My delicious stack contains the three links that form the subtitles below.
Much ado has been made about the reach of social media and its capability to abet social change. Recent prominent examples, such as the defeat of the PIPA and SOPA acts and the Arab Spring, are first to jump to mind when speaking of social change. But is social media truly an effective tool in mobilizing collective action?
Obar, Zube and Lampe (2011) examines this question in their article, Advocacy 2.0: An analysis of how advocacy groups in the United States perceive and use social media as tools for facilitating civic engagement and collective action. Obar et al surveyed 53 advocacy groups of varying sizes, ideological and political focus in the United States on their social media use and the “perceived effectiveness of social media for achieving specific advocacy-related tasks” (p. 9). Their results showed that despite some drawbacks, social media “provide a variety of benefits that help facilitate civic engagement and collective action” (p. 13) through its ability to strengthen outreach efforts, enable engaging feedback loops, strengthen collective action efforts through an increased speed of communication, and low cost.
While the positive perception of social media held by advocacy organizations is encouraging, the key issue with this study lies in its focus on perception versus quantifiable results. As Lisan Jutras (2009) pointed out in the Globe and Mail, slacktivism does not equate activism. Malcolm Gladwell put it most succinctly when he wrote “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice”. So does social media truly mobilize collective action? I think it can - as long as the subject is sexy enough, or retweeted by the beautiful people. So what happens when the subject is not sexy?
Homelessness is not a sexy subject, nor is it populated by sexy people. But over a four-day period from March 9 - 13, 2012, homelessness moved into the spotlight, first on Twitter, then over to various blogs and tradition media, thanks to the Homeless Hotspots project. The controversy sparked when marketing agency BBH Labs conducted a “charitable innovation initiative” (homelesshotspots.org, 2012) at the South by Southwest (SXSW) technology conference by enlisting 13 individuals from a homeless shelter to carry mobile WiFi devices and offer conference attendees Internet access in exchange for donations, which were kept by the homeless vendors. The intent was to modernize the street newspaper model by enabling the homeless to sell a digital service that’s in demand.
The experiment caused a storm of controversy from Vancouver to Brisbane, with people like Tim Carmody of Wired condemning it as corporate exploitation and dehumanization of the homeless into “walking, talking billboards” (Carmody, 2012). Proponents of this project, including Mark Horvath, founder of InvisiblePeople.tv and social media activist, were just as vocal in its support. They pointed out that the homeless are the invisible pariahs of the community, and this project not only provided honest labor and wage for the participants, but also enabled them to connect to society and have a voice.
According to Twee.co, the Homeless Hotspots (#homelesshotspots) controversy was the ninth top trending topic worldwide at 2:40 p.m. on March 13, 2012. Is this indicative of social media’s ability to promote collective action? I would disagree. Blogs and tweets flew fast and furious on this subject, but ‘real’ participatory action to end homelessness did not arise out of the conversation. What did happen, however, is still extremely valuable: social media raised global awareness and started conversations on the homeless issue, an issue that is uncomfortable, that most of us would prefer to ignore. As Laura June (2012) eloquently observed in The Verge,
...the marketing gimmick itself requires something else: recognition of another human being, one who is suffering. Whereas plenty of people seemed to think that was dehumanizing, it’s actually kind of the opposite: it’s literally humanizing. Thinking about and looking at the homeless is hard...humanizing a person makes them hard to ignore, to walk away from.
As Gladwell (2010) pointed out, it is very hard to confront socially entrenched norms and practices; and not seeing the homeless is very much a common social practice. In 2008 Mark Horvath decided to address this issue with We Are Visible (wearevisible.com), a website devoted to teaching social media skills to the homeless and raising their participatory literacy. Henry Jenkins (2007) observed that in order to reap the rewards of participatory culture, the user must develop a full set of cultural competencies and social skills to successfully navigate today’s new media landscape. The homeless are often faced with both access issues and the participation gap: the denial of learning experiences to grow those social skills and cultural competencies and the sense of empowerment and entitlement that enable them to be full participants in this emerging society. The lack of participatory literacy will leave the homeless farther behind, pushing these faceless, silent outcasts even more into the peripheries of this emergent societal norm.
We Are Visible addresses this simply by teaching basic media and participatory literacy skills and connecting new users with a safe, supportive online community at the start. As part of this initiative, there is a @WeAreVisible Twitter account and a We Are Visible Facebook account, both with over 3400 followers. The power of the community is evident through the many heartwarming anecdotes on the various social media channels, such as @alleycat22469’s recounting of how he received food, necessities, and even employment through Twitter when he was homeless (@alleycat22469, n.d.). Many more stories abound of renewed dignity, identity, connection, and belonging, all thanks to engagement in social media.
I began by asking whether social media is truly an effective tool in mobilizing collective action. Examples like the Arab Spring had predisposed me towards very large-scale events as the only valid examples of collective action. But as smaller initiatives like We Are Visible illustrates, collective action is not just about mobilizing nations. It’s about working towards a common goal together, with success sometimes measured on the granular level. And from that viewpoint, social media is indeed a critical, and effective, enabler for collective action.
@alleycat22469 (n.d.). Why social media. Retrieved from http://wearevisible.com/why-social-media.html
Carmody, T. (2012, March 12). The damning backstory behind ‘homeless hotspots’ at SXSW. Wired. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2012/03/the-damning-backstory-behind-homeless-hotspots-at-sxswi/
Gladwell, M. (2010, October 4). Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell
Homelesshotspots.org. (2012). Collaborators. Retrieved from http://homelesshotspots.org/
Jenkins, H., Clinton, K., Purushotma, R., and Weigel, M. (2007). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Retrieved from
June, L. (2012, March 13). Homeless hotspots: The best, worst, smartest, dumbest part of SXSW. The Verge. Retrieved from http://www.readability.com/read?url=http://www.theverge.com/2012/3/13/2866786/homeless-hotspots-sxsw-bbh-smartest-dumbest-idea
Jutras, L. (2009, December 7) Facebook mobilizes masses - but what for? The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/personal-tech/facebook-mobilizes-masses---but-what-for/article1390916/
Obar, J.A., Zube, P. and Lampe, C. (2011). Advocacy 2.0: An analysis of how advocacy groups in the United States perceive and use social media as tools for facilitating civic engagement and collective action. Journal of Information Policy, 2, 1-25. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1956352r
Twee.co (2012). Homeless hotspots was popular on twitter. Retrieved from http://www.twee.co/topics/homeless-hotspots