Social Change Facilitated By Social Media

I’m filing this column from Sydney, Australia, where I spoke at CeBIT earlier this week on how social media is completely transforming the way we engage with each other and get motivated to participate in causes.

It’s an interesting topic. The “slacktivism” of privileged Westerners has been amply mocked by meme-generators Webwide: “Oh, so you posted about Kony on Facebook? You must be quite the activist!”

So let’s be clear. Liking a page supporting democracy in Syria doesn’t make me an activist, and won’t result in the overthrow of a government. But it’s still worthwhile. I’ve moved one step further along the participation continuum, and there’s nothing to say I won’t continue to move farther along.

Here’s the participation continuum the way I see it:



Unaware --> Aware This is where traditional media is strongest, although nowadays we’re probably more likely to discover new content via social media than traditional.

Aware --> Like/Post This is where you click to like a page supporting democracy in Syria, a publicly visible action that provides social proof to your network that it’s okay to care.

Like/Post --> Sign Sites like make it super-simple to take this additional step along the continuum, whether you’re signing or creating a petition yourself. It’s worth noting that these petitions can have serious, real-world impact. After one petition, for example, the South African Parliament formed a task force to end “corrective” rape of lesbians.

Sign --> Donate Putting actual money on the table is a step further along the participation continuum. This is where sites like peer-to-peer microlending platform come into their own. So far, they’ve lent more than $311 million, to more than 750,000 people, with a repayment rate of 98.92%. Compare this to, say, the U.S. housing market, where 26% of FHA-insured loans that originated in 2007 are either in foreclosure or overdue by 90 days.

Donate --> Participate At the pointy end of the activism spectrum is the role social media played in the Arab Spring. While there is no doubt the revolutions themselves happened on the streets and in person, they were hugely facilitated by Facebook, as summarized by Rebecca Rosen in The Atlantic: “First, Facebook and elsewhere online is where people saw and shared horrifying videos and photographs of state brutality that inspired them to rebel. Second, these sites are where people found out the basic logistics of the protests -- where to go and when to show up.”

Participate --> Organize The fact that on-the-ground activists are relying heavily on social media is evident from new sites that are cropping up specifically to help them, like, which was started by Esra’a al Shafei to amplify voices of dissent. Esra’a says that if you’re on the ground organizing protests in Yemen, you don’t have time to check Facebook and Twitter and Al Jazeera and all the other sites, so it brings all the sources together in an easily accessible dashboard.

Organize --> Lead Social media and social movements are not only about dissent. In my home city of Christchurch, New Zealand, we’ve seen social media used in incredible ways since the earthquakes began in September 2010. My good friend Sam Johnson, for example, started an organization called the Student Volunteer Army by creating a page on Facebook. Within two weeks they had organized more than 2,500 students to shovel quake-produced silt from people’s yards. Today, SVA has more than 27,000 Facebook fans, is organizing a huge rock concert that kids can only get access to by volunteering, and has just been the first non-military organization ever to win the Anzac of the Year award. Sam himself has been named Young New Zealander of the Year.

Alice Walker said that, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Thanks to social media, we are being reminded every day just how much power each and every one of us actually has, and being given resources and opportunity to exercise that power.

It’s an exciting time to be an activist.

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