Does social media help or hamper social change?

A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor called for Millennials to engage in more face-to-face activism in light of an apparent over-reliance on social media as a means of social change. Social media has been a powerful tool that has broken down language and geographic barriers, enabling a teenager to support ending the Darfur genocide from the comfort of their own bedroom. The problem is that the activism can stay right there – behind the bedroom door.

Social networks can create a false sense of community. It’s hard to understand what it means to live on less than $2 a day without meeting a family that needs to do so or understanding on a personal level how economic forces influence food supply and prices. We all know that you can not solve world hunger by visiting Some people are willing to give of their time and expertise, but what about the people who only add Facebook Causes to change their profile? I wonder if the sense of satisfaction they get from their online efforts makes them feel that face-to-face activism is either unnecessary or passe.

Every major preceding social movement has been built on personal relationships that grew to organizational formation and evolved into institutional change. While this century’s social movements may not appear identical to the well-known civil rights movements, anti-Vietnam War movement and others, real social change may still need people raising awareness among people who do not have access to social media. There may be obstacles when you try to show up, but you have to know how to work around the roadblocks. After all, no one ever said that change is easy.

What do you think? Can social media create real, lasting change or is it all about being trendy to show which causes you “support?”


5 comments so far

  1. socialbutterfly4change on

    I think social media has already created social change. Does it everytime? No. But, it can def. heighten your awareness and be used as a promotional tool. For great real social marketing campaigns though, the promotional side of it, is just one aspect.

    My question in return, is that I think there’s a whole lot of factors that influence social change, and I think the more broad we look for those, the better. So, social change can happen, but to be most effective, it should be a collaborative approach…whether that’s using F2F or social media, is up to the objectives of the campaign/issue, but social media can definitely be A tool.

    My ramble make any sense? lol =) Great post!

  2. Vanessa on

    No worries! I have my fair share of rambles as well. I think that social media has already brought about social change, if anything through its sheer ubiquity. I just worry that in the whirlwind of innovation and creativity in social media that it is easy to lose sight of the need for balance between the online and real worlds of activism and social change. You still need real world action to sustain changes.

    I will be interested to see what comes out of Be The Media, Beth Kanter’s new project to create a curriculum to discern when and how much social media usage a non-profit organization should adopt.

  3. […] Vanessa Mason Social Media Can Make Social Change Go Jumbo 08.6.08 Print This | Email This The jury is still out on the potential that social media has to facilitate social change. I would argue its widespread […]

  4. dan mcquillan on

    hi vanessa

    i’m also sceptical about the virtualisation of social change.

    maybe the impact of social media will come from enabling new ways to organise the networks that act in real life.

    You say “Every major preceding social movement has been built on personal relationships that grew to organizational formation and evolved into institutional change.”

    I think it’s the last point (institutionlisation) that’s been a bigger obstacle than social media fluffiness could ever be.

    Hopefully the social web will enable us to extend agile organisation around shared passions for change in ways that stay flexible and peer-to-peer.


  5. Vanessa on

    I also think that is where the real power of social networks come in. Enabling connections that would not have otherwise existed by reducing the obstacles of time and geographic distance. The real key is making sure that these connections are strong enough to enable and then sustain institutional change.

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