From popular culture to business, politics and government, its no stretch to say social media has taken society by storm. Just this month, Facebook, the largest online social network, announced that it now has over 500 million registered users. With such a large group of people in one place, its no surprise that Facebook is quickly becoming a first stop for getting citizens more involved civic and political issues.
At the local level, there are a number of examples where ordinary citizens are using Facebook to organize their neighbors around a particular issue. In Pinellas County, Florida, one mother used the site to rally enough parents to successfully oppose the school district’s proposal for a new school day schedule. In Wooster, Ohio, citizens organized a Facebook group to build support and raise money to prevent the closure of a city pool open during what has been a very hot summer. In Saint John, New Brunswick, a local urban advocate has been bringing together local residents interested in smart growth to oppose the government’s plan to expand a local highway.
In all of these examples, the original activity on Facebook was able to be translated into action on the ground by citizens. Yet, critics of so called ‘armchair activism’ argue that for every successful Facebook campaign, there are hundreds more that fail to lead to any tangible action on the part of its supporters (other than clicking the ‘Like’ button). For people looking to use Facebook effectively, social media experts like Dan Zarrella have written extensively about why certain campaigns succeed and why others fail to generate much action. Meanwhile, some scholars like Craig Watkins at the University of Texas argue that tools like Facebook might be in fact changing what activism means, and how it translates to action. For example, technologies exist for people to mail an actual letter with a few clicks of a mouse.
Facebook does have some real advantages when it comes to supporting effective and productive activism. Since people are much more likely to use their real name, it helps create more accountability around what gets posted and said. And its easy of use and near ubiquity means that anyone can start a cause and get people to join. On the other side of the coin, some the sheer ease of creating a Facebook group about almost any issue could easily lead to cause burnout among users.
Still, Facebook is a useful tool, especially for citizens working at the grassroots level. The 2008 presidential campaign showed that Facebook and other social media tools could be effectively used to engage a large number of people in the political process (and raise lots of money too). As the site continues to grow and mature, its entirely possible that people interested in getting more involved in community matters might think of Facebook as the first place to go online.