Occupy Facebook — social media and the fight for social change

Ahmed Maher - photo courtesy of wired.com

http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/10/egypt-occupy-wall-street/

After participating in class discussion this week, especially with our pop quiz, I knew that I would end up writing about Occupy Wall Street as a social movement, and particularly about how Facebook and social media have contributed to the cause that has been making national headlines for the last couple months.

For those that don’t know, Occupy Wall Street is a growing movement of protests across the nation where the “99%” are protesting against the richest 1% of the nation, which the movement’s unofficial de facto website claims is “writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future” (http://occupywallst.org/about/). Protestors have held signs with everything from “We are the 99%” written on them to absurd sayings and nonsensical quips that have just worked to gather attention for the movement. Even though many would argue that Occupy Wall Street has very few specific goals or just vague demands overall, the movement is mainly protesting for a change to the culture of corrupt power of multinational corporations and giant banks that have concentrated wealth among a very small 1% while millions of others are living in poverty, jobless, or both.

Without any true political leaders within Congress (especially since Congressmen are mostly included in the 1%), the movement has relied on using platforms in the public forum, particularly that of social media. Inspired by the youth revolutions in Egypt and Libya, which utilized Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and tumblr to spread messages, coordinate protests, and fuel the fire behind the movement, Occupy Wall Street has done the same thing. I even remember seeing the first call for Bank Transfer Day some months ago on my own Facebook page — I was invited over a month before I had even heard of Occupy Wall Street.

However, summary aside, Occupy Wall Street as a movement has become the poster child not only for social change during these times, but it is also the poster child for the way that social media is becoming the main vehicle for communicating messages of social change and fueling the fire for the uprisings and rebellions that have led to so much social change in the recent past.

For example, it’s clear that the use of Facebook in Egypt and Libya was instrumental in the overthrow of the governments in those nations. By coordinating widespread communication among the younger, tech-savvy generations, social media acted as a sort of catalyst for the emotions that were residing within so many oppressed citizens of these nations, leading to the culmination, rebellion, and revolutionary movement, as I would classify it, that led to the overthrow of the ruling powers. This success, as suggested by both the wired.com article and Occupy site, has carried over to Occupy Wall Street and its current work, as social media has been instrumental in advancing and developing this social movement.

The use of Facebook, Twitter, and the “We Are the 99 Percent” tumblr has allowed Occupy Wall Street to progress through multiple levels of social movement. According to our textbook by Conley, it could be argued that OWS was in the emergence stage when the first activists founding the movement began expressing discontent with the “1%.” However, I think that without the likes of Facebook and other social media, the movement would’ve had serious trouble getting off its feet for two reasons — 1. the movement was vague enough that it wouldn’t have been able to gain momentum without the easy mode of dissemination available through Facebook and 2. Facebook and social media are now perhaps the most common and easy way to spread information, so almost any movement would be advanced by Facebook during these times. The support Facebook has given to OWS has moved it from emergence to coalescence, since the coordination available through Facebook has led to mobilization of resources and concrete action, which in this case is protesters “occupying” common areas and protesting.

I would argue that Facebook and social media could lead to the routinization or institutionalization of the movement, but unfortunately the methods used by OWS aren’t legitimate enough to stand on their own. Illegal loitering in parks isn’t akin to the sit-in strikes and marches of the Civil Rights Movement, so illegitimacy could undermine the whole movement after awhile.

Nevertheless, OWS ubiquitous nature thanks to the use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media has brought it to the attention of national media, which I believe was the original intent of the movement. Since so many protestors made vague demands or didn’t even know what they were demanding, but rather only that they weren’t satisfied with the current economy, getting this sort of attention and putting the “1%” might be victory enough, as it might also be for the effectiveness of social media in social movements.

Facebook and the Sociology of Relationships — “It’s Complicated”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/mar/08/facebook-us-divorces

Since last week was Thanksgiving break, I’ve been at a loss as to where to turn for more sociology/social media content. So, in typical fashion, I decided to just take a look at my own social media habits, both past and present, and the habits I’ve seen from my peers. But, this time I decided to find an outside article so I wasn’t just going on and on about my own experience without some sort of legitimate “research” or something else to go off of.

To sum up the article I linked to for those of you short on time, Richard Adams from The Guardian discusses how U.S. lawyers are pointing to Facebook as one of the leading causes of relationship troubles and divorces, although Adams himself disagrees and says that Facebook isn’t the cause for these issues, but rather the people using Facebook are.

