Twitter vs. the Human Microphone

Frida Berrigan

A few months ago, I was at a peace conference in Barcelona (I know, some people have all the luck). It was organized by War Resisters International and brought together campaigners from all over the world to share information and analysis about war profiteering.

It was a fairly low-tech gathering. A lot of people had laptops and international cellphones and most of us needed little radios for translation, but it was at an old Salesian monastery crowded with greenery and little palazzos and very few of the presenters used that old Pentagon technology—the Powerpoint.

I went to a workshop called “Using New Technologies for Social Change,” facilitated by a young Swedish activist who builds websites for a living. I walked into the room a few minutes late, just as she was remarking on how few women came to the workshop and thanking the one other woman in the room for participating. Throughout the next hour and a half, she struggled to keep the discussion focused on technology as a tool for educating, inspiring and mobilizing. She walked us through how OFOG, the Swedish peace group she works with, starts people off on small, easy actions and progressively asks them to do more by engaging them repeatedly and creatively through various media like facebook, twitter, blogs, websites, etc. A few of the other younger Europeans activists—from Switzerland and Finland—shared their “best practices” and asked her detailed, technical questions.

But at every turn, the conversation threatened to devolve into technology being too complicated, too isolating, too western, and too easy. A number of participants– older men, all– wanted to share how technology is a barrier in their organizing and mobilizing. They asked questions like: “what is the difference between email and facebook?” “what is twitter?” and “if I have a website, why would I need to do anything else?” I found these questions sort of amusing, but even though I am not an older man, I don’t really understand twitter either. So, I was happy someone was asking, and that there are real answers to those questions.

Since the invention of the talking drum and the smoke signal, people have been using technologies to communicate; to bring people who are far away or speak different languages together.

The human microphone—an Occupy Wall Street innovation brought on by the ban on amplification in city spaces—is just the latest, but it harkens through millennia to the Greek Chorus (or earlier… I am no historian).

Today we have the iPhone, facebook, twitter, skype and cloud sourcing (and a 100 other things I have never even heard of). But to make something happen, we still need to do old fashioned organizing. Witness the Facebook event phenomenon. Create an event, invite your friends, lots of people respond—yes, maybe, no… One guy in Toronto invited all his friends to a bar one night. 15 said they were coming, 60 said maybe, one person (who was a friend of a friend) showed up. Click commitments aren’t always real commitments.

And all of that brings us to Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age. While I was reading it on the airplane recently, my husband kept interrupting me to point out the irony that the book was an ink and paper tangibility and that I was taking notes in my old fashioned journal with a ball point pen. But, as the book points out again and again with vivid and inspiring examples, technology can—used creatively, consistently and in concert with other forms of organizing—make activism more accessible, more dynamic and more effective.

So, turn on your computer and get to work!

1 Comment

Filed under Digital Media in Activism, Essay Dialogues

One response to “Twitter vs. the Human Microphone

  1. Hannah Koch

    I agree with you that technology can be extremely complex, but yet a great source for mobilizing social movements. Technology is a wonderful resource for connecting people together who share a common belief/goal. When it comes to framing an organization I believe that one does need to take it back to “ink and paper”, so one can layout their goals, plans, etc., but than after that utilize technology to reach out to more people.


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