I taught an undergraduate social movements course in the Fall of 2008. The vast majority of the students reported that they had never done anything political at the beginning of the course. This changed as the fall went on. A few weeks into the course, one student was excited to tell about the demonstrations she’d been participating in against a referendum, Question 8, which would (and did, at least for a while) banned same sex marriage in California. [For weeks, groups on opposite sides of the question demonstrated at the same time on opposite sides of busy intersections.]
Ready to make the most of a teaching moment, I asked how she found out about the demonstration. I expected to use her answer to talk about the sorts of social ties that undergird activism: church or friends or a campus group or another class. She explained that a Facebook group supporting Obama (who did not support same sex marriage) had featured a post. In effect, the Facebook group played the same role as a bulletin board in the student union of an earlier era. (I learned that I had to update my book)
Of course, she met people at the demonstration, and developed face-to-face ties with Facebook friends that could provide the thicker support needed for other kinds of actions.
A couple of points here:
While social media may not make for the same close ties that actual conversations do, they can provide both information and introductions to start those conversations.
[Is this like online dating? I don’t expect that awkward dinners and introductory conversations have been replaced by online sites; instead, the online service just provides an alternate route to those awkward moments, in addition to fix-ups by friends or pick-ups at the beach or bar.]
People who decided to engage in the sit-in campaigns of the civil rights movement–or in numerous other direct action campaigns, often formed affinity groups of friends for support, even if they didn’t have them going in. Social media offer one way to make those initial connections.
And sitting in at a lunch counter is rarely someone’s first try at activism. Rather, people generally start with less commitment and less risk, attending a meeting, talking with friends, going to hear a speaker. Commitment and social networks deepen with action.
Social media can’t replace face-to-face friendships, church groups, or well-established organizations. They can, however, stand in for the bulletin board in the church basement, food coop, or bookstore.