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Facebook Revolutions

Opinion | November 23, 2009

In 1963, 250,000 people gathered in Washington, DC to participate in a Civil Rights demonstration. In 1969, another 250,000 joined together to protest against the Vietnam War. Fast-forward about 40 years, and Washington, DC has metaphorically been relocated to Facebook. Our causes have shifted from peace and equal rights to the reestablishment of the revered “Old Facebook” and installation of a much-needed “Dislike” button. Social responsibility has been extended to social networking responsibility— and with over 3.6 million Facebook users demonstrating in a “DISLIKE BUTTON—NEED 7,000,000 MEMBERS INVITE EVERYONE YOU KNOW ASAP” group, it’s possible that the latter has become a greater sensation than the former ever was.

What exactly is it about the new Facebook layout that gets us more riled up than gang violence or the banning of gay marriage? We care about human rights, the availability of healthcare, and saving the environment— but are we 3 million strong for any of these causes in such a cohesive, coherent way? Hardly.

Perhaps it’s simply about ease and effectiveness. In order to join a protest against the new Facebook layout, you find a group (two or three are bound to show up every day in your News Feed), click on the link, and press a button to join. Done—you are now a participant in a worldwide effort towards a common goal (disregard how trite the goal may be). It’s safe to say that no legitimate cause in the world can be solved by the a few clicks of a mouse, and that might just make them a tad less appealing than the causes of the social networking web-world.

Not to mention, we just don’t know how to solve world hunger, or how to provide education to those in need, or how to ensure adequate healthcare in poor nations. The resolutions we’re seeking for these issues seem farfetched, out of our control, all but impossible. Whereas getting the old Facebook layout back? Certainly feasible. Procuring a “Dislike” button? Easy enough. We’re much more inclined to be a part of those actions that are likely to yield actual results. That’s fair enough, right?

But let’s face it—our proximity to any particular problem definitely influences our decision to act. Most of us have to deal with the new Facebook layout at least once a day, more often if our classes are particularly dull. On almost an hourly basis, someone’s status says something so appalling that we have to comment, in outrage: “Why is there no dislike button?!”

Conversely, we do not often have first-hand contact with the social causes that need the most support. We are not, by any means, ignorant to instances of human rights violations, but those conflicts aren’t present in our immediate environments. We are aware of the many countries in which women are oppressed, but this is not one of those countries. Although we can sympathize with global difficulties, it’s harder for us to empathize. And maybe that’s why social networking revolution has gained more momentum than social revolution.

But who’s to say the two can’t develop a mutually beneficial relationship? Social networking sites have already taken steps to promote social change. The “Causes” application on Facebook has 35 million active users each month; additionally, almost every social cause has multiple Facebook groups. Granted, their members are few compared to those of the aforementioned groups— but at least there is initiation. Facebook is only in its fifth year. The online social networking phenomenon is still in its infancy. While resolving social issues will never be an easy task, social networking tools will certainly make the organizing of support a much more manageable task.

Although we may still remain unexposed to the heavy consequences of these global problems, social networking can definitely help facilitate the spread of information at a quicker rate and to a wider audience. Of course, we’ve got a bit of work to do before we can claim Facebook as a vehicle for social progress. So the next time you’re sitting at your laptop, outraged at the most recent layout change, about to start a group requesting the membership of x million people, just consider for a moment: is there nothing better to demand action for? And honestly, is Mark Zuckerberg really going to give a damn?