The title of this post does not refer to the insensate way in which many people update their Facebook statuses with mundane and useless information about their daily lives every five minutes. Instead, I hope to reflect on the way that social media and the Internet can either be utilized as a dynamic tool for social change, or an outlet for passive complaints.
To the seasoned activist, social media presents several new opportunities. As the Gladwell article, “Small Change” and the Land article, “ Networked Activism” pointed out, the Internet creates a space to generate new ideas and connecting movements worldwide. Although there may not be one large online activist movement, the Internet can better facilitate communication between existing movements and social issues. For example, thanks to many fact sheets that were made accessible on websites created by National Women’s Law Center and Planned Parenthood, I was able to create fact sheets and resource guides this summer at my internship at Ms. Foundation for Women. I was able to more easily link aggregate facts to the political climate to create a unique resource for the Foundation; a resource that can be used by other researchers and reporters but also a resource that will help transition the goals of the foundation as they gauge what is currently most important to various movements. Resources such as these can make moments of solidarity more tangible, if done correctly.
Social media has also provided an efficient method of participation. I do not associate the word participation with the same negative connotation that Gladwell uses when he distinguishes participation from motivation for social change. Instead, I see participation as a key component of the activist movement. There is little effort and responsibility required to give small sums of money to a cause, and yet every cent raised on a breast cancer awareness website is one cent closer to a cure. Giving has become easier with the help of Twitter, Facebook, and websites, and should be recognized as an important aspect of activism. After all, many nonprofits and Foundations alike survive on donations. And now that giving has been made easier (just click a button!), it is more likely to occur.
However, these situations are specific to those who are already activists and operate through other mechanisms for social change as well, often times in some sort of hierarchy. In these situations, social media is a supplement, or a means to a greater event, rather than standing alone to create social change. People must recognize that Internet activity alone cannot facilitate meaningful change. Such is the case with the current Duke student “activist” attempts so be heard by the administration.
Recent decisions have been made by Larry Moneta & Co. that have angered the students; the cancellation of tailgate, the Merchants on Points change, rumored renovations to West Union, and of course the changes to the Housing Model. The main argument on campus has been that the administration fails to include students in the decision making processes that ultimately impact them the most. Over the past weeks, student displeasure has reached a new high. Many Chronicle articles have been written commenting on the pitfalls of the administration, and someone has even created a blog: lmomustgo.blogspot.com and a Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=138991519533497 that call for the dismissal of several administration. The Facebook group even contains a manifesto of sorts that argues “Students have a voice in their administration, as they are stakeholders […] students are permitted their civil rights- Students are permitted their civil rights – including but not limited to the right to assemble, the right to speak freely both for and against their administrators, and are entitled to the presumption of innocence in student conduct investigations [and] The undergraduate experience is a cherished one that is not significantly altered without input from students, alumni, faculty, and administrators. No one group has sole exclusive license to do what they want without any constraints – especially not administrators, whose role is not dictatorial control but instead to manage the affairs of this great university.”
One hundred and seventy-two students are attending this Facebook group, and there have been over 200 comments on the Chronicle online in response to articles. However, these battle cries lack both strategy, and even a basic layout of the battlefield. Because students do not know what radical activism looks like, and very few understand the steps to mobilization and organization, these groups are nothing more than a group of children whining and not getting their way.
However, even the few students who do understand what it may take to get their voices heard do not step up to do so. One student’s recent Facebook status reads “Quote from Arthur “If Duke kids want to do more than just protest the Admin on Facebook, start organizing shifts of protesting students to stand in front of the admissions building and shadow tour groups handing out pamphlets about how LMo/et all have taken away our rights. That’ll get news/alumni attention pretttyyy fast.” An online comment to the Chronicle article “The best of Larry Moneta”, states “Maybe we students need to start demonstrating and telling applicants to stay away from Duke. Much as it breaks my heart, maybe daily demonstrations outside the Admissions Office would convince the administration they’re in the wrong”. These comments, although recognizing the steps that need to be taken to create the social change that is desired, are still missing one important element: accountability. No one is willing to step up to organize and be held accountable to actions and to each other, and thus anonymous complaints online are far more common.
Students cannot truly be considered activists until they recognize that true change can not occur without action. Social media can be one tool for organization, but not the only one. Perhaps if DUU or DSG (respected and organized groups on campus) sent out an email or a created a Facebook group to host an event to rally outside Larry Moneta’s office, or hand out fliers to incoming students to drum up publicity, things would begin to change. Decisions need to be made and students need to become accountable, but the Internet provides too many anonymous, risk-free opportunities to defer the responsibility to someone else. So who will it be?