Over the last five years, I have grown accustomed to watching others use and abuse technology in an unaffected way. The artless bind that has fused the modern man/woman’s dominant hand with his/her smart phone is no longer a disheartening image to my conditioned eyes. The prevalence of the girl who can’t take her eyes off her newsfeed or the guy with the Bluetooth/poor voice barometer combo had suggested that technology and social media were leading us toward a future defined by proof of digital prowess rather than proof of compassion. But in the grand scheme of things, these technological triumphs are merely simple advancements. Exciting, (a cool new thing to do with your phone or a senseless cat video), but not eternal. Viral, but not virtuous. But what has recently accompanied this somewhat gloomy image, and is trumping the asininity of cat videos, is the everlasting good that truly has emerged from technology and the social media craze.
As 2011 wanes, I can’t help but notice that social media actually has had a really righteous year. Not “Siri” righteous, but “promoting-independence/reporting-social-injustice/generating-calls-to-action” righteous. Last week on Mashable, Intel social media strategist Ekaterina Walker proclaimed that 2011 ultimately will be defined by social democracy. The mere hashtag metrics may not conclusively prove this, but in terms of eternal good, and the greater historical significance of the success of the events that social media facilitated, democracy truly has found a new voice.
January 25, 2011. After 30 years of social strife, Egyptians took the streets in the name of democracy. What was spectacular was not simply the “Day of Rage,” but rather how the occurrence pervaded social media. People across the world identified and sympathized with those on the streets, and as the oppressive government attempted to quell the crowds by disabling cell towers and blocking Twitter, their social media following came to the rescue. Local households and businesses opened their Wi-Fi networks and the voices of the protestors flooded the world in a stream of retweets, images, and hashtags (both #egypt and #jan25 were in the top 8 hashtags of the year). The protest itself was significant, but arguably more so was the inspiration that snowballed from it, a result of the medium it was traveling. What commenced as the Arab Spring reverberated across the digital landscape, fueling revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, a civil war in Libya, and civil uprisings in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen.
September 17, 2011. In opposition to corporate greed and irresponsibility a few thousand people gathered in NYC’s Zuccotti Park. They not only started a groundbreaking movement, but recognized and utilized the viral potential of social media to facilitate what became known as the #Occupy movement, which organized, mobilized and communicated primarily through Twitter and Facebook. Within a couple of weeks, the Occupy movement had spawned countless similar movements across the country and world, allowing disheartened individuals to share their sentiments and unite under a common hashtag regardless of their location. They also shared messages and media through the "We Are the 99 Percent" Tumblr, another burgeoning social media outlet.
November 18, 2011. When UC-Davis students were pepper sprayed during a peaceful #Occupy protest, the cruelty was published and disseminated instantly through social media. Images and conversations were occurring before those students had even left the quad. Students glued to their cell phones weren’t merely using them to check on a college party for that night, they were using them to reveal social injustice to the world in real time.
Sure, social media has initiated and supported positive movements this year, but we also have had to put up with the debauchery of the Charlie Sheen and the #tigerblood movement (the number 2 hashtag of the year), the viral music video of YouTube sensation Rebecca Black (the top musician tweeted in 2011), and other mind-numbing nonsense. But Internet researcher guru Ethan Zuckerman (recently named director of the MIT Center for Civic Media) argues that we must simply take the bad with the good, because they actually work in chorus with each other. According to the “Cute Cat Theory,” when people use (or misuse) the Internet to look at cute cats (or cute dogs, see below), they inadvertently secure space for activists and others spreading a message that may provoke government censorship. Low-brow posts with viral viewing rates maintain the outlet by making the medium more popular and, thus, harder for governments to censor. Zuckerman argues, “Cute cats are collateral damage when governments block sites. And even those who could care less about presidential shenanigans are made aware that their government fears online speech so much that they're willing to censor the millions of banal videos on DailyMotion to block a few political ones.” The consequences of “killing the cats” for a government, even a prohibitive one, include drawing the scrutiny of other countries as well as stoking the ire of its own people and encouraging them to develop sophisticated tactics to circumvent Internet censors. (You can hear him talk more here: Arab Democracy & Social Media with Ethan Zuckerman)
Lastly, social media has demonstrated the ability to generate an overwhelming global response to countries in crisis. In Japan’s time of need following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March, social media outlets reached out and facilitated the success of various aid initiatives, many using the (5th most popular) #japan hashtag. Social game maker Zynga even implemented a mechanism in many of their games where your actions in the game made donations on behalf of Japan.) Makes you wonder how social media could have affected Hurricane Katrina aid had it been as prevalent as it is today.
Here at Renegade, we are practicing charitable social media during the weeks leading up to the holidays. Our social media mascot, Pinky the French Bulldog (@PinkysContest), is getting in the giving spirit as he hosts a holiday photo contest. Through our Facebook page, we will be curating photos of “Festive Frenchies” and donating $0.10 for every ‘Like’ our page receives to the French Bulldog Rescue Network. We’re not fighting tyranny here, but in our own small way we’re using social media to help out a few four-legged friends in need. Take part in Pinky's Festive Frenchie Foto Contest here!
Has social media impacted your life in a positive way in the last year? We’d love to hear about it!
- Scott Anthony Procops
He tweets here @TheS_P500