Last night at around 8pm an immense group of energized students, faculty, staff, alumnae, and allies convened in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library at the University of Michigan for a night long event meant to form the ties of coalition building in response to the unmet demands of the students on issues of diversity, support and representation at the University. As a graduate student at the U. Michigan, and like many other people around the country from various institutions and/or interests, I had “followed” the struggles of the students on both social media and on campus. From the #BBUM campaign that gained trending status, the backlash that came from the #BWUM response, as well as the keynote address for Black History Month given by Mellissa Harris Perry evoking images of Civil Rights activists and agents for future change. At the speak out itself (#speakoutUM), hearing the stories of students and the speeches from former president James Duderstadt and Scholar-Activist Barbara Ransby (@BarbaraRansby) there was a fervent air of possibility and hope for changes that would not just be transient but continuous.
A few days before the speak out I sat down to read a bell hooks piece that I had yet to encounter in all my years of feminist women’s college education. Feminism is for Everyone: Passionate Politics gives the reader a feminism, which might not be for everyone, but is certainly comprehensively accessible to everyone. This text, for a member of the academic realm interested in online spaces and social media, did a lot to frame not only how I thought about the events of the speak out but also the ways in which activism works in our current media climate. While I would not define myself as an activist, my major contribution to any movement is support through proclamation and deliberation to and between those that are within my social network. In her workshop on collective organizing, Dr. Barbara Ransby made the joke that while she has a Twitter account with about 700 followers she does not know exactly who follows her or where they are following her to. For many of us that use social media, especially those with a large following, that same expression could be echoed. Reflecting on social movements, especially social media movements and the role of social media in a movement, I want to propose the question(s) of who are we following, who is following us, why are they following and what are we leading people to start?
To delve deeper into the ways in which social media disseminates information and inspires activism I think it would be fruitful to reiterate a statement about the movement towards racial justice at U. Michigan and the way(s) in which that movement is portrayed and discussed in the mass media. The local Fox news affiliate did a story on last night’s speak out in which the main anchor opened with the statement that “What started as a Twitter trend for racial diversity has become a full fledged movement on campus”. This statement not only indicates the power of social media to spark protest and change but also the influence of voices united around an issue, even if that uniting starts with a shared hash tag. Going back to the hooks text, while the feminist movement did not begin with social media, the movement itself did begin through social interaction. Specifically referencing “consciousness raising” or CR groups, hooks discusses the ways in which those spaces gave individuals the chance to not only air the grievances about the power structures that oppressed them but also to teach others about what the movement was about while also un-learning the sexist and oppressive ideology of American culture.
In many ways, social media also works as a space for consciousness raising and community building. It is through hash tags such as #BBUM that students were able to form bonds through voicing what may sometimes seem like an individual struggle. The power and the importance of not only being heard but also being able to hear your struggles echoed by others creates what undergraduate at U. Michigan and executive member of the BSU Ozi Uduma stated “roads” to your soul and a “giving back” of “humanity”. With the Twitter format there is also the collection of those statements, those mini speaking outs in the archive which can be revisited by those inside and outside of the struggle for racial diversity at Michigan with positive (though sometimes negative) outcomes. The mechanics of Facebook also encourages a similar speaking out but in addition, the ability to friend and create events makes a site such as Facebook a good resource for mobilizing people whether or not they know each other face to face. It is also through Facebook that the connections that were built during that event that we all said that we were Going to can be turned into relationships outside of that event (friend requests). This movement from attendee to possible friend also helps to build community around not only shared experiences but a shared experience/event.
Wrapping up and thinking towards the future, many scholars, especially in the realm of political communication, psychology, and sociology, the question that we can and should ask ourselves is where are we leading our followers and where are those that we follow leading us? With the increase in social media use as a vehicle for promoting political opinion and raising awareness of issues in and injustice, what types of media are influencing our views of the political climate not only in the world but in our own communities? In addition, how can we use the influence that we have through social media to not only raise awareness but to promote building community and encouraging activism and speaking out against injustice in a safe space?