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Your Whole Facebook Friendlist Is Watching

Is Facebook a new location for social activism?

If you are at all a frequent user of Facebook, you have probably seen a number of your friends "donate their status to ____" or join "One Million Strong Against ______." Heck, if you are one of my Facebook friends, I probably invited you to my pro-Katie Couric group. While there are obvious networking benefits for activists using Facebook, has the website taken the bite out of civil disobedience?

Back in November, I remember seeing a large number of my friends donate their status to Barack Obama. What this meant was that at a regular occurance (hourly, daily, weekly, etc), their Facebook status would refresh itself and repost the same "I donated my status to Barack Obama" message. I'll admit, I did this too. At a time when fears of VP Palin were running through my head, it was comforting to see a list of other folks also virtually crossing their fingers. It was a self-serving action and I never saw it as social activism.

However, Equality Matters wants Facebook to be used for just that. During inauguration week, Equality Matters launched "the first 'Online March for Equality.'" They asked that those interested (1) join their email list, (2) join the Facebook group, (3) invite their friends, and (4) change their profile picture to one of their badges.

While I am all for politically-energized folks using Facebook to find a community and reach out to their friends, I am a little uncomfortable with equating changing your facebook picture to a protest march. The risk associated with civil disobedience just isn't the same as sacrificing that favorite picture of you posing with a living statue downtown. This whole phenomenon just seems to feed into the idea of my generation being internet-addicted and apathetic. At a time when mythologies of today's youth being relatively depoliticized, is an e-march really helping?

So Bitch blog readers, what do you think? Are these folks e-marching in addition to taking it to the streets? Does it matter?

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Comments

5 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Not the same, but still good

While the risk is not the same, and it's certainly not as bold a statement, I think it would work if it built up to something bigger. It can start as changing the pictures to their badges because it shows support and a sense of unity. If they then did the same thing every time they launched a new campaign or advocacy effort, it would coincide with the other action they are taking.

Protests, after all, are not solely about the risk and danger, they are also about attracting attention to a cause. If you look at it that way, then Facebook would be a much more inviting way of introducing new people to the organization. Some people might simply steer clear of a political protest, but if they see a few of their friends with the same badge as their profile pic, they might send a message to all of them asking what it's about.

There are pros and cons, as with everything, but I think this might be a great start to something powerful and a new way of interacting.

So pseudo-activism hits a new low...

Personally, I disagree with the idea of affiliating myself publicly, even if it's just on the internet, with any organization. I also distrust any organization that would, under the guise of political action or any sort of "activism" (even if it is just e-Facebook-activism), ask me to join their mailing list (which nobody will see except administrators so it's not even an "online" DEMONSTRATION, as tenuous as that definition would even be) as well as their Facebook group, then invite all my friends and put up what amounts to an advertisement for them on my profile?

Look, I understand the importance of getting the message of equality for ALL out there in the open, in every sphere. And I understand trying to put the word out about a group which advocates equality and creates a situation in which like-minded individuals can discuss action, future plans for their cause, etc. I understand all that.

The only problem is, there's no way you can really justify the statement that what this group was asking people to do doesn't amount to disguising what was essentially advertisement for people to join all their group's online incarnations and social networking groups as well as inviting their friends too, as genuine political action, be it on the internet.

You know why it's basically advertisement, to me? A more positive action to advocate for members to take on Inauguration Day, if it HAD to be online, would be to change their Facebook status to an intelligent statement about the need for equality for all, including within the realm of marriage rights. Or anything else, I'm not an activist mastermind, but I know what doesn't work to get people's attention regarding politics.

What doesn't work? Inviting all your friends indiscriminately to join a group that will make them feel uncomfortable denying if, like me, they do not like visibly being a part of activist groups, for one reason or another, though they advocate and act for the cause of the group. Maybe they don't like large groups because they can't be assured that actions taken by another member won't reflect badly on them. Maybe they don't like the look of this group, because they have a firm political or philosophical belief and will not join groups that have unclear political motives. Or maybe they're one of the lovely inhabitants of the world who just don't think individuals who have romantic & sexual preferences that deviate from their norm deserve rights. Yes, bigots exist, and they may be on your friends list (unfortunately). Being the 4th person in one day to invite a friend to join a Facebook group will not make them join the group. It will not make them think that anybody deserves any more rights than the last invite (which is apparently what was the point...). It will make them annoyed with you, that group, and your cause, so at the end of the day. Even if you are the only person to invite a friend to join anything, unfortunately, it's still annoying to a lot of people to be invited to Facebook groups at all.

What else doesn't work? I hope I didn't need to make this obvious, but asking you to join their mailing list will not demonstrate anything to anyone, except maybe it will demonstrate to you in a few days that you should not sign up for mailing lists because you won't read anything they send and will eventually get disillusioned about the topic, after trashing the 100th email from that address without reading it, if you're anything like me. Even if they publish how many signups they got on their website after the fact, the only people who will read that are people who were already browsing the website.

