This week’s episode of Parks and Recreation featured the privacy conscious Ron Swanson attempting to “get off the grid” and take back control of his presentation in the ever more information populated world.
There is no doubt that we are spreading ourselves thin as we sign up for more social media profiles. From Instagram to Reddit, we constantly layer our being and identity through the various retro filters and subreddits that we take part in.
Though we continually dwell in this personal information overload cycle, there are some groups who have utilized the potential of connectivity afforded by social media to make a change. Though we may not initially realize, signing up for a social media profile already allows for potential latent or weak ties to form. As Caroline Haythornthwaite mentions in her article, “Social Networks ad Internet connectivity effects,” latent ties are a “substrate of connection for weakly tied pairs” which are “technically possible, but not yet activated socially” (137). For the students of Cooper Union for Advancement of Science and Art, these latent ties were called upon to support their cause for free education that allowed them to make progress in effecting change in their education tuition tumult. They utilized social media affordances by crafting one’s self-presentation and managing social ties to attempt to make a change.
Shelly Asquith’s article “Arts Students harness social media to fight cuts,” relishes on how Arts students, who are famously rebellious, are finding creative ways to mobilize support through new media. Students of The University of the Arts London embarked on their unconventional social media protests inspired by Cooper Union student’s summer rally to petition against charging students tuition. These bridged connections between University of Arts London and Cooper Union demonstrate social media’s power for staging communication “on a global scale and staging interventions for single issues in multiple countries” possible. This “bridging” as mentioned by Nicole Ellison and danah boyd in “Sociality through social network sites”, are ties that connect different clusters within a network that help propagate novel information across those groups. Through social media, The London students exchanged social capital as they followed the online protest methods of Cooper Union by “getting their message out on virtually every known social media platform.” (Kaminer). The Cooper Union students invoked tactics of using a livestream, “a tumblr page of people counting down to that moment,” poking fun at Cooper Union’s president by putting “together an online photo gallery” of Dr. Bharucha’s books or of “Jam’s Head” where people hold up pictures of the president in front of their own (Kaminer).
Both articles by Asquith and Kaminer beckon the utopian discourse of social media where “geography, social position, or prior acquaintance” is not a contingent factor for supporters to get involved (Haythornthwaite). Both authors hark on an individual or a group’s ability to access networks on Facebook in forming weak social ties with strangers to ultimately make a social change through solidarity.
These unconventional digital protests have spread with the masses and allowed for small protests with singular issues to be transferable and adaptable to many around the world. These protests serve as testaments to the potential power of social media, not just on a local/domestic scale but global/international.
The strength of the student’s activism stemmed from their self-presentation on their social channels, mainly on Facebook. Self- presentation of an individual is often questioned due to the lack of authenticity or consistent persona, however these students were very succinct and firm on their mission. Their message lacked the polysemic and neutral nature of social media posts that are usually influenced by self-censorship or the threat of context collapse, as mentioned by danah boyd and Alice Marwick in “I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse and the imagined audience”. It is important to mention that they are writing their posts to their “ideal audience” that the authors discussed where their imagined audience are people who believe in the same cause and can relate to the struggles of art students. However this protest could have gone awry and resulted in a niche protest as not everyone can relate to the art student’s mission as most of their audience are fellow students who are paying triple Cooper Union’s tuition for school, thus alienating most of their audience, however they were smart in relating their content to all with their mission statement of “Free Education for All.”
These students utilized latent ties with alumni, famous activists, and the artist’s community to bolster their campaign, for example a Cooper Union graduate, Lawrence Lek, “organized an exhibition in London to support the New York students in their campaign for free education” (Asquith). Both groups of students enacted their latent ties to bridging social capital as the Arts London students posted photos such as the one to the right, to demonstrate their connection to the Cooper Union’s cause.
Though this world may “be a nightmare” or more of an informational nightmare as Ron Swanson pithily stated, being “on the grid” allows for meaningful ways to form an network, community, and supporting environment where “social capital enhancing exchanges can flourish” and ultimately result in an effective change in our lives (boyd Marwick). Though both authors presented a utopian view for social media activism, I think there are flaws when it comes to social activism. When a protest occurs online it is often subject to weaker margins of belief and values, because the barrier to entry to so low, it is just that easy to click, like, and leave as one pleases. We saw the very quick demise of one of the prime examples of a socially driven protest, Occupy Wall Street.
In actuality, it is very difficult to maintain one’s mission online, and though the authors both brought positive perspectives to the student’s valiant efforts to change policy. Social media solidarity is often difficult to maintain when the innate nature of the Internet is to lead you to the one place to another. You will always be distracted by newer issues and policies that one will momentarily feel passionate for. That is the nature of the attention economies that we are living in right now. Attention is the highest commodity in the current market and that is the reality of most social campaigns. Yes, we want to take back control of our self- presentation from the web, but all we can do now is work within the system to wield it to our advantage any chance we get.