A recent trend that has swept the social media sphere is the red equal signs that have undoubtedly been in your and everyone else’s newsfeed. These equal signs are a part of a protest to pressure the Supreme Court to recognize gay marriage. But how successful is this campaign? And moreover is there any credibility in the notion that social media can be a tool for real world change?
The answer to this question, I would argue, is complicated. Where on one side, Internet cynics such as Evgeny Morozov dub this type of protest as “slacktavism” – meaning an allusion of contribution followed by no real world action – optimists like Clay Shirky would argue that these movements personify the protest of the modern age. Essentially though, they are both right. To back this claim, I want you to consider two very different social media campaigns – Kony 2012 and the Marriage Equality equal sign. In support of Morozov’s argument, the Kony 2012 movement was a complete failure. Virtually as soon as someone pressed the share button to that viral video, the topic disappeared from discussion altogether – not to mention the overwhelming failure of the proposed paint the town night that was supposed to occur on April 20, 2012. This is a prime example of Internet consumers pretending that they are doing good for the world through digital compliance but then translating it in to absolutely zero real world action. However, the example of the equal sign movement had a much different effect. By simply getting the topic out there, and by showing people how members of their real life social network were in support of gay marriage, it removed carelessness as an option. In other words, in Baym-ish (extension of reality) recognition of real friends and family proudly showing their support for gay marriage people could no longer abstain from the issue. As a result, people inevitably realized that they too supported gay marriage and more pressure was put on the Supreme Court to vote in recognition of marriage equality. Because Kony 2012 presented a problem without an adequate or appropriate plan of action to get a solution it ultimately failed. On the other hand though, by just generating enough attention the Equal Sign movement forced many people whom would have otherwise preferred to stay unopinionated on the subject to pick a side – and inevitably this made a difference. So long as these digital social movements have a clear and realistic plan of action for accomplishing their goals, these movements can indeed be successful.