almost zero accountability for taking action.
Many disagree with Gladwell. A response recently published in his blog argues the value of opinions in large numbers, saying; “It doesn’t mean the will of these millions of people doesn’t count simply because it’s expressed in a way that doesn’t look like a protest did five decades ago.”
Although it is true that the will of the masses does matter, it is hard to see how real social change of any kind can happen on will alone. A million voices are only significant if someone who will actually do something about it – political leaders, teachers, event organizers, and so forth – hears them. Someone needs to be willing to take a risk, or sacrifice their time, money, etc., to make something happen.
If real change is going to happen, people need to be organized and active, but more importantly, they need to be passionate and committed to the changes they want to see. They need to be willing to force the issue, to get the message out when others aren’t willing to listen.
These are requirements of social change, not luxuries.
Social activism doesn’t require passion or commitment; in most cases it requires only a passing moment. People can participate without getting their hands dirty, which makes it much more attractive.
Consider this. Imagine that before anyone would be allowed to post the viral Facebook status I mentioned earlier, they would have to attend at least one (peaceful) activist rally, and several meetings to discuss strategies for combating bigotry against gays, and then implement them.
Do you think we would see the same number of posts? No doubt many still would, but it’s hard to believe the numbers wouldn’t drop significantly.
Obviously it would be quite foolish to simply write off social networking completely.
Websites like Twitter and Facebook are powerful communication tools and to refute that they could aide activists in their ventures seems illogical. But social networking should be the spice, not the substance.
Simply put, if all someone does is post messages and join online groups, they’re still doing nothing; they’re just wearing a sexy nametag while doing it.