And above all, for the sake of everything good in this world, changing your default Facebook picture to one of their badges will accomplish nothing. Even if people see the picture, unless they can click ON IT and it'll take them to a link, they will not be interested enough in googling it, and nobody will do anything because of it, other than the few who may take you off their friends list because:
- your picture was recently changed to a badge-logo
- you invited them to a group with the same logo as its image
- you just joined that same group
... which may reasonably lead them to believe your account was hacked and is now being used to publicize a product or organization. Because really, you are.

If you want to take action, but you are truly too shy or for one reason or another you can't make it to take part in physical-space-activism, there are a lot of things you can do in your personal sphere that will make a lot more difference in the long run than joining social networking sites. Here are just a few ideas, specifically about marriage equality in the USA:

1. Write letters. Write letters to your local, municipal, & state governments. Write letters to anybody you think is in charge, anybody you think has influence over those in charge, etc.
Here is one link to a specific letter-writing campaign, the first result on Google, I'm sure there are more:
http://onemillionlettersformarriageequality.blogspot.com/

2. Kind of similar to the last point, but not really, since it has a wider potential audience. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Make sure it fits the criteria they require, it is similar in style, length, and quality (as best you can judge) to past published LtEs. In it, be respectful of other viewpoints, maintain a polite one, do not mention religion unless you think that you are skilled enough to debate with those who literally cannot be proved wrong (more power to you, but I know I can't prove to them that their conception of God doesn't exist). Most importantly, make sure that it has the best & most concise arguments to support your point of view. Re-read it from the point of view of somebody who would oppose your viewpoint and see if you can find any holes or or if you can predict things they would typically say in response, and try to find a way to close up the hole in your argument they would have pointed out. Re-read until you're satisfied, then get somebody you trust to read it as well and try to argue for the opposing side. Edit. Put it away for 2 days. Reread, edit what you need to, and then submit it.

3. Experts only. Pinpoint people in your life who either are on the fence about marriage equality, or simply are not politically active and haven't thought about the issue, who you think you may be able to engage in conversation about the topic without seeming pushy, and see if you can manage to sway them your way. This is difficult because of the nature of the conversation so they have to be either close to you or not easily offended. Be polite, respect other points of view, and back out if you see that you're never going to influence their thought. For this I'd recommend doing some research of rebuttals to commonly-presented arguments against your position as well as strong arguments for your position that you think the specific person would be interested in hearing.

Yeah, the inviting friends

Yeah, the inviting friends to groups thing is another issue. It's one thing to tell another person to "invite all your friends!" to a political group. It's another thing entirely to actually do it yourself, and deal with the inevitable backlash. People who disagree with you will be offended that you made assumptions about their opinions (I certainly got mad when I was invited to an "Affirmative action is racism!" group by one ignorant friend after making it clear to him on multiple occasions that I am a strong aff. act. supporter). People who don't care about the issue, or do care but don't want to join the group for whatever reason, will be irritated that they have one more "pointless" invite to wade through on their home page. (Again, I get annoyed when I get invites to useless or impertinent groups just because the person invited everyone on their friends list.) I simply respect my friends too much to irritate them with another invite most of them will reject. It's similar to the religion issue: A lot of people who go to churches where they're taught to "witness" to their friends about Jesus don't end up doing it, because they either don't want to deal with the inevitable awkwardness, respect their friends' individual religious opinions too much to do it, or both.

The problem with politicking

The problem with politicking on the Internet is how impersonal it is. Someone can come off as much more forceful and closed-minded on Facebook than they are in person; you just see the strong opinions, but not the accompanying facial expressions to show that they're interested simply in your thoughts and not in pushing their beliefs on you. I see this with one of my Facebook friends all the time: she's a very kind, respectful person offline but online she posts constant self-righteous anti-choice rants, some of them borderline-offensive (like the ones suggesting that abortion is the "American holocaust"). It's gained her this reputation among the students at our college for being extremely narrow-minded. I'm someone who is just as passionate (though for the other side) as she is, and I don't want to alienate my friends who differ by coming off as more forceful with my politics than I intend. But on the Internet, it's easy to accidentally do that... I remember how an innocuous comment about the Gaza crisis turned into a flame-war between my Jewish and Muslim friends. There are much better places to promote your politics than Facebook.

It's not the same

A march is in Public, with a capital P, down city streets where hot dog vendors, taxi drivers, commuters, families, school groups, politicians, and anyone and everyone who happens to be on the street or watching the local news will see you.
Facebook is not Public. Your friends can see what you've done, but not everyone. You can block your profile from certain people, you can make your profile private from even the networks to which you belong. You can hand-craft your identity and present a perfectly tailored picture to the people you'd like to present it to. A status message isn't the same as talking to your neighbors and e-marching isn't marching.

and yes, it does matter.
would the headlines would have been as big if 1.8 million people had streamed online the inauguration last week instead of attending in person? i think the importance of physically going out and taking a stand for what we believe in is even more important now, in this age of so-called internet-activism. I think there's a function for facebook-- reaching out to friends and family for support and consciousness-raising, but there's also a need for direct action. not everything can be done from a computer console.