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Brown: Is social media really helping protests?

BY MARCUS BROWN | DECEMBER 11, 2014 5:00 AM

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In response to the lack of indictments in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, media ranging from television news to the Internet have been flooded with images from the resulting protests. The go-to response to any sort of tragedy or moment of social upheaval has been a corresponding response via social media.

This viral protest culture takes many forms but some of the most common are the catchy phrases such as “Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “I Can’t Breathe” or equally as catchy poses for your protest selfies. The danger in allowing protest to take such a generic form for mass consumption is a lack of substance. Anger and discontent cannot be compartmentalized into easily digested increments ideal for flooding your social media timeline for a period of time no longer than a sea monkey’s lifespan.

No one is denying that social media are valuable tools for the dissemination of information, especially in this world of 24-hour news cycles and viral stories. However, the information comes and goes faster than the population can process, and as a result, carbon-copy emotional responses become the new standard. Why take the time to formulate your own thoughts and opinions when you can share a link, retweet a quote, repost a picture, and sleep comfortably with your conscience now clear?

The real-time interconnectedness of the Internet provides the means to follow every unfolding development from a myriad of angles, but what people fail to see is that this kind of online group-think also dictates the life span of the controversy. The subject of controversy transforms from a reality to an interpretation of reality entirely dependent on the participation of the online audience.

To put it simply, no crowd equals no show. The matter being protested lives and dies with the attention placed on it.

When the extent of your outrage is commodified and limited to 140 characters or less, how can one expect substantial change? A proponent of social media can say that this technology allows for a millions of voices to express an idea, but is that really necessary? At some point, the message become lost in the sea of voices. It may be a million voices so homogenous that after a while all coherence is lost, and the entire issue fades into the back of our minds. Moments of protest that are remembered forever don’t require hashtags.

Take a moment to look up the number of people who have set themselves on fire in acts of protest. It’s more common than you might think, and what is admired most about self-immolation is the obvious level of commitment required. Furthermore, it is an act that lacks vanity, and leaves little room for positive or negative feedback. Such an act embodies the notion of protest because while it is a spectacle, it is not dependent on an audience.

I am not saying we should all light ourselves on fire, but I do believe we should re-evaluate our motivations for protest. A protest should not be about how many people hear you, but rather, what you have to say.


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