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BEAN Minneapolis Blog

Tweeting Alone
Like many of the smartphone and social media out there, one of the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is to check my Facebook news stream on my trusty Blackberry. Usually, it's filled with links to fun stories, latest life updates, etc. When I tapped onto Facebook yesterday morning though, I thought maybe I missed a memo from my alma mater. I had to rub my bleary eyes and do a double check.

You see, I graduated from University of Washington for my undergraduate degree, whose mascot is the might Husky and the school color is royal purple. This added to my confusion yesterday, because more than half of my friends on Facebook seemed to have changed their profile photo to purple and were making reference to a "Spirit Day". I thought this was the latest campaign to raise school spirit for University of Washington. I was happy and surprised to see such a large percentage of my friends are Huskies fan. I was obviously wrong.

It turns out that October 20 was coined "Spirit Day" and people were encouraged to use the color purple to show support for LGBT young people who are victims of bullying. It was first conceived by a teenager from Canada, Brittany McMillan, and it quickly gain momentum first through social media like Twitter and Facebook, then through various celebrities and finally through mass media channels. Within two weeks of conception, 1.3 million people pledged to participate in Spirit Day on Facebook, and it was a sea of purple on October 20, 2010 on all social media.

Does this story sound familiar to you? It should. We have all done this several times in the last couple of years. Do you remember people changing their Facebook profile photo green to show support for the Iranian election protest? How about when all the ladies were posting tweets and status updates about the color of their bras to show support for breast cancer research? Maybe you participated in these meme for social change online yourself, and it helped create a sense of participation and impact.

Malcom Gladwell's recent article in the New Yorker called "Small Change" questioned the effectiveness of such social media-only movements. He argues that social media gives people the illusion of actively engaging in civic society without actually having to do the heavy lifting such as actually participating. Is changing your profile photo and tweeting about things really sufficient to bring about the necessary change? Gladwell's article uses the civil rights movement to illustrate how sustained social changes need strong personal links in order to succeed. Social media is more likely to facilitate weak impersonal links that, while better than nothing, will require other social constructs to reinforce into a powerful force.

Gladwell's lament about strong links being replaced by weak links was echoed in Robert Putnam's 1995 article,"Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital". In his article and subsequent book, Putnam tracks U.S.' across the board decline in citizen's participation in civil society since the 1970s. Less and less of voting, running for office, Parent Teacher Association participation, block parties, writing letters to the editors and even sports organizations like bowling leagues.

The 2008 Obama presidential campaign illustrated the power of amassing and activating a large number of weak links. Using social media, millions of young people donated $20, retweeted campaign messages and voted for the first time. Then, we went home and waited for the "Change" with a capital "C" to happen. But without sustained nurturing and constant participation, the weak links dissolved instead of forging into strong links.

At almost exactly the same time as people are busy editing their profile photos to be something purple and clever to support LGBT spirit day in U.S. and Canada, on the other side of the globe, the Ugandan newspaper "Rolling Stones" published a list of names, address and photos of "top 100 homosexuals" on its front page with a yellow banner across the top that screams "HANG THEM!" At least four people on the list have already been attacked and many are in hiding.

Do you think tweeting about this will make it stop?


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