Discover more from Context and Content
From Hashtags to Real Change
The Effect of Social Media on Movements
A recent book review by Louis Kim for Comment offered an interesting observation about the effect of the internet on social movements, looking specifically at the rise of social justice movements over the past decade. The whole review is worth a read (as I’m sure the reviewed book is as well), but today we’ll zoom in on a specific element here.
The book being reviewed, The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas by Gal Beckerman, outlines what the reviewer calls the first of “The Three Acts of Social Movements:”
Social movements might be thought of as comprising three acts. The first act is the subject of Beckerman’s book: small, enclosed, private conversations. The second act is the public salvos of protests, marches, and boycotts that first etch history books and now glow on our screens. The third act deploys power for lasting gains and the acceptance of a new normal.
In discussing the second act, the initial public conversation before the power of social changes seeps into society, Kim looks at the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement as an example:
In 2014, #blacklivesmatter appeared in only about 400 tweets in one month, about a year after it was first coined. But soon, there were spikes, each time coinciding with a particular death (usually of a black man at the hands of police) or where a legal ruling fell short.
After walking through some specific examples of this effect, Kim notes:
The problem was that these spikes were part of a sawtooth pattern with lulls between the peaks—social media’s spotlight flits from spectacle to spectacle, outrage to outrage. BLM activists exhausted themselves trying to hold on to their spotlight as little changed institutionally and politically. Also, relationships frayed as airtime, instead of real change, became the commodity for which activists vied.
I see this pattern play out in society over and over again. In thinking about incentives towards change, it’s so easy in that second step to confuse headlines, tweets, and Facebook posts for the real down-in-the-ditches work it takes to make real change happen in society. It becomes a self-reinforcing phenomenon when individuals celebrate their social media wins as actual wins.
In 2015, one activist group, Dream Defenders, quit social media for ten weeks after burning out from keeping up with social media. Beckerman quotes Rachel Gilmer, Dream Defenders’ strategist, about the lessons the social media hiatus taught her: I think social media created a sense of false camaraderie among people. . . . We debated but in a petty way. What is the short quippy thing you can say about somebody else’s politics in 140 characters? But that isn’t strategy.
Tweets and pithy comments only get you so far. How can we become less concerned about who wins the zinger war and more dedicated to the long work of Act 3: real change?
It starts with how we handle ourselves and what actions we reward in others. It’s relatively effortless to make impassioned social media posts that degrade those in power; it’s much harder to dig in to understand what led to the underlying circumstance in the first place and offer honest, constructive feedback.
So the next time you’re hovering over that share button, stop and consider: is there a better way for me to contribute to the change I want to see in the world?
Context and Content is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.