On this point, I agree with Adams. Facebook itself is nothing more than a medium through which people communicate, socialize, and are socialized. Facebook simply provides people with another medium to publicize (or not publicize) their relationships and lives both within and outside of them. This can cause a number of problems for a number of reasons.

By publicizing one’s relationship and one’s life outside of it, there’s is an increased exposure of both parts of one’s life, which can lead to increased curiosity or “creeping” by the other member of the relationship, or outsiders who just want to get a look at it. This publicizing of one’s affection for his/her partner can sometimes lead to a cheapening of sentiments, feelings, etc., or at least a loss of sincerity due to how publicly they are displayed. It’s kind of like the couple that can’t keep their hands off of one another in public. They might think it is genuine affection, but the awkwardness created by the public forum can lead to problems. In the social media world, this can be seen through overly affectionate statuses and wall posts, or photos of couples kissing or displaying other forms of affection.

To return the focus to sociology and the divorce issue — since public Facebook relationships are becoming more commonplace in some instances, people are be conditioned to perform relationships in this public forum, as well as to keep track of one’s significant other via their profile, which can lead to trust issues, unnecessary jealousy, or even just a general sense of over-involvement with the significant other that can lead to tension or the need for a break, which can often turn sour.

As far as my own personal involvement is concerned, I guess I can speak on this from a perspective not of hypocrisy, but rather from more of a “takes one to know one” point of view. My past relationship ended up being very open and publicized via Facebook, which led to a bunch of jokes from my friends. It became kind of a mock sensation via social media, something that I was sort of sucked into unknowingly until I began to be embarrassed by my own posts, which was both awkward for me because I wanted to discontinue it without seeming cold or acting as if I changed due to peer pressure. However, since that experience, I have no desire for such a thing to happen again, as I feel that relationships don’t deserve to be, or even belong on, Facebook or other social media websites that will cheapen them through unnecessary publicizing.

Essentially, Facebook and social media is changing the sociology of relationships how it’s changing the sociology of so many other areas of life. It is adding one more facet to something that is being complicated by other technological advances. But, unlike the sociology of communication (if I can coin that) which is being almost inevitably changed by Facebook, the altering of relationships due to Facebook isn’t exactly necessary. Whether or not someone decides to go “Facebook Official” is something that is entirely up to them, as well as is whether or not someone decides to carry his/her real-world affections over to their significant other’s Facebook Wall. As highly personal as relationships obviously are, that’s a nice thing to know.

Walden, Facebook, and the disappearance of “Solitude”

Photo courtesy of amcboston.org

Prior to the start of Thanksgiving break, I was obligated to stick around Columbia until Saturday afternoon in order to fulfill a number of obligations as a ResLife employee at Mark Twain Hall. Most of my friends went home on Friday, and I was confined to the building from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m., so my social options were limited. Things were so dead that even Facebook was relatively inactive, no matter how often I refreshed my NewsFeed or switched over to Twitter.

Essentially out of options for the rest of my Friday, I decided to start knocking out the laundry list of homework I had lined up for break, which included reading a few chapters of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. The only assigned chapter I had left was “Solitude,” so I decided to turn off Spotify, log out of Facebook, and get the most out of my evening alone.

It turns out that reading about my current condition not only helped me to feel better about my night alone, but gave me the content I needed for another blog post. I realized that Thoreau — philosopher, writer and lecturer that he was — was also a great sociologist in the sense that he had a great sociological imagination and was a master at making the familiar unfamiliar. I started to read the rest of Walden after finishing “Solitude” and realized that Thoreau discusses and questions everything from our capitalist society to what is truly “necessary” to our survival. As he said in the second chapter/section of Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” By moving into the woods and building a cabin by Walden Pond, Thoreau was able to analyze what parts of our society were truly necessary to living a satisfactory and fulfilling life, which ended up being one of the more notable sociological experiments of his time.

But, how does this all relate to social media? Although the Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr of today were almost 200 years ahead of Thoreau’s time, his thoughts on society and our connections to one another are still relevant to todays’ sociological discussion. Thoreau sought to question the value of constant interaction with others in society, and why being alone was often denoted as a negative thing: “I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life.” Throughout the chapter, Thoreau challenges the common belief of being alone equating to loneliness and sadness, asking “can we not do without the society of our gossips a little while under these circumstances — have our own thoughts to cheer us?”

