The Facebook Effect: Practicing Advocacy in Baby Steps

There is a debate, of sorts, at the intersection of traditional activism and avant-garde technology, about whether advocacy on Facebook (and other social media, but it mostly seems to center on Facebook) is a poor substitute for “real-world” activism and a diversion from important work, or, conversely, whether such online activities represent the future of organizing and a replacement for more traditional campaigns.

This week, as I think and write about my use of social media and my observations in that field, in response to my reading of The Facebook Effect, I’m wondering what if, in fact, it’s kind of neither?

What if putting your politics in your status updates and inviting your friends to community events, which are both relatively passive actions that nonetheless require being “out” with one’s concerns and preferences for social change, is kind of like an interim step towards the kind of organizing that can build lasting movements, and the kind of advocacy that can take down whole regimes?

Because, sure, there have been some pretty dramatic examples of Facebook campaigns that have resulted in significant “real-world” impact, like the anti-FARC work in Colombia but, on the whole, most people’s use of Facebook is a whole lot more mundane. And there may even be some evidence that having an online outlet for policy frustrations reduces one’s willingness to take those complaints directly to those in power, although I haven’t seen any conclusive research to that effect (and I have been looking). The concern is that people will feel that “they’ve already taken care of it,” and stop short of real change. On the other hand, Facebook is now one of the first places people air grievances, and some studies suggest that these actions foment offline activism, too.

Even casual use of social media, though, makes obvious the ways in which political conversations seep into interactions, and the ways in which people practice defending their beliefs, and seeking out the likeminded, in an online forum.

And I think of that as baby steps.

Because organizing is always about asking people to make a leap, to step out of the private life that, while not necessarily comfortable, is at least known, into a public realm that promises conflict and tension and inevitable disappointment. And getting people to do that from scratch has always been hard.

But if today’s potential advocates have already seen that the world doesn’t fall apart when people don’t agree with you, or even when few respond to your invitation, then maybe they’ll be less reluctant to step out. And, conversely, if activists have used social media to discover that they’re not totally alone in their passions, then maybe the alienation and apathy that are an organizer’s worst enemies can be chiseled away, at least a little.

I don’t think the revolution will be on Facebook, although it’s also unlikely that it will be a complete bystander.

And maybe, just maybe, the revolutionaries will have practiced some of their arguments, refined some of their skills, and connected with some on their comrades, on this platform.

Our challenge, from this view, is to neither glorify or denigrate this online activism, but, instead, to recognize, translate, and leverage it in the social change arena. That requires getting past the outdated (and never that true in the first place) idea that social justice work necessarily equates with painful sacrifice, and creating movements with enough room for people to enter at multiple points.

And, then, we can all take some big steps together.

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