"The Times They Are A-Changin' ".1 Or are they? I believe times have already changed. More than we could have imagined. Our ability to communicate has changed dramatically in the last twenty years, from the advent of the mobile phone to the proliferation of laptop computers, and then the marriage of both into smartphones. As technology continues to advance into more versatile and effective ways to communicate, the way we use these methods are almost as complex as the devices themselves. This increases our scope and reach as individuals and, subsequently, as groups of individuals in search of a common goal or ideal. That's why, with the arrival of social media services across new technology sources, activist groups and social institutions alike are finding a changing way to spread their messages and organize their activities.
With new technology, the interfaces through which we can add and actively talk to friends and upload and share information and media have become a powerful tool the likes of which humanity has not seen before. The recent surge of social media sites and services has started an internet "boom" of user-generated content. And while it seems that most of this content is whimsical in its nature (see YouTube videos like David after the Dentist, Twitter accounts like Feminist Hulk, and Facebook status posts from historical figures like Galileo and the Pope), recent examples of organizations and institutions that have incorporated the use of these tools show that they're very effective for purposes other than mere entertainment.
Social media, which for the purposes of this article will be considered as the group of online sites and services like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, has been repurposed by activist organizations all over the world. Social media facilitates the aggregation of interests, letting users "like" certain groupsproducts, ideas, etc., and follow the pages linked to these objects. People who like pages find themselves able to share interests with others and receive regular updates on whatever they've liked. These services increase the reach of these organizations, providing them with the means to spread their message beyond the scope of traditional media. For example, the computational matrix Wolfram-Alpha estimates that Facebook.com receives around 6.8 billion daily page views, with around 540 million daily visitors.2 While not all users are likely to view the pages of specific activist groups and organizations, it provides a larger base than they are used to.
Social media also provides a cost-effective way of promoting and advertising a specific cause, as these services are free to the general populace. As an example, long-standing organizations find new aid in social media sites and services. Non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International now have new media channels through which they can send their message and, more important, target particular sectors. A quick Facebook search shows around 30 fan pages (pages that users can like)related to Amnesty International. The most popular of these 30 would be Amnesty International's main page, followed by pages run by Amnesty International's regional chapters in Denmark, the Russia Federation, United Kingdom, and United States, among others. Each of these pages has thousands of followers (people who have liked these pages) and publishes news and alerts on situations they have been following or the individuals they have been trying to fight for. The ability to operate this way naturally progress into a strengthening of the overall structure and framework of activist organizations.
The environmental movement found great support in the proliferation of information through social media. The "Earth Hour" group on Facebook is a pledge that users make to turn off lights and other electronics, in hopes of spreading the information on global warming. CNN's SciTechBlog reports that in 2009, the Earth Hour group comprised around 628,000 members, and the related Earth Hour video posted on this site has been watched some 57,000 times.3 This is a great step forward in the battle against global warming, as misinformation and myths run amok throughout the population. These types of events raise awareness and reach a user base that transcends geographic boundaries.
Another movement that found strength through social media was the student strike at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) in May 2010. Students protested changes in the policies of the UPR system regarding scholarships and exemption.
These protests turned into a student strike that lasted almost three months. Prompted by the need of steady, live communication, strike leaders created an online radio station called "Radio Huelga" (Strike Radio),4 which informed students of the happenings around the strike and the negotiations that followed.
It stands to note that not only small organizations and movements benefit from these new tools and services that social media has brought into the mix. Political parties and journalists find aid in the user base that surrounds these websites. Barack Obama's presidential campaign is a prime example of social media being employed in order to gain electoral support through tweeting throughout the campaign trail, and providing video uploads of rallies and speeches.
All things considered, the use of social media catalyses social and political activism. It facilitates communications that were once time consuming during the analogue or early digital age and only available to those with more resources, money, and power. It helps to level the playing field between smaller movements and bigger, well-established interests by equipping the former with the tools to cheaply and effectively promote their beliefs and ideals through a mass media outlet. In essence, social media tools constitute a paradigm shift, in terms of not only communication, but also in the way organizations achieve their goals.
1 Bob Dylan, "The Times They Are A-Changin'".