Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Beyond ‘Slacktivism’: Reframing Social Media as Independent Media

Originally published at Opine Season

I write a lot about social justice issues—identity, power, privilege, the power of language, etc. A common criticism of these pieces is that they don’t really change anyone’s minds. People who think that gay people cause earthquakes, or that racism isn’t a real problem any more, or that all poor people choose to be poor—they’re just not interested in being challenged. They believe what they want for their own reasons and it’s pointless to argue with them.

Frankly, I agree. Nothing I write is ever going to convince Rush Limbaugh to become a force for progressive ideals. But that’s not why I write.

If me and Rush agree on anything, it’s that there’s a culture war going on. We just happen to be on opposite sides. And as is true in any war, there are allies, enemies, and everyone else—the people caught in the middle, the ones who haven’t yet picked a side, the ones who believe in one side or the other but don’t actively support either.

Our work, as progressives, should be less about convincing conservatives to “see the light” as it should be reaching out to these people in the middle—some of whom might be our cousins, old high school classmates, co-workers or others; in other words, our Facebook friends.

Let’s reframe social media as something more than “letting people know what you had for lunch.” Social media is independent media. It’s art. It’s Adrian Veidt sitting in front of 100 TVs at once. It’s power. So much of the commentary around social media and social change has focused on the short-term (Twitter can help organize direct actions) and the medium-term (all these slacktivists are posting links to articles but not getting involved); but it’s the long-term impact that has the most potential.

One of the first things you learn as an artist is that promotion is about long-term thinking. You hand someone a flyer with your name on it, they glance at it and throw it away. A week later, they see your name on a website. Another week later, someone else hands them another flyer with your name on it. A month later, they hear you on the radio, and all of these small moments coalesce into “I may have to check out this person’s music.” There’s no magical eureka moment—just a steady push.

Progressive change is the same way. It’s a process. It’s a slog. Every little push helps. We need activists and politicians working to create sustainable, institutional change, but we also need everyone using their voices to help build the foundation for that change.

Of course, no amount of social media presence can replace real organizing. But it’s not an either/or. Let’s not discount the impact that social media can have in allowing all of us to have a hand in shaping the larger conversation. As individuals, we can be more active and intentional about using Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram and our blogs to help create the world we want. As organizations, we can embrace not just the platforms themselves, but the new, dynamic culture that has arisen alongside the sites and tools.

And in the same way that social media is independent media, so is theater, and hip hop, and blogging, and poetry, and zines, and just starting up conversations with your friends. There are a million ways—especially today—to stand up for your values and beliefs, to nudge the larger conversation in one direction or the other. No individual action like this, by itself, is going to change anything, sure; but no large-scale cultural, social or political change is going to come without these individual actions, either. Fortunately, we can do both.

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