As I’ve been following the viral videos — like the campaign to bring to justice the international war criminal of Ugandan Joseph Kony — and web-based campaigns for all sorts of valuable social activism and philanthropy, I’ve been astounded to see the rapidly growing power of social media to motivate millions of people to speak out and become engaged in their world. This makes me very hopeful.
I admit, however, that I am a bit skeptical, if not exactly cynical, about the depth and strength of online activism. I hope this is a generational bias, and I hope that I am wrong. I sign countless online petitions, and I “like” all sorts of causes on Facebook. I even post web messages and write follow-up letters and e-fax them to the local offices of my elected representatives and make a phone call or two. [pullquote]‘…sustained face-to-face contact was essential.’[/pullquote]
For the 18-to-24-year-old readers (who are the majority of my readers), I ask for your patience for six paragraphs as I talk about ancient history. I became active in social causes and politics in Chicago in the early 1970s, where sustained face-to-face contact was essential. Knocking on doors for environmental causes (Citizens for Better Environment) and political candidates provided my first experiences of grassroots activism.
In a Chicago-style political campaign, my role as a precinct canvasser repeatedly brought me into face-to-face contact with voters over the course of a multi-month campaign, during which I was expected to identify my candidate’s chances with each and every voter who would come to the door when I knocked. A surprising number of people actually responded to my knocking and invited me in! (This memory feels quaint.)
My job was to “identify the plusses”, among the voters, the supporters. As election day approached, we were expected to find out what time of day each “plus” usually voted. Then, on election day, our volunteer poll watchers spent a lot of time to watching the clock and dispatching runners to our supporters’ homes to bring them in, if they had not voted by the time they told us was their norm.[pullquote]‘People don’t respond to strangers knocking on their doors today in the same way voters responded in Chicago in the 1970s.’[/pullquote]
I saw a similar kind of approach when I volunteered for the Obama campaign in 2008, but there were dramatic changes. Obama’s community organizing principles, which Sarah Palin so snarkily derided at the Republican National Convention, included thousands of voters whose only contact with the campaign had been online, either on Facebook or the campaign’s social network-friendly website. In addition to the many online and text messages sent to supporters, local volunteers also followed up to ensure everyone showed up at the polls.
People don’t respond to strangers knocking on their doors today in the same way voters responded in Chicago in the 1970s. These days, I am living on the southern edge of metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia, where the practice of making contact through door-knocking campaigning never has been a tradition. The few who come to the door are either entirely uninterested in politics, or they are working from home and don’t appreciate the interruption, or the “solicitation”, as many of them called it. (So much for Civics class! Remember Civics?)
So, as I read about a whole new generation of activists engaging with issues online, I admit I feel a visceral excitement…but with many doubts. I’m still not convinced a text message or a “Like” on Facebook, or a “tweet” on Twitter indicates a commitment of any depth. I am open to being proven wrong.
Maybe the tens of millions of people who watched the Kony video on youtube.com will remain committed to the cause awhile. However, it struck me as an amazingly missed opportunity to see that the documentary’s producers had not included any “get the info” effort to capture the names and email addresses and/or mobile phone numbers of the millions who clicked onto youtube to watch their effective dramatic video. (This is known as a “squeeze page,” and it’s fundamental to building a supporter list.) How do they intend to build and sustain the international pressure needed to bring a criminal to justice?
The current generation of multi-taskers is bombarded with stimuli from all forms of media. For activists, the challenge is to hold onto a slice of their attention beyond the nano-second in which their interest was captured in a click. Otherwise, the surge of multi-million clicks will amount to little more than a footnote in the history of social marketing. And the tyrants will continue unchallenged until the next big, (too-late) glitzy campaign.
Prove me wrong, young folks. I’m ready for another surge.