By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
But more often the stories of Facebook activism look like Egypt's April 6 Youth Movement earlier this year, in which a Facebook group calling for a national strike in support of laborers gained a much-publicized 75,000 Facebook members . . . and then fizzled out in real life.
In some ways, it's harder to cite the failures than the successes, because there are simply so many of them, disintegrating before they reach the public's eye. Even some of the success stories are qualified: Participation in the Burma network decreased as coverage of it fell out of the news, Joyce says.
"Click-through activism" is the term used by Chris Csikszentmihályi, the co-director of MIT's Center for Future Civic Media to describe the participants who might excitedly flit into an online group and then flutter away to something else. In some ways, he says, the ease of the medium "reminds me of dispensations the Catholic Church used to give." Worst-case scenario: If people feel they are doing good just by joining something -- or clicking on one of those become a fan of Audi and the company will offset your carbon emissions campaigns, "to what extent are you removing just enough pressure that they're not going to carry on the spark" in real life?
A better scenario for Internet activism, Csikszentmihályi says, would be if causes could break down their needs into discrete tasks, and then farm those tasks out to qualified and willing individuals connected by the power of the Internet.
But plain old Facebook groups? Attention shifts quickly online. How many status updates that read "is Neda" last week read "is Farrah Fawcett" or "is Michael Jackson" just a few days later?
It's still too soon to tell what tangible change the thousands of virtual Neda supporters will effect. Some groups were founded as simply virtual memorials, with no plans for future action, and those groups have already fulfilled their duty. "Neda" is still drawing new members, though not as quickly as last week. Kohan, the founder, says that he hopes the group will turn into a foundation, and he's seeking donations from universities. Founders of other Neda groups, including the 4,000-member "Never Forget Neda," say they never expected their groups to grow so large, and are now considering how -- and whether -- to leverage the numbers further.
But what if we don't want to be leveraged? What if we just want to join?
Anders Colding-Jorgensen, a psychologist and lecturer on social media at the University of Copenhagen, earlier this year challenged his students to a competition for who could create the most-member-drawing Facebook group. Colding-Jorgensen personally founded "No to Demolition of Stork Fountain," a group asserting that it would oppose the transformation of the Copenhagen fountain into an H&M clothing store. Within a few days, 300 people had joined; by the end of the week he had 10,000 members. Not a bad effort for a group supporting an entirely fictitious cause. Stork Fountain was not, and had never been, in any danger of demolition.
Furthermore, anyone who bothered to visit the discussion forum would have seen that; in the forum Colding-Jorgensen had explained that the group was just a social experiment. "But people just went in and joined," Colding-Jorgensen says. "They didn't read anything." The group continued to grow -- at one point at the rate of two new members per minute -- until it reached 27,000 and Colding-Jorgensen decided to end the experiment.
What surprised Colding-Jorgensen about people's behavior on his site was that the group was "in no way useful for horizontal discussions." Users wanted not to educate themselves or figure out how to save the fountain, but to parade their own feelings of outrage around the cyber-public.
Or, as says Sherri Grasmuck, a sociology professor at Temple University who has studied Facebook profiles: "I become the social movement as an affirmation of my identity, rather than choosing the social movement because it matches my identity."
In the Neda groups on Facebook, many of the wall posts are actually links to people's individual YouTube videos, which discuss their anger at Neda's death, or links to other Neda Facebook groups so that visitors can join not just one group, but two or three or four.
Are the groups causes? Or are they accessories -- a piece of virtual flair that members could collect to show off their cultural sensitivity, their political awareness?
"Just like we need stuff to furnish our homes to show who we are," says Colding-Jorgensen, "on Facebook we need cultural objects that put together a version of me that I would like to present to the public."
Last week, we wanted to take action in response to a horrible death. We wanted to show support to her family and to other innocent victims. We wanted to spread knowledge of a terrible incident. Did we mean for our clicking to go somewhere? Or were we presenting versions of ourselves?
These groups were all about Neda. But maybe they were also all about us.