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Facebook as an Oppositional Tool for Activists? A Highly Qualified Defence of Social Media

Until 2011, I spent a total of about 4 minutes on social media like Facebook, MySpace, etc. I signed up for an account a couple of years ago, but then immediately forgot my password and, until very recently, never looked back. Like many others, I feel that social media is consuming an alarming amount of people’s time and energy, often in ways that seem rather wasteful and uninspired.

(Tweet: “I just scratched my leg.”)

At the end of the day, of course, people will choose to spend their time and energy as they think fit, and it can seem rather ‘highbrow’ to criticize current uses of social media as a waste of time. But when we discover, for example, that from April 2008 to April 2009 alone, total time spent on Facebook in the United States was 232 million hours (or 13.9 billion minutes), and total time spent on MySpace was 83 million hours (or 5 billion minutes)[1], are we not entitled to ask: what activities are people substituting for these extra hours on Facebook, MySpace, etc.

Put otherwise, what would postmodern society be like if, in the United States, for example, those 232 million hours spent on Facebook and 83 million hours spent on MySpace were spent in real life conversation with friends and family, or spent being engaged in creative activity, or volunteering in some organization of interest, or reading, or having a cup of tea under a tree outside, etc.

Naturally, the same question applies to all those cultures in which social media has exploded in popularity, not just the United States. What would life be like – what could life be like – if the vast amounts of time dubiously dedicated to social media were directed elsewhere? It’s an interesting thought-experiment to take seriously. Life could be unrecognizably different, and perhaps, unrecognizably better.

Nevertheless, for all its many undeniable negative and debilitating features, there is something about social media that is quite exhilarating, which no doubt explains its popularity. Social media provides an extremely efficient and cheap medium through which people, at various levels and in various ways, can connect and communicate with each other. To point out the obvious, social media has changed the social world, perhaps forever.

Leaving to one side the widespread misuse to which this medium of connection and communication is currently put, the point I’d like to raise presently concerns the possibilities social media raises for grassroots activists. Just imagine, if you will, social media but with a social or political purpose? Just imagine social media being used as an oppositional or organisational tool by activists? Given that it is essentially free, campaigns can be launched online which would be simply prohibitively expensive if they relied on the distribution of printed literature or televised adverts, etc.

After thinking long and hard about it, I decided that 2011 would be the year I experimented with social media as a tool in service of the Voluntary Simplicity Movement. I recognize, at once, the apparent contradiction this presents. Isn’t voluntary simplicity about avoiding superfluous technology, for example, or spending time in nature rather than in front of a computer? I accept that there is certainly a tension here, one which those of us living simply (or anyone) ought to be very wary of.

But social media, I propose, like fire, can be both good or bad, depending on how much of it there is and how it is used. And if it is the case that social media is now the preferred medium of connection and communication, wouldn’t it be irresponsible to dismiss it solely as the cause of great problems when just perhaps, if used wisely, it could be a part of the solution? Indeed, could social media be a catalyst for the reinvigoration of grassroots, participatory democracy?

One of the most prominent criticisms levelled at the Voluntary Simplicity Movement is that it is an unorganized and disconnected constituency, lacking in political consciousness. Too many simple livers, it can be argued, spend their time and energy trying to escape consumerist society, when that time and energy is needed to help transform that society. My aim in creating a Facebook page for the Simplicity Collective, therefore, is too provide an oppositional and educational tool which I hope serves the purpose of organizing and mobilizing the Simplicity Movement. Facebook also provides a convenient Discussion page which I hope will come to be used as forum where participants in the Simplicity Movement can connect and communicate with each other, sharing information and insights.

So please take a moment to check out the Simplicity Collective Facebook Page by clicking the link below. (And if you like it, please tell your friends!)

It is time to unite under the banner of Simplicity.

Simplicity Collective Facebook.


[1] See ‘Inside Facebook’ at http://www.insidefacebook.com/2009/06/02/total-us-time-spent-on-facebook-up-700-in-the-last-year/.

9 Responses to “Facebook as an Oppositional Tool for Activists? A Highly Qualified Defence of Social Media”

  1. Samuel Alexander says:

    Here’s a perfect example of the political power of Facebook and Twitter. The following article in the Guardian today talks of how social media played an “integral role” in toppling the dictator, Mubarak, in Egypt.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/feb/13/hosni-mubarak-egypt-digital-revolution

  2. Gill says:

    The problem with Facebook is the largely the ownership and privacy issues. The advantage is the opportunity to reconnect with friends and family. Every time I feel exploited by the FB terms and conditions and the alarming way it uses my data to select ads to stare at me from the right hand column, before I hit the delete account button I visit my friend Jenny’s page. Jen was the biggest collector of people I know, she made friends wherever she went in life, digitally and in the flesh. She died 18 months ago, when her much wanted son was just 6 months old. Each time I visit her FB page it is full of fresh comments from friends “talking” to her and connecting in grief. Her family regularly add pictures of her son, who was just a babe and arms when I last saw him, now an inquisitive toddler. And then FB has me by the throat again. But I am still hugely suspicious of site.

