From Social Media to Social Change

In 1932, playwright Bertolt Brecht, aware of the burgeoning potential power of new communication technology, wrote that “radio must be changed from means of distribution to a means of communication. Radio would be the most wonderful means of communication imaginable in public life …if it were capable not only of transmitting but of receiving, of allowing the listener not only to hear but to speak and did not isolate him but brought him into contact” (Theory of Radio).

While over 70 years later Brecht’s statement seems dated, and indeed any hope of salvaging the radio as an engaging and participatory tool are long but exacerbated (save perhaps to those who listen and talk back to the CBC), we are once again beginning to hear and read more about the potential power of new media to truly solicit positive change.  This new-fangled media of which I speak is the very same that occupies not only hours of my generation’s day, but increasingly hours of our parent’s generation as well.  This technology is of course none other than that of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, FourSquare, MySpace, LinkedIN, and the rest of a seemingly endless list of social networking, sharing, and geo-locating websites that likely know more about us than our closest friends, family, and local census officer.

For over a billion of us (and growing) social media has become one of the central ways we communicate with friends, stay informed, entertain ourselves, purchase goods and services, and, in a plethora of other ways, engage with the world around us.  Both the public and private sectors have also recognized the power of social media as a tool for marketing and advertising, communicating with a potential clientele, and as a means to amass previously immeasurable sums of data; all from the comfort and isolation of a personal computer.  Perhaps this is why many would contest, plausibly on good ground, that participation in social media is antithetical to civil society and simply, as the late George Carlin so eloquently phrased, a form of Slactivism.  One must ask, however, can one really compare clicking a “Like” button to active volunteerism, or humanitarian work, or protest? I would suggest that the answer is no, but then, why compare apples to something that is clearly not an apple…for example an ergonomic desk chair?

While some continue to critique the growing number of ‘wired-in’ civil society organizations (CSO), humanitarian workers, and activists, it is increasingly apparent that this new technology has opened up a flood gate of social imagination and democratic creativity that will invariably continue to shape the means by which we not only engage with one another, but with issues affecting our own communities and communities abroad.

This is why I have decided to explore the following three themes, which highlight some of the ways that Social Media is contributing to positive social transformation.  I will offer this caution, however, (in 140 characters or less): “Take what you will from the following points, perhaps tweet about it, then, get some fresh air with a friend to keep the naysayers quiet!”

Amplifying the Voice of Marginalized Populations

Thanks to increased access to the internet, especially via mobile phones, more and more people living under oppressive regimes or in marginalized communities have been able to speak out and be heard with relative anonymity.  Perhaps the best example of this occurred last year following the highly disputed election results in Iran where protesters used their cameras, phones, and computers to post messages, video’s, and photos of the ensuing riots.  At one point, 221,744 people tweeted about the elections in 1 hour, prompting the US Government to request Twitter to postpone scheduled maintenance and many media outlets, with limited access on the ground, to pick up the story.  During the same 24 hour period, 3000 video’s pertaining to the election and riots in Iran were uploaded onto YouTube,  and 2,250,000 similarly themed blog posts  had been posted. While this is but one example, all one needs to do is follow trends online to see that from nearly every corner of the earth people on the ground are posting about issues pertaining to a plethora of social, economic, political, and environmental issues relative to their own community.

While the tweets coming from the ground in Iran were by no means substitution for the protest itself, they were a tremendously valuable tool for raising public awareness of the event and for making available the unedited perceptions and emotions of the people directly involved.

For more information on some of the ways that Social Media has been used to amplify the voice of marginalized populations, check out the following links:

#FreeMediaVe: Venezuelans Using Twitter to Protest Media Crackdown

Mindblowing #IranElection Stats: 221,744 Tweets Per Hour at Peak

How Twitter was used to Scrutinise the Zimbabwe Elections with Sokwanele

Student ‘Twitters’ his way out of Egyptian jail

Twitter Seen As Tool For Social Change In China

…Or to search your own Trends online check out or to find out what is trending right now on Twitter just search any phrase on

Improving Civil Society and Grassroots Mobilization and Engagement

Over the past 5 years, many CSO’s have greatly expanded their reach and support base through the effective use of social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and Youtube.  While this is still largely foreign territory for some, utilizing social media can be strategically beneficial on multiple fronts.  The most basic of these is perhaps improved and more egalitarian communication methods. Unlike the vertical nature of a newsletter or annual report, building an online community around your cause allows you to communicate directly and instantly with your supporters, and allows your supporters to communicate horizontally with each other.  The supporter is no longer placed in a passive position but becomes active and responsible within the cause’s community.

Social media is also enabling individuals to create, join, and grow groups around issues they care about outside of the direct control of a CSO.  Various cause-related applications are also helping accelerate this trend.  For example, the Facebook Causes Birthday application encourages an individual who is a member of a Cause to use their birthday as an excuse to raise money for a CSO. As CSO’s begin to engage their own communities in these online conversations, they are able to reach more people than ever before, and are using less effort and money to do so.

