Let me introduce you to my friend Lynn Hector. We became friends my senior year at the University of Oregon while working at Allen Hall Public Relations, a student-run PR agency run out of the School of Journalism and Communication. Not sure if I would have survived that year without her. She was my study buddy. She was always willing to swap work for edits or walk to a coffee shop for fuel.
She was a double major, journalism and political science, and in the honor school. I know, right? She’s just awesome like that. I’m grateful that you get to hear from her today.
Two years ago this month, I was wrapping up the capstone project of my college academic career: my senior honors thesis. Combining my interest in the political landscape with my communications major, I decided to research the 2008 Obama campaign’s use of social media; specifically, how the campaign’s community blogging platform had the broader effect of democratizing the political campaign process. For the purposes of my thesis (and without going into too much detail here), I loosely defined “democratization” as the creation and leveraging of new opportunities for participation.
In the two years since finishing the project, I have been fascinated watching the ripple effect of social networks on the broader democratization of organizing strategies, from advocacy to activism to protest. For those who questioned the power of social networks when they first appeared, the impact networks like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have had on recent protests from Bahrain to Egypt to Libya have likely quelled much of that criticism. Without reiterating all of these examples (Mashable provided a great review of 2011 social media uprisings), I want to highlight a recent illustration of web-powered democratization: change.org.
In the past, petitioning meant standing on a busy college campus thoroughfare trying to make eye contact with everyone that passed by (UO alums you know what I’m talking about) or old fashioned door knocking by an organization representative. Not anymore. Change.org (see some victories stemming from change.org petitions) has taken petitioning online, opening the door to widespread participation in starting, discovering and supporting petitions for a variety of causes. While some might argue this website isn’t necessarily democratizing petitioning as a form of activism as it simply gives petitioners a new outlet (a transitive effect), I would argue that change.org has inspired individuals to take action when they wouldn’t have otherwise (a trans-formative effect). Case in point: Would the petition advocating for the prosecution of Trayvon Martin’s killer have an astounding 2.25 million supporters had petitioners relied on college campuses and door knocking to gather support? I doubt it.
Change.org is just one example of the ways online communication hubs are continuing to fuel participation in social activism and organizing. I’m excited to dust off my thesis once the 2012 Obama campaign gets underway and see how this year’s campaign uses social media for grassroots organizing in different ways than were used four years ago.