As soon as social media activism became a thing, it was inevitably subjected to criticism by skeptics who hurried to point out that, well, it doesn’t necessarily achieve much in the way of concrete results.
No surprise, the spread of the marriage equality meme has some columnists and bloggers raising this profound -- or is it profoundly obvious? -- point yet again. The Rundown blog on the PBS Newshour site asks: “If millions of people share a message on social media, is that enough? Or is it just a form of lazy ‘armchair activism’ that results in conversation but no action?”
As some readers may recall, Malcolm Gladwell made this same point, at tiresome length, back in 2010, in a New Yorker article comparing social media activism with “real” activism. Gladwell noted that showing support for a cause on social media is so easy as to be almost meaningless: “Social networks are effective at increasing participation -- by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.” He goes on: “In other words, 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.”
There are several logical flaws in this line of argument, but the one that jumps out at me now, in the context of the gay marriage debate, is simply this: I don’t think anyone expects to change the world by replacing their profile picture with the Human Rights Campaign’s logo, or some variant thereof. They are merely expressing support for a cause, and doing so in a simple, effective manner.
No, they’re not storming the steps of the Supreme Court: plenty of people, on both sides of the issue, already have that covered. No question, the protesters in Washington D.C. are obviously more committed and willing to sacrifice for the cause, at least in the sense of spending time and money to travel to the capital and hold up signs and scream themselves hoarse. But does that mean there’s no role for people who voice support through social media? If nothing else, they are letting friends, acquaintances, and co-workers know that they support marriage equality. By letting their acquaintances know that they support a cause, social media users encourage their acquaintances to do the same, prompting their acquaintances in turn, and so on, setting in motion a chain reaction. As social media users publicize their affiliations and loyalties, the aggregate effect is kind of like a spontaneous, self-organizing opinion poll.
This is not meaningless. After all, when it comes to social causes, there has always been a distinction between a small group of hardcore activists and a much larger, diffuse group of basically passive supporters. And while the small group does the heavy lifting in terms of activism, it is the attitude of the general population that decides if this activism is finally successful. By affirming their support for a cause, and encouraging their social media contacts to do the same, social media users are participating, in some small way, in the national dialogue -- the process whereby we, as a society, tell ourselves what we are thinking. And that is achievement enough.