Outside of the mainstream media, peer-to-peer attention tactics have become more viable thanks to larger trends in where we look for information and news (see Pew Internet & American Life Project’s News research .
The act of ‘liking’ a piece of content on Facebook or retweeting something on Twitter is one of the most heavily-criticized actions of all the strawmen erected to launch slacktivist arguments. Changing one’s profile photo or avatar is a similarly lightweight and equally criticized way people take action to spread awareness.
As I wrote on the day red and pink equality symbols took over millions of Facebook profile photos, “During the 2009 Iranian election protests, hundreds of thousands of Twitter users turned their profile pictures green in solidarity with the protesters. This became the slacktivist strawman everyone had been praying for: naive American Twitter users taking the laziest possible action to support a foreign conflict because it was the cool thing to do. Or, if you were on the other side of the fence, it was the strongest show of solidarity between Americans and Iranians in…ever?”
This type of lightweight online action clearly represents a ‘thin’ type of participation (see Ethan Zuckerman’s speech and blog post, “Beyond the Crisis in Civics” ). En masse, however, the action could have impact. Facebook found 2.7 million additional users changed their profile photos on the day of the equality action. On issues like gay marriage, where peer opinion and experience have been shown to be extremely powerful change agents, widespread support of the equality meme could actually be impactful. The same may be true with widespread symbolic support for under-reported crises, especially given that public awareness could be closely correlated with aid. , This is a rich area for future experimentation and study.
Leverage average users’ social networks to build awareness
Short of targeting influential users, there is evidence that large numbers of less-influential users can still prove influential online. Quantitative research is beginning to emerge from researchers looking at Twitter as well as Facebook’s Data Research team on the true reach and interplay of the messages the general public posts to its networks of friends and followers online.
A study to quantify influence on Twitter discovered that a marketing strategy of reaching out to users with average and below-average followings could actually, in some cases, be a more effective marketing strategy than eliciting the support of the top influencers. The authors find that the unpredictability of virality suggests those seeking to deliver attention should target large numbers of potential sharers in the hopes of generating a large cascade of retweets with some number of them.
One Facebook study looked at information propagation across 253 million users. The study found that contrary to popular critiques of the influence of weak ties, both weak and strong ties facilitate the dissemination of information and weak ties, in particular, are not only more abundant, but are also found most responsible for the spread of novel information.
Other studies have supported the notion that we pay significant attention to our extended networks of Facebook friends even if we don’t communicate with them regularly. Average users underestimate the number of friends and followers they reach online, estimating only 27% of the true reach of their messages. We reach more people than we think, and collectively, awareness campaigns can have greater self-produced impact than users could imagine even a few short years ago.
Tools of Amplification
Ryan Julison, the publicist that launched the Trayvon Martin story, is not an avid user of social media, but he sees amplifying a message through online sharing as one of the more important actions an activist can take:
“If someone goes out and does a march, that’s a one-time news story, that’s it. Somebody forwards stories, and engages in propelling information, that leads to so many other things. That continues — it doesn’t just stop with the forward. That forward leads to other forwards, and people share with their friends, and post and tweet about it. I would put online activism, or even just online information-sharing as a pretty high profile way to be an activist.”
Activists agree, and have developed a variety of tools and methods designed to derive value from the simple fact that many of us have developed an audience of people who pay attention to what we share, despite living in an attention-scarce society. Native social media campaigns like FactSpreaders and Reality Drop leverage grassroots supporters to spread empirically accurate information in the face of rumor propagators and climate deniers, respectively. This includes not only tweets and Facebook shares, but also pushing back against trolls in the comments of news articles and elsewhere online.
Another experiment took place prior to the 2012 election, when a research team at University of California Berkeley developed Proposition 30 Tracker. The researchers created a custom affiliate code, share link, and leaderboard to encourage citizens to spread awareness of the ballot proposition to increase sales and income tax or significantly cut state education funding. 889 citizens signed up to participate.
The Thunderclap platform recognizes that Twitter is a noisy stream where individual messages are easily lost. The service coordinates as many supporters of a cause as can be recruited, and then times their tweets to send simultaneously, with the goal to create an unavoidable moment in their followers’ streams. By synchronizing amplification, organizers have a new tactic to generate the level of attention received by more ‘newsworthy’ crises. The campaign to recruit a critical mass of users can itself generate a larger footprint than individual efforts.
Diaspora populations have also proven adept at distributing information when the home community is out of reach because of political or natural crises. The Kenyans on Twitter hashtag #KOT, for example, is a common forum for the diaspora to spread news.