I think this question is the key to what we should be looking at in our own society, especially with our dependence on social networks. When we’re bored, we pull up Facebook and Twitter. We check our text messages, we go back to Facebook, we sigh out of boredom and do it all over again. It’s rare that we run into someone on campus or in our daily lives and get to catch up on things going back more than a day, since most of the happenings are all over Facebook or transmitted via text throughout the day.

When I decided to take a break from Facebook this summer and deactivate my account, it was refreshing to come back to school in the fall and hear a bunch of new stories from people that I wasn’t aware of. My friends would begin talking about something for a few minutes before they recognized my confused expression and would say something along the lines of, “Oh yeah, you’re not on Facebook” before filling me in. It was pretty interesting to see how thoroughly one’s familiarity with Facebook news is taken for granted, as it spills over into everyday conversations.

Therefore, I believe that the following thought from Thoreau sums up the negative consequence of what might be called an over-involvement in each other’s lives: “Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other.” With such constant interaction over Facebook and other social networks,  it is difficult for our society to retain any novelty or value in our conversations that was lost through such constant connection. Sure, there are plenty of other things to talk about, but the disappearance of “catching-up” in person and an almost hegemonic familiarity with the lives of others is making it difficult to spend time “alone,” both physically and virtually through social networks, which might be the reason why a nice night alone initially seemed to be a punishment of some sort. But, thanks to a little boost of the sociological imagination courtesy of Thoreau, kicking back in my empty dorm for a day didn’t turn out so bad after all.

Social Networks and Race – Is Simulated Segregation Legitimate?

http://www.racialicious.com/2010/01/19/race-and-social-network-sites-putting-facebooks-data-in-context/

http://www.danah.org/papers/2009/WhiteFlightDraft3.pdf

When it came to writing about race and social media for this week’s blog post, I was afraid my discussion would end up mirroring discussions of gender and other social dividers that are affected by social media. This approach would basically assert that social networks function similarly to society in the physical world, but would substitute the previous social divider for the word “race.” However, this week I stumbled across these articles by Danah Boyd about the effect of race in social networks, and a few of her points are very well grounded and say a lot about our society through how we interact in the public sphere, whether in the physical or virtual world, or both.

Like what Conley mentions in You May Ask Yourself and what we discussed in class, Boyd identifies that race is not a biological factor but a construction of society that, because society produced it, functions a real factor in society. With this said, it is something that has a legitimate influence in social networks, as they function similar to society in the real world (hence the name “social” network).

Boyd goes on to discuss the use percentage of different minority groups and the inequality of access, which is something I already discussed in regard to class in a previous post. What I’m most interested in today is her separate essay on white flight from MySpace and the changing demographics and perceived demographics (as in, what demographic people believe are most prevalent in a network – hip hoppers on MySpace) of different social networks, which I believe is more telling of ongoing racism and segregation in our society.

Boyd’s first example of the teen girl Kat’s commentary on MySpace becoming “like ghetto” stuck out to me the most because it’s most telling of the (perhaps involuntary) segregation not only occurring within social networks, but between different social networks. I remember the transition from MySpace to Facebook in my own life during the beginning of high school, but, coming from a racially diverse school and a friend group that was majority black, I never really saw much of a racial divide in the transition at the time. However, I do remember that toward the end of the MySpace trend, the more active users I was friends with happened to be my black friends, which I simply attributed to chance. However, the fact that Boyd points out such a commentary is concerning to me because I’ve been able to took back and see some evidence similar to what’s presented in her article.

It goes without saying that there is a racial divide within social networks like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, since social networks (at least from what I’ve researched so far) tend to reflect or perpetuate trends in physical society. But, the white flight from MySpace presented in Boyd’s article speaks of what I think is a more concerning and much more exclusive divide. By attempting to essentially flee an increasing minority population on a social network such as MySpace, a new sort of simulated segregation that is more severe than internal divides within a network. White flight in a physical sense is already a major problem plaguing inner cities and other areas all over the country. If it’s happening on our social networks, that means the group experiencing it first and perhaps the most often is our youth. And if the idea of such segregation is being engrained in the minds of our younger generations, where is the hope to end such segregation problems for the future?

