Debates in Digital Culture 2019/Social (Media) Movements

Social (Media) MovementsEdit


Without doubt, social media sites change the way we construe the world around us as well as the ways in which we commute information or organise our lives. In fact, social media platforms have played an important role in spreading social movements as they began to facilitate the organisation of movements such as #MeToo and the Women's March. But what are the determining factors or characteristics of social media platforms that deems them appropriate for facilitating social change or raising social awareness? How did they gain the power to shape society and in what ways are they continuously evolving?

To explore these issues, this essay will investigate what social media platforms are, how they emerged and why certain platforms managed to 'outlive' other platforms. By focusing on the characteristics of social media and how they relate to social movements, we will give contemporary examples of movements and illustrate what made them popular. Finally, we will examine the way in which the evolution and the characteristics of social media might help us understand and predict future trends in using social media as a tool to raise awareness, apply pressure and potentially facilitate burning social changes.

A History of Social Media: Between Growth and DeclineEdit

An example of one of the Myspace logo's in use, something many have seen, but likely overlooked

Social Media and the platforms that have come to prominence today were not always the dominant platforms in existence, they were very much the upstart companies at a time where Myspace and Bebo were the dominant players in the market. To a point, early in Facebook's existence the owners of Myspace had the opportunity to buy the entire Facebook operation from Zukerberg and their partners for $75 million which they passed up as being too expensive[1] [2] . Something which when viewed in hindsight was a major mistake considering the shift in market shares of both platforms, but how did it go right for a company like Myspace, for it to then go completely wrong?

Was it a failure to adapt to new trends, something that we have seen Facebook has been very adaptive towards as it has grown over the past 10 years and more, or was it something that it lacked, like a real social integration as it clung onto its original model of communities as its whole model, upon which Facebook adopted this as a subjection of Groups within its Social realm? Another part of Myspace that appears to have limited its potential for growth comes down to the user profile, or as referred to as 'The potential self in MySpace'[3] where this profile appears to have a very journal style that isn't shown in anyone's feed, unlike in Facebook where feed posts are its main method of profile sharing.

The area on which Facebook appears to have grown the most stems from what can be called as context design, an idea of structuring communications between groups of people who wouldn't normally interact in the real world, so this comes back to 'the online self' and how this online activity is used as an extension of what the person is doing when not offline[4]. A real world example of this would be someone sharing posts and photos from a music festival for their friends/contacts to see. And it is this kind of method in action that has allowed Facebook to grow as people find they can interact with the poster much easier compared to the very journal styled profiles that Myspace used.

Vine logo

A more recent example of a platform coming to prominence, only to then essentially shut down is Vine. The video making app allowed users to create short, 6 second clips that would then play on a loop. Vine’s cultural impact was truly surprising to many. It seemed that the constricting parameter of only 6 seconds for a video was something that many users took on as a challenge to try and test their creativity. From the onset, Vine users experimented and used the Vine app to create a somewhat strange array of content, that managed to go viral in many cases and garner an absurd amount of views.

Despite the platform rising to be one of the leaders among other social media, it simply could not keep up with other platforms who were adding, changing and developing their features. This ultimately drew many of the famous Vine users away to use other platforms such as Instagram or YouTube. Instagram was said to be Vine's main competitor, as Vine saw an increased downfall of users once Instagram implemented their video feature that was painstakingly similar to that of Vine's. The fact that Vine was behind on its development of different tools and features, many marketers shifted their sights onto other platforms who were growing at a faster rate. The Vine app had the capability and means to create more widely loved memes and content than any other app of the time, but Twitter (who had bought Vine over) had issues unfolding internally that solidified Vine’s eventual closure, especially when the app began finding difficulties in making money.[5]

So, it would seem that Vine’s downfall as a platform was not the result of a lack of love for the platform, but rather a combination of being unable to keep up with its competitors and internal issues that eventually led to its end. It could be argued, however, that Vine did not die. A simple Google search will show that Vine compilations are constantly being made by nostalgic fans and uploaded onto various other sites and platforms, mainly YouTube, and easily garnering millions of views. This would suggest that the cultural shift that Vine caused is still apparent and ongoing, despite the platform itself no longer being in operation.

Use of Social Media: What Are Their Characteristics?Edit

Social media movements in the present day can have a direct link to television. Many people believe that social media and new technology have led to a demise in the television industry, but this is far from the case, as social media and television often work together to aid each other and create a multi-screen experience.

