This is a guest blog post from one of AID’s Regional Coordinators, Ruhi Shamim.

Enjoy!

Once upon a time, I was a Facebook hater. This confession might be hard to swallow, especially for my Facebook friends who probably see my name pop up on their Newsfeed several times a day, as I impetuously change my status message to reflect the nuances of my inner most thoughts of the moment. I began to reevaluate my skepticism about Facebook’s cyber take on a social life and overcome the awkwardness of getting “friend requests” from TAs and uncles, when I realized how I could effectively use Facebook to spread information to my contacts.

Online media tools, like Facebook, are changing activist culture and becoming a key feature of the current progressive, global social movement—one in which youth play a prominent role, especially because of their access to new communication tools. Last week, the first Alliance of Youth Movements Summit took place at Columbia University Law School in New York City. The Summit brought together several grassroots organizers, who shared how they used online tools to create social change. Keynote speakers included David Moskovitz, one of the founders of Facebook, and Oscar Morales, founder of “One Million Voices Against FARC,” who used online platforms to mobilize 12 million people in one month, to take it to the streets and protest against FARC in Colombia.
The Summit was organized by Howcast Media with additional support from Facebook, Google, YouTube, MTV, Columbia Law School, the U.S. Department of State and Access 360 Media. Discussion topics included “Building a Global Movement,” “Rebooting Politics 2.0: A Conversation with the Obama Campaign’s New Media Team,” and “How to Stay Safe: Safety, Law, and Security for the Social Movement.” All videos of the discussions can be found at the Howcast website, (By the way, Howcast is another innovative online tool for spreading awareness because it allows universal access to videos of various conferences and enables students, like me, to observe the conferences without physically being there. Without Howcast, this blog post would not be.)

I was drawn to the discussion titled, “Facebook: Origins and Tools for Social Change ” in which co-founder, David Moskovitz, discussed Facebook’s utility for organizing and mobilizing social networks, its efficacy in spreading information rapidly, as well as Facebook-related concerns over privacy and censorship. I began to think about how I personally have used Facebook as an activist tool and about the risks and benefits of an online activist culture.

Although many people view Facebook as merely a cyber-social hub (A.K.A a waste of time, a distraction that extends library visits by many hours, a forum for our secret “facebook stalker” tendencies), there is no denying that the tightly-connected Facebook community is an incredible resource to spread political information and reach out to people. As Moskovitz put it, “the mission statement of the company is not to help people learn to date and discover new music, it’s to make the world more open and more connected.” That said, I’m interested in how young people actually use Facebook, and what would encourage them to use it for social/political activism instead of as just a way to avoid homework and click through pictures of an acquaintance’s spring break in Mexico.

Facebook has been helpful to a few of my activist endeavors in that I use it to post news stories that highlight the various, interdisciplinary aspects of social justice and environmentalism—two global issues I actively care about. I have created Facebook groups to organize students with common interests that range from arranging a “crunch-time” study group for one of those unfortunate, slumber-laden 9 AM classes, to student leaders interested in transparent coalition building in order to address broader University issues. I have used Facebook to promote my AID Innovators in Cultural Diplomacy project, and as a result have connected over fifty students from over eight schools who can share information with each other about what’s going on at their universities about the cause.

While the networking tools of Facebook certainly are redeeming, I still have a few grievances about how information is controlled and managed over the network. The most important issue that I see is that Facebook users must be well-versed in how the network actually works, so that they can keep track of the information they send out and be aware of who might be accessing it. This issue is both political and personal—keep in mind that many Facebook users are not independent adults—and needs to be further addressed by Facebook.

Now that Facebook has expanded and is available to anyone, Facebook contacts, whether friends, family, or colleagues, can be better managed so information can be spread more effectively. I think that the individual user should be able to send different messages to different types of networks, so that Aunt Bertha can be in one network where she doesn’t necessarily have to see pictures of what you’ve been up to on your Friday nights and so that you can openly share information with contacts within your work network without worrying about colleagues perusing your slightly flirtatious wall-to-walls.

In any case, all of the issues addressed—as well as the questions posed—by the rise of Facebook show that 21st century activist culture is deeply affected by this new communication technology. This technology not only spreads information at the speed of light; it also requires internet users to develop online savviness so they can read information critically and protect their privacy. The technology also allows organizations to keep a more accurate account of size and demographics of their outreach efforts, connects and streamlines individuals for powerful coalition building, and most importantly inspires and engages people to become involved and share their experiences in implementing progressive social change.

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