“Social Media and the End of Gender?” — How Empirical Data from Social Networks Might Change Sociology and Socialization

http://feministing.com/2011/02/04/social-media-and-the-end-of-gender/

As our week studying gender in class came to a close, I had no problem thinking of things to discuss regarding sociological issues pertaining to gender and sex, but I was having trouble figuring out how to tie it all back to social media. Usually things were the opposite — I’d look at the topic for the week and already know what I wanted to write about regarding social media, but I would feel like I had less to tie into the reading. But, a little Googling led me to this Ted Talk by Johanna Blakely, which I found not only interesting for how it tied to the issue of gender and gender roles, but the use of social media as a way to gather empirical data and end presumptions related to other social dividers like race, sexuality, socioeconomic status, etc.

Essentially, to sum up the eight-minute or so video for those of you who don’t have the time or opportunity to watch the linked video, Blakely argues that social media allows for media marketing companies to monitor our tastes by monitoring what we click on, “Like,” post about, etc. This increased access to our interests allows these companies to stop making presumptions about what we like or determining it for us (at least to a certain extent — the giant feedback loop of culture is still present in some form), which allows for more authentic marketing to people as opposed to resorting to generalizations and stereotypes that have caused so many of the issues and controversies that make sociological discussions of gender as a socializing institution relevant.

Since Blakely focused on the perspective of women and women’s interests, one might think that this new method of collecting data would work to support women by bringing their interests to light and giving them a stronger backing. Right?

Wrong.

Here’s Blakely’s key point, and my last bit of summarization before I move on: having a more thorough set of information to understand what women want will not emphasize and advocate these interests, but rather will erode current gender distinctions that are based on presumptions. Since this information will reveal to sociologists and marketers how diverse and varied the interests of women are, they will realize that those things considered “women’s interests” will cease to exist, as will gender distinctions over time, because there will be no way to draw said gender lines with so much data proving otherwise.

Although I see the main point of her argument here, I can’t exactly side with Blakely on this. Even with so much empirical data to sort through, the giant media feedback loop that is reflecting the cultural interests of “women” or “men” or any other social group is still going to have some effect on the common interests of these groups. Because gender is so engrained as a social institution, it will take more than different marketing techniques to erode this established divide. I think it’s a bit extreme to predict that gender will end simply because interests of men and women are losing distinction due to varied interests. With the popular media still portraying men as the main consumers of sports and women as the main consumers of soap operas, it’s going to take a good while before such assumptions and distinctions will vanish, let alone an entire removal of gender distinctions.

However, disagreements aside, I believe the most encouraging part of Blakely’s argument is that the empirical data available through social networks allows for marketers, sociologists, and others to take a much better, more thorough look at different audiences and classify them in new ways that are more complex than simply age, race, and class like the old media used to. With newer, more advanced, and more complex ways of researching populations, presumptions and stereotypes will begin to decrease and disappear, leading to conclusions that might not erase social dividers, but will at least classify and understand them in more authentic and accurate ways.

“Cool Story Bro” — Is Social Media Enhancing or Reducing our Communication?

Ever since my return to Facebook in August, my approach to social media has been a bit more cautious, and I’ve taken more time to really try to understand how I’m using it and how it fits into my life. Since my original reason for leaving was because I thought it was just a waste of time and unnecessary for my life, my return has motivated me to try to find justification for why I find it necessary and what aspects have made it worthwhile for me.

The Good

As I’ve mentioned in various blog posts on my personal and journalism blogs, my return to Facebook opened plenty of convenient doors for dealing with assignments outside of class, connecting with new friends, and getting my personal blog/writing more than three views per week. Perhaps most indicative of my newly-reconnected online presence was my ability to quickly track down and purchase a Homecoming ticket for only $45 within a week of starting, as opposed to shopping around in person until the day before (or of) the game. So for the most part, I’m sold on the pluses of social media, and I think it goes without saying that taking a temporary leave from Facebook has helped me to identify the good in it now that I’ve returned.

The Bad

However, what I’d like to talk about today is something I’ve wanted to write about for quite a while. And now, thanks to our test and week of topical freedom, I can take time to address what I think can safely be called nothing short of an epidemic on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr — useless posts and recycle content that I think are, in short, cheapening and reducing the value of the communication that social media are technically supposed to be enhancing.

There have already been countless jokes about this for Twitter. People posting things such as “getting in the shower,” “getting out of the shower,” “grabbing my towel lol,” and “putting on clothes” mock the constant, essentially worthless updates that many people post.