More people are watching TV than ever, using mobile devices to converge with the TV set and change 'the way in which we experience programming' [6]. Social media sites, especially Twitter, are used as a ‘backchannel’ which drives broadcasts. Due to this, conversations are no longer confined to the living room but can be shared with others worldwide who are ‘co-viewing’. This 'real-time chat'[7] is most convenient on Twitter as it is public by default and does not require an account to view. However, Facebook is also used to share opinions, although it is more private. Social media and portability of devices has encouraged a two-screen experience, watching TV whilst being on the internet, creating a natural and comfortable way of viewing. Twitter is integral for 'TV viewers who are looking to express themselves while watching broadcasts' [8]. Research was done into tweets during two TV broadcasts: Obama’s Nobel prize speech and an episode of ‘So you think you can dance’. It showed that for both broadcasts, online people were mainly sharing opinion and emotional messages. 'Tweets indicate that people are using Twitter to express themselves' [9]

Example of Twitter interaction displaying a fan giving an opinion to an artist that they admire. This is an example of Proulx and Shepatin's point that conversations are no longer confined to the living room.

Blake highlights that a pivotal moment for this development was in 2008 when devices became able to support interactive sources. The argument is that these extra platforms are important to social television as binge-watching is not possible due to adverts and scheduling. The extra platforms allow viewers to engage with the material when it is not being broadcasted. Blake states that this leads to ‘superfans’. He uses good examples throughout, showing how transmedia storytelling has been effective. One example being the Love Island app, which allows the user to interact as an avatar and drive the narrative whichever way they want to take it [10].

Social media not only encourages users to actively engage with television but also allows for political and social movements to occur. The platform that the internet gives to Social Media users, for example those on Twitter, reaches far and wide to those that might not otherwise engage politically.

'Media are not technologies, but techno-social systems'. [11] When discussing techno-social systems Fuchs means that the internet both encourages and inhibits interaction between what he calls Actors (those using media i.e. us). He also discusses the dynamics between media structures and the agency of the user. This can answer a question brought forward in Shirky’s reading of social media activism. How does one make a change when it is needed? Twitter hashtags allow everyone regardless of socioeconomic background to participate in campaigns such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. Fuchs describes the engagement of Actors in social media as a cycle that starts with social structures and moves to Enabling / Constraining, then on to Actors, then to Agency, and back to Social Structures. The cycle continues. This means that for media engagement to occur, social structures must be established that simultaneously encourage and inhibit the user to consciously participate online. This cycle will continue over and over with users giving momentum to a movement or topic.

Shirky suggests that people want to make a change but are unsure how to do this. With Fuchs methodology it can be said that to participate in Social change one must partake in online engagement. To feed a movement like #MeToo, celebrities and civilians alike took to Twitter sharing their common outrage towards sexual harassment in the workplace. The movement has now become a global call for change. Much like the #MeToo movement active engagement in any social or political change first comes from the conscious decision from the Actor to participate.

Political and Social Activism: Social Media MovementsEdit

2017 Women's March - An image of campaigners from a protest that now runs annually.

The line between social and political activism can be blurry; more often than not they intertwine. They also boast the same objective: change. Louise Ryan states that ‘social movements provide a framework for understanding the dynamics of various social issues, including civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, and the peace movement’ [12]. As a platform, social media is an outlet where we can show / express our opinions and watch, organise and/or take part in world-changing action on societal issues we feel strongly about.

Firstly, let's talk about politics. Allison Brooke Robertson writes about the two types of social media campaigning/ activism in her dissertation [13] : top-down (from those in power to the people) and bottom-up (demands of the people to those in power). An example of top-down would be how, like many candidates, Barack Obama successfully utilised social media in his 2008 & 2012 Presidential campaigns and started activism in support of himself. An example of bottom-up being the Women's March against Trump and his sexist beliefs/ statements in 2017 (which now runs annually) which had around 5 million protesters present. This shows how a shared opinions/ dislike for something shared online can manifest into something bigger and serious outside of social media that can really make an impact. Robertson writes how 'online tools' lead to offline action'; both types of campaigns used hashtags, tweeting patterns, posted pictures and updates of campaign tours and charity/ activist work they've partaken in to spread awareness and gain support online which them becomes offline support also. Demographic contributed to both types of activism; 67% of 18-29 year olds watched official political video content on social media and 49% engaged in political activity and sharing - these were the highest percentages of any age group; we can link this to the fact that the number of young voters was Obama's highest voting demographic (ROPER [14]), and that more people from this age group attended the Women's March than Trump's inauguration (75% more) to conclude that this aptly highlights the immense power of political, and social, internet activism, especially in the age of the millennial.

Kids > Guns - A sign from the protest March For Our Lives.

