How powerful can Facebook activism it be?

It is debatable whether social movements that originate on social networking websites are effective or not, writes Asri Wijayanti

The Jakarta Post
Sunday, August 2, 2009

By Asri Wijayanti

The world was swept by big news several weeks ago. Along with coverage of the post-election movements in Iran through Facebook, and after the crashing of sites after the announcement of Michael Jackson's death, it is tempting to zoom in to the power of social networking websites for social movements.

In Indonesia the number of supporters who joined the Cause for Prita increased by tens of thousands day by day, despite doubts whether such a Facebook Cause could really be an effective way to support a legal case.

Thanks to the development of Web 2.0 sites, websites that enable users to form communities and invite each other to their causes and advocacies, Activism 2.0 is now on the go. The voice of the people resonates loudly through Web 2.0 sites, and Facebook is indeed quite a phenomenon.

These days, with "poking", "tagging", "adding" and "approving" having become popular verbs relating to social activity, the virtual sphere brings people from scattered geographic and demographic backgrounds together to talk about common issues. "Groups" and "Causes" are also common terms that most users are familiar with. They imply the fundamental platforms of activism in Facebook.

Despite questions of users' belief in the effectiveness of Causes, Facebook claims that since the application was launched in May 2007, 60 million people have started using Causes and more than 250,000 Causes have been created in a range of fields from animals to the environment, international issues and religion.

In the early days of the Facebook boom in England in 2007, the BBC produced a feature covering the phenomenon titled Facehooked. The initial tagline of the feature, "Facebook seemed to come from nowhere to everywhere", seemed to be the best way to describe the widespread impacts and uses of the site.

In Facehooked, the BBC mainly focused on the business advantages offered by the features in Facebook, even calling it the "advertisers dream" for its ability to make users reveal their identities voluntarily. Recorded in its database, the personal information enables Facebook to pinpoint relevant ads to specific consumers.

Facebook has now evolved into a "activism dream". There are two reasons that have made Facebook a logical choice for activism: its massive user base and the free tools available on the site.

Facebook, on its own website claims Causes "empower anyone with a good idea or passion for change to impact the world", where Causes work by spreading awareness to a new demographic, teaching users how to make changes in their daily lives, raise money to reach important goals, and by encouraging people to share personal stories and find support.

The success stories featured in Facebook Causes Exchange Blog are accompanied with a note of advice that there is no single way to measure the success of a Cause. There is also no discussion of how many of those 60 million Causes members really understand the mechanisms of a Cause, how the fund is generated and disbursed, and to what extent the voices in Facebook reach policy makers.

Knowing how many users understand the mechanisms of Causes may answer some claims that doubt the saliency of Facebook users beliefs and attitudes. Helen Popkin, an MSNBC columnist argued that social networks are a collective brain that, like individual brains, allowing for dissimilar ideas to occur simultaneously. This implies the inconsistency of a Cause's members. Are they really committed to the Cause, or are they just provoked by some emotional bonds to the case?

In terms of Facebook users' social behavior patterns, Cameron Marlow, a social research scientist found that while many people have hundreds of friends on Facebook, they still only actively communicate with a few. The resilience and sustainability of online activism is also questionable if we remember that the Chinese Government blocked the access to social networking sites during the 2009 Tiannamen commemoration days, and that the Iran government blocked sites for couple of days last week.

Online social networking is indeed vulnerable to such internal and external threats. To summarize, there may be limits for activism in and through Facebook, and it is debatable whether Facebook actually engenders meaningful relationships that are anchored to a common purpose or ideal.

The writer was a humanitarian worker who now is pursuing a graduate program in intercultural communications, at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Albany, USA.