The bright light of social media has attracted the attention of followers in every discipline, from media and academia to corporate marketing and social causes. There was something for everybody today in the talk by researcher Sasha Costanza-Chock at Harvard’s Berkman center on Transmedia Mobilization. He began with a stern admonition to treat conventional and broadcast media as critical resources, and moved ultimately to a warning to treat social networks and other peer-driven media as critical resources. I hope I can reproduce at least a smidgen of the insights and research findings he squeezed into forty-five minute talk (itself a compressed version of a much longer presentation he has delivered elsewhere).
Control the message, control the funding
Consultants (not normally known for welcoming a wide range of outside opinions themselves) have been browbeating the corporations and governments over social media, trying to get it through their noggins that Twitter and Facebook are not merely a new set of media outlets to fill with their PR and propaganda. Corporations and governments are notoriously terrified of losing control over “the message,” but that is the only way they will ever get a message out in the new world of peer-to-peer communications. According to Costanza-Chock, non-profit social causes suffer from the same skittishness. “Some of them will go to the bitter end trying to maintain top-down control,” he laughed. But “the smart ones” will get the point and become equal participants in forums that they don’t try to dominate.
Another cogent observation, developed further in his discussion with the audience, drew a line between messaging and funding. Non-profits depend on foundations and other large donors, and need to demonstrate to them that the non-profit has actually done something. “We exchanged messages with 100,000 participants on MySpace” comes in sounding worth a lot less than, “We shot three documentaries and distributed press releases to four hundred media outlets.” Costanza-Chock would like to see forums on social media for funders as well as the non-profits they fund. All sides need to learn the value of being peers in a distributed system, and how to use that role effectively.
Is the Internet necessary?
Costanza-Chock’s key research for this talk involved the 2006 pro-immigrant demonstrations that played a role in bringing down the Sensenbrenner Bill that would have imposed severe restrictions on citizens in an attempt to marginalize and restrict the movements of immigrants. The protests filled the streets of major cities across the country, producing the largest demonstrations ever seen on U.S. soil. How did media play a role?
Costanza-Chock started by seemingly downplaying the importance of Internet-based media. He went over recent statistics about computer use, broadband access, and cell phone ownership among different demographics and showed that lower-class, Spanish-speaking residents (the base of the protestors in Los Angeles, where he carried out his research) were woeful under-represented. It would appear that the Internet was not a major factor in the largest demonstrations in U.S. history. But he found that they played a subtle role in combination with traditional media.
Immigrants are also largely shut out of mainstream media; it’s a red-letter day when a piece about their lives or written from their point of view appears on page 10 of the local paper. Most of the mobilization, therefore, Costanza-Chock attributed to Spanish talk radio, which Los Angeles immigrants turned on all day and whose hosts made a conscious decision to work together and promote social action around the Sensenbrenner Bill.
Costanza-Chock also discovered other elements of traditional media, such as a documentary movie about Latino protests in 1960s Los Angeles that aired shortly before the demonstrations. And here’s where social media came in: high school students who played roles in the documentary posted clips of their parts on MySpace. There were other creative uses of YouTube and the social media sites to spread the word about protests. Therefore, the Internet can’t be dismissed. It could not have done much without material from traditional media to draw on, but the traditional media would not have had such a powerful effect without the Internet either.
One interesting aspect of Costanza-Chock’s research concerned identity formation. You can’t join with people in a cause unless you view the group as part of your identity, and traditional media go a long way to helping people form their identities. Just by helping to make a video, you can start to identify with a cause. It’s interesting how revolutionaries in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt formed identities as a nation in opposition to their leaders instead (as most dictators strive to achieve) in sympathy with them. So identity formation is a critical process, and we don’t know yet how much social networks can do to further it.
In conclusion, it seems that old and new media will co-exist for an indefinite period of time, and will reinforce each other. Interesting questions were raised in the audience about whether the new environment can create meeting spaces where people on opposing sides can converse productively, or whether it will be restricted to the heavily emotion-laden and one-sided narratives that we see so much of nowadays. One can’t control the message, but the message can sure be powerful.