Facebook Activism: Lots of Clicks, but Little Sticks
Thursday, July 2, 2009
Facebook activism, the trendy process by which we do good by clicking often, was in its full glory last week after the death of Iranian student Neda Agha Soltan, killed by gunfire in the streets of Tehran.
First, Neda showed up in our Twitter feeds, then in our Facebook status updates: "is Neda," we wrote after our own names. And when people started Facebook groups inspired by her death, we quickly joined them, feeling happy that we'd done something, that we'd contributed.
But whether our virtual virtuousness will result in real-world action is unpredictable, and has as much to do with human nature as it does with amassing enough numbers. This is the problem with activism born of social networking sites.
The numbers are impressive. News outlets cited the groups, with names like "Angel of Iran," as examples of public outcry, potential signs of a turning point in the disputed Iranian elections. The largest of these groups, called simply "Neda," currently has nearly 36,000 members; dozens more had 1,000, or 100, or 10.
Click click click. It was so simple to join.
And . . . now what? Are we done? Was clicking an end unto itself? Do our Facebook groups -- which are today often treated as the official barometer for a cause's importance; more members must signify more gravitas -- ever translate into significant change?
(And if not, what are we doing there?)
"I don't have a lot of time for rallies," says Charles Hilton, a Baltimore service technician. That's why he joined "Neda," founded by a Houston real estate agent named Ali Kohan. "I haven't been keeping up with the news a lot lately, but . . . from what I gather, there was no reason to target this woman." What Hilton knew of her story spoke to him. He was touched. So he clicked. It felt like a show of support his schedule could manage. He's not sure what happens now; he hasn't heard whether the Neda group has any actual activities planned, or what he would be able to participate in.
Hilton illustrates what Mary Joyce calls "the pluses and minuses for the low bar of entry" of Facebook groups. Joyce is the co-founder of DigiActive.org, an organization that helps grass-roots activists figure out how to use digital technology to boost their impact.
The low bar of entry means that joining -- or starting -- a cause is easy, and that causes can reach and educate a wide range of people. That's the plus. But that ease also means that well-intentioned groups could balloon to thousands of members, most of whom lack activism experience.
"Commitment levels are opaque," says Joyce, who last year took a leave from DigiActive to work as new-media operations manager for Barack Obama's campaign. "Maybe a maximum of 5 percent are going to take action, and maybe it's closer to 1 percent. . . . In most cases of Facebook groups, members do nothing. I haven't yet seen a case where the Facebook group has led to a sustained movement."
There have, of course, been big examples of single-event success: The Internet-based organization Burma Global Action Network began as one American's Facebook group, formed to support monks' protest. The group coordinated a global "day of action" in 2007 that drew protesters around the world. More measurably, the release of Fouad Mourtada, imprisoned for impersonating a member of Moroccan royalty online, was attributed in part to protests that began on Facebook and Flickr and spread offline. And politically, Obama's campaign was famously driven by social networking participation.