More Than a “Like”


Social media as a tool for change

by André Natta

Unlike

A funny thing happened on January 18, something that people didn’t exactly think could happen in the age of digital slacktivism. Yes, slacktivism is a recognized term nowadays, warranting its own page on Wikipedia. It is best described here as clicking the “like” button or something as a form of protest without necessarily doing much more. This time though, it was a little more than clicking a button.

Wikipedia (its English version), Reddit and Google were the major public faces in a national online onslaught against two bills, SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect our Internet Protocol Act), which opponents said would severely limit the Internet as we know it. Those sites and hundreds like them conducted “blackouts” of their content — some still making it accessible after you had read their case, others disabling their sites altogether for 8-24 hours, demonstrating to their visitors what the Internet could look like if either of those measures were to pass.

As of January 20, both proposed pieces of federal legislation had been pulled off the table to be “reworked,” in part due to more than three million people digitally signing their names to several petitions. It was a big success in demonstrating the potential power of the Internet and a telling sign of what happens when you don’t just broadcast but also invite others to take action for something. Whether we’ll see that level of interest in government in general from now on as a result is another story.

It did demonstrate once again that people from various backgrounds and interests could work together towards a common goal and be given tangible actions to perform via the Internet.

Clicking on a button has become an easy way of showing support for something, though it’s seen as not really getting folks to understand what they’re actually doing. Most often, it’s a case of wanting to win something or voting in a popularity contest. This time it was a case of seeing tangible results, both if you did or didn’t decide to make your voice heard. There was also a reason to check back in with the effort and find out exactly what happened that was a little more engaging than simply wanting to help someone have more likes and followers than someone else.

The lesson can translate to the local level as well.

Most times, people want to know why they’re being asked to do something. There has to be something after the click that keeps them motivated. Thanks in part to the latest Facebook changes, it can no longer simply be a case of “This is what we’re doing.” If anything, it demonstrates the reason why folks need to know the answers to at least “Why?” if not also, “What happens after this is over?”

It helps when you can explain why liking that fan page on Facebook or following that account on Twitter matters. There are many that look at these channels as ways to simply shoehorn a time-tested method of telling people about stuff. Unfortunately, at some point, those who use digital tools in that way get burned out quickly and are often the ones saying that “it” doesn’t work.

Maybe the blackout showed the need to tell people the significance of their actions and the weight they carry. For example, perhaps helping Birmingham get recognized as a “tasty town” could help lead to more people taking the entrepreneurial plunge and adding to the variety that exists in the region. It could also encourage more people to visit to see just what everyone is raving about. That gives the residents more options and more excuses to go exploring around town, leading to more recognition regionally and nationally. The cycle continues, and we’re the ones who benefit the most.

The perceived goal of social media is to encourage engagement, both on and offline. One can hope recent events showed just what engagement could truly look like and what it could do for our future. I’m not against starting another game of “Words with Friends” or sharing the latest viral video, but the idea of truly affecting change is something just a little more meaningful.

André Natta is the stationmaster for bhamterminal.com

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