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Social media for social change in the 1800s

September 14, 2010

Extracts from a 9 November 2009 blog entry by Mary Joyce via DigiActive

A massive system of human rights abuse is occurring in the United States.  Activists, intent on putting a human face on the mass tragedy, appropriate photographs of victims and disseminate them through their social networks.  Soon the mainstream media catches on, furthering the outcry.  The year is 1863 and the human right abuse is slavery.

When we think about “social media” we most often think about digital applications: blogs, social networks, wikis, SMS.  Yet Wikipedia defines social media as “media designed to be disseminated through social interaction,” and these practices have existed for centuries.  Looking at historical cases of social media outside the digital context can help to clarify underlying mechanics which are often lost in the hype surrounding current tools.


So what can we learn about modern social media activism from the analogue social media of the visiting card?  Here are 3 lessons:

1. Effective social media campaigns are built on top of robust social practices.

In this day and age we tend to focus on new tools and what they can do.  We pay less attention to the social practices that surround these tools.  Many nonprofits create Facebook and Twitter accounts because of the hype surrounding them, even if their target audience is not using the application and if there is no clear connection between the organization’s strategic goals and the application’s capacities.

The first cartes de visites were created in 1854 in France, but did not arrive in the US until several years later.  If American abolitionists had come up with a campaign in which people distributed photos of  slaves through their social networks in the early 1850s, the campaign would have fallen flat on its face.   The success of the abolitionists’ carte de visite campaign was reliant on the practice of carte de visite just as much as  the technology of the photograph.

2. Technology creates affordances, making new outcomes possible but not certain

In his great book, The Wealth of Networks, Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler describes technology as creating “affordances”, qualities of the object that make an action possible.   Just as the technology of the social network today allows for free international collaboration and event organization, the photograph allowed middle class urban people in the 1800’s who had never visited a plantation to see the horrors of slavery.  The key here is possibility.   The technology of  the photograph made the grassroots carte de visite campaign possible, but the it was the practice of sharing cartes de visites that made it a success.

3. A successful social media campaign will give equal weight to the technologies available and the practices of the target audience.

Recent history has taught us that successful social media campaigns occur in the sweet spot of social practices and available technology: the American middle class and online campaign donations, Facebook and expatriate communitiesSideWiki and British news junkies.

Often the “sweet” technology is not the newest and hippest.  Research by scholars like Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of Columbia University shows that in American political campaigns, it is often mundane technology like e-mail and the phone which are most useful to campaign organizers.   Social media campaigners and consultants are drawn to the newest technology, equating innovation with effectiveness, but the most effective communication solution may be ten years old – or entirely offline.   As we campaign and advise campaigners we must remember that technology creates new possibilities, but people make the campaign.

See original blog entry


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