Finally, social media enhances a CSO’s ability to market itself in a cost-effective way thanks to the viral nature of many social media sites.  For example, if a CSO posts an article about the importance of supporting local agriculture and one of its supporters chooses to “like” or “retweet” this article, it is automatically posted to all of that individuals ‘friend/follower list’.  All it takes is one of those friends to view the article, for it once again to be posted to an entirely new list of people.

To Learn More about how Social Media is being used by Civil Society check out this great feature in Mashable.

Aiding Knowledge Production and Sharing

A few weeks ago, while reading an article I found on Wikipedia, I noticed a slight error. Being the geeky enthusiast that I am, I made the choice to register on Wikipedia and edit the information, though thinking little of the gesture. It was only later that week that the broader significance of this bit of e-happenstance became more apparent. This two-minute interaction was not only about correcting a slight nuance for my own benefit, but, about participating in the direct production and dissemination of knowledge; a feat previous generations only achieved by completing a PHD or perhaps by acquiring a position within a news media firm.  Further, this nugget of knowledge was produced for free, and made immediately available at no cost to everyone with access to the internet.  Barring issues related to access (which will be the theme of Part 2 in this series), Wikipedia, itself an online community, has forever altered the way the individual accesses, produces, and shares knowledge.

For people living in developing communities with poor access to quality education, this tool can be tremendously valuable. Take Wikiversity, for example, one of the many projects instigated and hosted by the not-for-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Wikiversity is a project devoted to the creation of learning resources, learning projects, and research for use in all levels, types, and styles of education from pre-school to university, including professional training and informal learning. Best of all, all of the resources, lesson plans, and activities are available to anyone with the internet completely free of charge (Wikiversity: Welcome).

While Wikipedia is not often thrown into the same categories as Facebook, for example, it is an online community that fosters social interaction through knowledge sharing, and, boasts close to 13,000,000 registered users and over 300,000 regularly active editors (  This capacity to share knowledge is only further enhanced though sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Just as Brecht foresaw a radio through which the listener could actively communicate, Wikipedia, as well as sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube (and the rest) have created not only an encyclopedia, but an interactive and electronic public sphere, where that too is possible.  So, while the radio seems to have lost its place in the hearts and imaginations of the engaged citizenry, the Brechtian sentiment and desire to equalize, and effectively utilize media to a positive end seems to have exponentially grown.  Whether one is registered on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Youtube, or Wikipedia, the individual’s ability to speak, be heard, and organize has only increased.  And, while this can by no means fully replace active participation in the civil society that exists ‘out there’, it is pointless to even draw a comparison between the two.  Social media is a tool, just like a protest slogan, or a petition, or a board table, and, just as the other items mentioned, is only as effective as the people who choose to actively participate in creating change.



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Categories: Technology


4 Comments on “From Social Media to Social Change”

  1. eldonoman
    September 4, 2010 at 2:59 pm #

    Personally speaking, despite being a skeptic in the past, I’ve been converted rather quickly into becoming a believer in the power of social media over the last year or so.

    While I agree you in general here, I add a couple caveats.

    First, while social media certainly represents a fantastic resource for activists and social organizations, the privacy and security of it as a medium is potentially problematic.

    Those repressive governments you mentioned are indeed wary of the internet’s growing potential to spread dissent, and as we saw with China and Google, the latter’s CEO’s and executive’s are much more concerned with protecting their markets than in ensuring the credibility and accessibility of their product. We are seeing the same thing happening with Blackberry right now, as they are being pressured in ’emerging’ markets such as India and UAE to allow governments access to their encrypted network. Its not that these businessman are so inherently callous and singlely business-minded, even though many of them are, but that these companies are simply subject to the exigencies of global capitalism, meaning that their shares probably will tumble and/or collapse if they don’t cave in to the demands of these goverments.

    With this being said, i’m not sure if at this moment google and blackberry can be equated with facebook, wikipedia or twitter in this sense. Perhaps. Perhaps in the future. I don’t know.

    Second, on the topic of ‘repressive’ governments, its kind of silly to include Venezuela along with the likes of Zimbabwe, Egypt, and China. The ‘marginalized’ populations one would speak of there happen to be the upper-middle and upper classes, who oppose a popularly elected government through a disproportionately opposition-controlled media, the latter of which has consistently and openly promoted a campaign to destablize the government through irresponsible practices and actions that have more than justified their licenses either being revoked or not being renewed by the government’s regulatory agencies. This context is almost never included in any reports of Chavez’s ‘censoring’ of the media, which I believe would occur in any other country with a capable regulatory agency where a media outlet had followed a similar course of action.

    Sorry man, I’m sure you included the Venezuelan link in there benignly, but I’m sure you also understand why I couldn’t leave that one alone 🙂

    Good piece.

  2. September 4, 2010 at 7:16 pm #

    Indeed you are correct in assuming that my inclusion of Venezuela in that list was simply a means of showing how social media is being used, and by no means a statement about the political situation there (of which I only know a little about). I appreciate your detailed response however and I look forward to meeting up and hearing more about your Venezuelan expedition!


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