For a long time, people have wondered about the true reach and impact of social media in its various incarnations – be it blogs or instagram photos or videos on YouTube or Vimeo, Twitter or Facebook or any other form. After all most of them were not conceived as tools to supplement or assist established mainstream media. Blogs were first merely an online diary, Twitter was a way of telling your friends what you were doing in real time, and Facebook was a way to keep in touch with buddies from school and college. But with time they have changed and today they can hardly be recognized as such, as they have proved to be powerful tools of community mobilizations – especially where mainstream media is censored and curtailed.
Today, the role of the parallel or emerging or social media, by whatever name called is unparalled in amplifying voices that might have never been heard the previous day. Historically, during mass protests till recent times, people took to streets under the aegis of students groups, caste-based organizations or other identity-based groups – all of them depicted by a strong sense of belonging and clear-cut membership.
These organizations mobilized the people, and managed resources like funding and championing a joint narrative. They were the voice and the entrepreneurs of social movements, providing a collective identity and leadership. They also served as access points for journalists and news media. In short, formal groupings had organizational control over the movement.
Today, social media enables speed in protest organization and diffusion: rallies and sit-ins are called for and organized through Twitter and Facebook, and using smartphones. They unfold on these platforms as much as they take place in real life. This allows for high-impact disruptive actions that look rather improvised and that can easily make the news. Social movements like the Arab Spring or closer home, the Anna Hazare movement seemed to be driven, at least partially, by “digital activism”. Using social media as a tool for stimulating political action is not merely a releasing outlet for the fragmented yet digitally-empowered civil society, but rather an active stratagem for raising widespread and effective popular action.
And social networks are designed to be open source in this way, relying largely on the users to drive the evolution of the network forward through their own entrepreneurial and distributed efforts. It is, in fact, this sort of feedback loop that often winds up instigating the larger and more formal structural changes.
We are in many ways still in the early stages of moving struggle for social justice online. But the underlying values of these networks ultimately line up with those struggling for freedom and equality. That is why activists have been early adopters of these tools.
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