But, jokes aside, I’m still working through my News Feed and unsubscribing from serial “junk posters” who contribute little more than things like “frustrated smh,” “I’m hungryyyyyy” and “Today is the worst day ever :[.”  What do these posts amount to other than insignificant cyber-cries for attention and extra space on my News Feed and Timeline?

The same thing can be seen on Tumblr. When I come across the link to one of my friend’s Tumblrs, I’m often excited to read it and see what kind of writing he/she is interested in. Unfortunately, I end up being disappointed half of the time because 98 percent of the content on his/her Tumblr is reblogs of funny pictures or GIFs as opposed to the writing I was initially looking for.

So, even as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other forms of social media are working in various ways to expand the realm of communication and enhance the ways in which people interact with each other, there still remains the capacity to waste or abuse social media in ways that reduce their utility.

The Solution

With this said, I think my frustration with some of the social media content that I find useless or over-posted can serve not as a reason to leave or feel superior to those posting it, but as a challenge to improve my own presence on Facebook and Twitter. When tweeting, I can ask myself whether or not what I’m saying is something that’s actually worth putting out there for others to read.

Does this matter to anyone other than myself? Will this create any sort of discussion or serve any purpose once posted? What would I think if someone else tweeted this? The same applies to Facebook, and I guess Tumblr if I had it, and definitely to my personal blog/writing, which is ultimately going to be responsible for putting bread on the table. If I want to get paid for my writing one day, I better make sure people are going to care about what I have to say.

Poverty and Social Media — Problem Solver or Empty Promises?

http://blogs.ec.europa.eu/waltzing_matilda/poverty-and-social-media-the-right-weapon-for-the-fight/

Although this week’s readings dealt more with the struggle of the working poor and economic inequality, I feel that a more relevant issue regarding social media and poverty, at least to my own thought process, is how poverty has been dealt with through social media. It goes without saying that there is an economic divide in the use of social media, as those who cannot afford computers or Internet access are limited as to their online access to the library, and…basically just that. Those who are economically privileged enough to afford computers and Internet need nothing else to get on Facebook or Twitter except some basic computer skills and an email account. Thus, those with and those without computers are quickly and emphatically divided from each other in the world of social media, with the economically less fortunate largely excluded from the digital sphere.

With such a division present and social media growing increasingly prevalent in our society, the issue of poverty and the plight of the poor have been advocated and communicated to larger audiences through different social networks. You would be hard-pressed to find someone familiar with Facebook or Twitter who hasn’t been invited to an event raising awareness for the poor or some sort of charity 5k. There’s also the abundance of statuses requesting “Likes” supporting various charities and Facebook Pages asking for the same thing.

While some of these pages claim they will donate a certain amount of money for every Like, this incentive serves more as a disconnected financial difference that requires little action for the “Liker.” Although this might seem like a positive aspect of using social media, it actually only reaffirms participants to remain in their comfortable little digital spheres and do little to take action. Some Facebookers might click “Like” and then go out and serve at a soup kitchen or donate some of their own money to a local charity, but the vast majority will most likely either click “Like” (or not) and continue browsing their News Feeds and Timelines.

According to the blog post I linked to at the top of this post, the digital divide I mentioned earlier also separates those trying to raise awareness of and eventually eradicate poverty from those who are actually living in poverty. The author then goes on to argue how this separation actually contributes to reaffirming the roles of victims and heroes for these advocates and those being advocated as opposed to including the poor in the discussion on the best ways to end poverty.

A conclusion that I’ve come back to many times on this blog is that the way we choose to act in different social media is similar to how we act in the real (perhaps physical is now the more appropriate term) world. When we walk down the street and see a Bell Ringer with the Salvation Army, we can still choose whether or not to put money in, and perhaps donating money in person is even easier since the awkward feeling of walking by without contributing is more difficult than not clicking “Like” from a comfortable distance over the Internet.

Maybe this difference is telling enough of the attempt to eradicate poverty and other social problems via social media. Real world problems, at least now, are still more of a problem in the “real” (physical) world. For now, that might very well be the best place to continue solving them. Although social media can serve as a strength to spread word and garner support for a cause, getting people to get down to work on a very personal level with the poor and the causes in place to eradicate poverty is still probably the best bet for solving the problem.

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