Beyond the electoral aspect of politics on social media lies activism, which instead pushes for a change in the law. In the aftermath of the MSD High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 students and staff dead, many MSD students took to social media to push for tighter gun control under the twitter hashtag #NeverAgain. The recognition that these teenagers received, and the momentum that followed their campaign, would have been impossible if they did not have the power of social media behind them. With social media attention from across the globe and endorsements from notable public figures such as Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, the students of MSD made unparalleled changes to the way in which smartphone obsessed teenagers are viewed by the world; now more than ever teenagers are viewed as a sign of hope and even change. In the face of tragedy and outrage, MSD students “created a movement armed with their knowledge of how to effectively use social media to impact change.”[15] The students went on to organise #MarchForOurLives – a protest which took place in cities across the USA and countries across the world, with over 1.2 million participants in America alone. While no major change has occurred so far – with their first triumph, the bump stock ban, still in the process of getting pushed through congress - these social media led movements have changed the conversation around gun control as more people globally are becoming aware of the issues around gun legislation in the USA – emphasising the important role that activism plays on social media.

Since the beginning of social media people have been sharing their opinions, beliefs and feelings online which is why when we began to see activism creeping its way into the online realm, it became so big so fast. Social activism is a method of raising awareness about a specific cause in hopes of societal change. Social media has played a huge role in activism recently. Although the use of activism to gain recognition for important causes is not a new concept, the use of social media to promote this activism is. '...technological advancement has necessitated a new way of understanding activism among young people.' [16] Teruelle explains that many do not understand the power of social media and brand young people as lazy and unmotivated as a result, however these platforms may actually be the most influential tools for activism yet. Even protests that took place offline (such as the #TrashTagChallenge and Women's March Against Trump) started on and were organised via the Internet. The hashtag has become so much more powerful than anyone ever believed a tiny symbol could be. This symbol has sparked some of the most influential and important protests through social media such as #BlackLivesMatter, #JeSuisCharlie and #MeToo. In 2017 people, specifically women, decided it was time to take action to fight against sexual abuse and violence. The #MeToo movement started as a hashtag on Twitter and its aim was to display the magnitude of the epidemic that is sexual abuse. The wide spread support this campaign got was unexpected by many but it has done nothing but help and raise awareness for women everywhere. The true powers of social media platforms are beginning to shine through and Shirky [17] says that the best way to view social media is to see it as a long term tool that will inevitably only work to strengthen civil society and the public sphere.

Adapting To Society: Present and Future TrendsEdit

In order to survive and to remain powerful, social media platforms must constantly adapt to a changing society and to changing consumer needs. We have seen before that Facebook achieves this well: by making its platform follower-centric it was able to push its competitor Myspace from the market. Facebook also implemented photo sharing in its service which shows that it understood the customer’s switch to more visual content. In fact, the company took over Instagram which became one of the most popular social media platforms.

Examples of commons-based peer production communities

Due to their democratic nature, everyone can participate on social media. The platforms are therefore used to promote contrary messages and movement. However, users see content on social media that is based on their preferences, their behaviour and their ideology. Algorithms ensure that people hear stories and read messages they are likely to respond to; people only have a biased view of what is going on as they will tend to hear about social movements which are in line with their ideology. It is argued that the amount of data the companies store about users (big data) can also mobilise, persuade and influence people by using it to send personalised information based on their interests, behaviour and ideology, but can people really blame Facebook when everyone receives different content according to who they are? Messages on the platforms are just more tailored than broadcasting. Casero-Ripollés states that 'social networks are not neutral artefacts, but are political and social spaces with strong democratic implications. Its digital architecture is integrated by technical protocols that allow, constrict and influence the behavior of users'.[18]

Looking at the future, Fuchs argues: ‘Social media today have an anticipative and simultaneously limited sociality: they anticipate a full socialization of human existence that is limited by the capitalist reality of social media. Alternatives are needed.’[19] He proposes the move towards are more commons-based internet ‘that is not based on capital accumulation, advertising, profit, ideology […], but rather enables knowledge, communication and collaboration for their own sake’ (ibid., p. 257). People should be able to share, collaborate, entertain themselves, access educative material, without the control of big capitalist corporations driven by profit. He gives the examples of Wiki*edia, Diaspora* and open-source social media platforms.


As it has been illustrated above, social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, are very effective tools for uniting people who share the same belief systems or strive for the same goals: Facebook is designed to connect people as well as keeping the people connected to one another, and Twitter with its hashtag system allows everyone to participate in and support social and political movements. When contributing to a cause such as #MeToo, being able to take part and raise awareness allows for a collective support and recognition a movement like this may not have received without the use of social media. Characteristics, such as these, are tremendously useful in generating awareness and interest for a cause as well as applying pressure on the people with power and with people spending substantial amount of their time on social media, the likelihood of social media facilitating the organization of social movements is rather high.

The arguments aforementioned in this essay have set a firm foundation in the need for Social Media to be used as a global instrument in political and social change. Irrespective of the user's motivation whether it be activism, sociopolitical engagement, or personal enjoyment Social Media has become part of our daily lives. The platforms we use today might not be what we use tomorrow but the construct and ideology of Social Media use are unlikely to change.


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