What gets people to use social media for social change?

One of the best sessions I attended at the recent Diversifying Participation conference focused on this fascinating question:  What motivates people to start using social media for social change?

Consider the significance of this question in light of the recent news that Facebook has overtaken Google as the top driver of traffic to Yahoo, MSN and other portals.  That means that the links shared through status updates, fan pages, groups and other Facebook tools are becoming a primary channel through which people find useful information online.   This is a major shift from the previous models for finding information that involved using a search engine or going directly to a particular site.

Another way to think about this phenomenon is that there are 300 million people on Facebook with the ability to use their personal social networks for some larger cause, if inspired to do so.

A group of University of Southern California students, under the guidance of respected participatory culture scholar Henry Jenkins, presented a dozen examples of participation-turned-activism using the rapid-fire pecha kucha format.  The students pushed “start” on a Powerpoint presentation that was timed to advance slides automatically and allot exactly four minutes to each student to present a case study.  My head was spinning at the end of this lineup:

  • Rang de Basanti:  This is a Bollywood film that means “Color Me Saffron” in Indian.  Rang de Basanti depicts five college friends, who go from being happy-go-lucky pals to anti-government activists.   The popularity of the film led to social activism that mimicked a key scene in the film.  After the accused murderer of a famous Indian model was set free after a trial, people staged a mass protest similar to one depicted in the movie, and continued activism led to a retrial and conviction of the murderer.  This was described as “flash activism:” a sudden temporary spontaneous mobilization  based on a shared exposure to a previous event such as this movie.
  • Racebending: This case study examined protests against Looking at The Last Airbender, a popular animated TV program on Nickelodeon that is being made into movie.  The program embodies Asian themes and characters, but four white actors were cast for the movie.   In protest, artists from the show created letter writing campaign and racebending.com to highlight “whitewashing,” the replacing of Asian characters with white actors.   The campaign has led to protests at conferences and expanded address the broader role of race in casting practices, although there was no change in the casting of Airbender, scheduled to be released this summer.
  • Harry Potter Alliance: Andrew Slack wondered how Harry Potter book themes could be leveraged to deal with social issues in the world and set up the Harry Potter Alliance to do just that.  He  staged campaigns based on Harry Potter characters, such as equating Valdemort with global warming.  Slack tapped into the Harry Potter fan community using social media sites to spread his messages.   Among the issues addressed have been global warming, poverty, genocide and Haiti earthquake relief.  “We are creating the blueprint for a new kind of civic engagement that combines pop culture, social change, and new media that amplifies each voice hundreds of thousands of times,” the Harry Potter Alliance web site says.
  • World of Warcraft: There are more than 10 million users playing World of Warcraft, and politics have become part of the game culture.  More than 107 avatars are named Barack Obama in WoW.  Groups of players band into guilds to share gaming skills and experience.  The last presidential election saw the emergence of the Ron Paul Revolution Guild, aimed at raising awareness of his candidacy.  It was a grassroots movement that started with one player’s post. The goal was to start a rally within WoW on 12/1/08.  More than 300 members signed up and ended up overloading the server.  This attracted media attention that led the group to grow exponentially.
  • Verb Noire: In 2009, white science fiction writer Elizabeth Bear wrote a blog post about how to write about diverse characters without tokenizing them.   Bear’s post became quite controversial and led to more than 300 blog posts written in response and the creation of a new online community called RaceFail 09, focused on race and racism in science fiction books, culture and fandom.   This community gave rise to Verb Noire, an independent publishing house focused on sci-fi featuring people of color and LGBT characters.  Verb Noire recently published its first book, River’s Daughter, by Tasha Campbell.
  • Living Room Rock Gods: The Living Room Rock Gods are obsessive hard care rock fans and You Tube users.   They make recording of themselves playing guitars and other instruments along with CDs, and upload those videos to You Tube.  They began tagging their videos with the LRRG keyword.  These tags allowed them to find each others’ videos, allowing them to form virtual bands. This led to many copyright-related takedowns on You Tube due to fair use violations.   LRRG  started campaign called “tribute is not theft.” They started a blog, which led lawyers and others across the country to offer advice about how to fight the YouTube takedowns.  A number of the challenges have succeeded and some LRRG videos have been restored on YouTube.
  • Pricescope.com: This site started as a database of diamonds available from small jewelers who were trying to compete against mall stores and luxury brands.  Pricescope catered to “diamond geeks,”  with message boards that gave people a way to mentor each other as they learned about diamond purchases, many of which were tied to major life event like an engagement.  Message boards also included an “around the world” board to talk about politics. In 2008, non diamond geeks flooded the site after hearing about political discussions.   Things began to fall apart and moderators ended up banning political topics.  The community has since worked to repair itself and members have submitted pictures, featuring the diamonds they have purchased, toward publishing a coffee table book with proceeds going to charity.
  • Post Secret: This concept started in 2005 as an art project and evolved into a blog displaying anonymous secrets written on postcards and sent to the site.  The secrets have been published online, featured in art exhibitions and in coffee table books.  The blog has attracted more than 300 million visits.  A number of the secrets dealt with themes of suicide, leading the site’s creator to include contact information for Hopeline, a suicide prevention service.
  • Invisible Children: This is a youth-driven organization using pop culture to engage young people in social issues.  The organization started in 2003 when three young Southern California filmmakers traveled to Uganda and learned about the children who left their homes every night to sleep on city streets to avoid being kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army.  The filmmakers created a documentary about it and started a campaign in which youth from around the world walked to city centers and spent the night in parks to show support for the Ugandan children.  Through Invisible Children’s web site, more than  58,000 people signed up to participate in the event, but over 80,000 attended in total; the event took place in 130 cities in seven countries, according to Wikipedia. In three years the organization was raiding $10 million annually mostly from small donations and merchandise.  Youth are encouraged to produce their own advocacy and fund raising events, with videos later uploaded to YouTube.
  • Peter Packet: Cisco Systems created Peter Packet, a video game that explains how the internet works, as part of the company’s “bring your child to work” day.  Cisco wanted to expand the game to to include social action and went to NetAid, a nonprofit, to build it out.  The narrative of the game was using to explain to children (age 9-11)  how they could take social action by showing Peter and Penny Packet go around the world doing things like fighting AIDS in Zimbabwe. Kids earned points by getting others to play and getting adults to donate to campaigns.  There were 100,000 plays of the game in the first year.
  • Synaptic Crowd Vox Pop Experiments: This experiment involved people online asking questions of people being interviewed on the street.  Some of the questions asked include, “What is the best day of your life?”  and “Do you believe in universal health care?”  This set-up enables the online participants to conduct interview in real time, via an intermediary with a camera and phone.  Other people who are online vote on which questions should be asked, creating a live feedback loop.

This conference session was among the first presentations of this concept by Jenkins’ students, and they noted that they have more questions than answers at this point.  Still, it was an excellent and thought-provoking session.  Thank you, Anna van Someren, Clement Chau, Lana Schwartz, Ray Vichot, Benjamin Stokes, Ritesh Mehta, Lori Kido Lopez, M. Flourish Klink, Kevin Driscoll, Ray Vichot, Joshua McVeigh-Schultz and Melissa Broug. I’m glad you are exploring these important questions and look forward to your findings.