People marching in lines. Banners, signs and paraphernalia everywhere. A familiar scene at rallies and protests. At first glance, little beside the intensity has changed since the late nineteenth century when the street first became the stage.
Yet, take another look. The seasoned activists march with their chins raised high. The youth, on the other hand, keep their heads bowed and hug their smart phones. Tweet must be sent. Confirm. A photo is shared. If a protest is not tweeted, did it even take place?
We increasingly consume information online and use social media for political rants. It’s fair to ask, then: Should we still be marching and protesting in physical space? Riots and rallies seem like phenomena of the distant past.
Enter the digital age. There #Kony2012 awaits. It was a masterfully orchestrated campaign by Invisible Children, a San Diego based group, which caught the world’s attention in 2012 and spawned numerous debates. Few still remember what this was all about (fyi, they have yet to catch that Kony guy). Now, it’s just a case study on how to tap into millennials’ idealism and meet them where they are: online.
The secret to their success is rather simple. Mix sleek graphics with a thirty-minute video laying out the issue in simple terms. Add some punchy lines and a memorable title, then blast the message via social media. The Invisible Children capitalized on our obsessions with power and fame. They first nudged ‘validators’ of popular culture to tweet and share their simple message. From there, the grassroots took note and kept sharing away. Instantly, the media latched onto the story and spun it through the never-ending news cycle
But the droves of virtual protestors didn’t translate into meaningful change. On the contrary, if you visit the Invisible Children’s website today you will hear Lisa Dougan, Director of Civic Engagement, say “you can’t have a movement without moving.” The group recognized that mobilizing people in physical space is crucial.
Tweets don’t topple dictators; crowds in Tahrir can confirm that. The number of likes doesn’t correlate with the power of the movement. The Green Movement activists in Iran know this best. But when labor activists left the assembly line, there was quite a stir. The suffrage movement was effective because women banded together and marched, even when the bystanders yelled: “Where are your skirts?” The marriage equality movement is real in some states not because we changed our Facebook profile pictures to equal and red. The movement exists because we continue to wage prolonged legal battles and bear witness to lives lost and love forbidden.
To march and rally is to build a community. Human touch and personal connections are becoming a rare commodity in our tech-enhanced world. The warmth of human bodies gives us strength and courage. Our voices echo louder when we are in a group. Even when there is no one to hear our chant, our cause will live on if we gather.
Yet, we must not become luddites, either. The job of a modern-day activist is to build a strong community using all available tools. We must tweet, record, post and share. Also, let’s not be afraid to test out new advocacy tools, such as Thunderclap – “crowd-speaking” platform amplifying ideas online. The audience no longer looks through the window for news or consults the community board. Instead, they stare at the screen, laugh at lolcats, and subscribe to updates in real time.
Will the new digitally enhanced efforts reap results? The answer is unclear. Decision-makers listen to the whispers of the special interests, while turning the volume of the masses down. We cannot let them get away with it. Instead, let’s turn up the pressure both offline and in the yet-uncharted digital advocacy realm.