    Twitter on the other hand helps me become less verbose. To say something in 140 characters or not at all is great training in editing and indeed mindfulness. Although 90% of tweets may be mindless rubbish, the gems in the junk heap are amazing, the sharing of resources, connection and vital information in times of disaster or political unrest. When I joined twitter a couple of years ago I never dreamed of its true value.
    I tweet as @HerbalGill and share info on simplicity, health, food and Melbourne related news if anyone wishes to follow.

    Are you on twitter yet Samuel?

  3. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Gill, thanks for your message. I sympathise with your view. Any institution as huge as Facebook is going to be liable to mis-use, and mis-used it is, in many ways. But, as I suggest above, if the purpose of Facebook can be re-imagined, so can its implications. (E.g. see the article link I posted above).

    Yes, I’m on twitter, although still getting my head around it. Am yet to be convinced, but am open to exploring it, in the short-term at least… I tweet as @thedownshifters.

    Thanks again for your comment.

  4. Gill says:

    Here’s a great article from Tiny Buddha about mindful ways of using social media http://www.tricycle.com/community/discuss-10-mindful-ways-use-social-media

    For me the worth of twitter depends on intention (what do you want to get out of it e.g. to share thoughts on Simplicity, to network locally to share resources, drive traffic to the website by linking new posts, get hyperlocal information in the times of extreme weather. But you need to build a community, connect with others whose intentions overlap with your for this to occur.

  5. Samuel Alexander says:

    Thanks Gill. Again, I agree with your position. It mostly comes down to intention… which I guess is mixed up with issues of authenticity, honesty, priorities, values, etc. And the notion of community is at the heart of this website. Fortunately, I feel that simple living is a subject that overlaps with many, many others, and I’m hoping that social media helps with the process of connection. It certainly has the potential to do so.

  6. bleet says:

    I agree that social media can be a powerful tool for social change and for maintaining (and deepening?) social relationships from a distance. However, one consequence of this is reduced dependence on, and connection to, local communities on the household, neighbourhood and suburb scale. Intention is important and, if you are organising on a local scale, the opposite would be true.

    I deleted my facebook account about 6 months ago because, personally, I decided my time could be spent on things that I value more. I recognise this option is not for everyone – especially those with relationships across borders.

    One frustration is the TINA (There is No Alternative) myth about facebook – I now send emails (remember those), call and skype to those close to me, in private when I find the time. The other frustration is the expectation that everyone must have an account and, if you don’t, don’t be expected to be invited to events. This is understandable given that there are few exceptions to the rule (at least among people under 25) but I have found the inflexibility of people (again, in the same group) to be quite surprising.

  7. crapcyclelanes says:

    A lot of dicussion is emerging on these issues.
    The argument for & against social media is complex, as you outline.
    For me, I am dismayed by the smartphone world where you can hold your social media in your hand, and can access it 24/7. The temptation is there and many people succumb to it. This creates situations like 1) going for coffee and friends don’t talk for 10 mins while they do their scrolling on their portable devices. 2) people who lose the ability to concentrate on a major task – they are used to snippets of information in the text/facebook/blog world. 3) looking up in a conference and seeing a sea of screens.
    My argument is that social media creates unsociability (ironically)- a generation that finds it easier to communicate via a screen than face to face. Or to pay attention to an important thing for long periods. I know the dangers of this and I go onto Facebook about once every 2 weeks. Twitter is largely a vanity site, but I am slowly being convinced you can launch something meaningful into the ether occasionally. But there is nothign in Twitter, which is largely a referral mechanism, that cannot be made available by websites.
    The blame for the new generation of internet addicted youth falls equally between social media itself, and the technology – particularly smartphones.

    I thought I was making all up – there is little credible data to back up my points yet – until I started seeing books and articles coming out makign these points, particulalry about brain hard-wiring as a result of smartphones and Facebook, in the last few months.

  8. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Bleet, thanks for your comment. I guess it’s all a balancing game. Use social media to the extent that it enriches your life or advances your goals (whether personal or social). But beware of it sucking the life out of real, human, face to face relationships. No computer can ever replace looking into a person’s eyes.

  9. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Crapcyclelanes – nice name, and thanks for the comment. You are quite right about how the world of technology is now able to follow us around in our pockets. There seems to be no escape. Employers, for example, know that their employees have constant access to their phones. I’ve heard horror stories of how on Saturday evenings – surely the time which we should have to ourselves – people are called about some urgent ‘business.’ I’ve been free of a cell phone for a couple of years now. It’s incredibly liberating and only very occasionally inconvenient. The good far outweighs the bad. Sometimes people express annoyance at me for not having a cell phone. I have to laugh.

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