A few days ago I liveblogged from the North Star Nonprofit conference about social media and nonprofits. The tips presented in that panel were great for businesses or nonprofits that are looking to use social media for branding, however in the next two posts, I’m going to touch on how social media can be an impressively useful force for individuals to use and how the rules for using social media as an individual are diametrically opposed to how one should use it as someone building a brand.
There are a number of elements to this, but the underlying theme is that social media gives everyone a voice equal to anyone else’s. There are few other places where this is true. Because of this, groups that are oppressed or are minorities can use social media in amazing and unique ways.
As an example, let’s look at Adria Richards, someone Kruger pointed to as an example of how we don’t need to say everything we think on social media. Adria Richards is a woman in the tech industry. As any woman who has had any experience with sexual harassment can tell you, more often than not speaking up about it to the “appropriate” authorities does almost nothing. There are myriad stories of women reporting their rape to the cops and being ridiculed, of women trying to report sexual harassment and nothing happening, of being blamed for their own harassment or for how uncomfortable they feel. While I don’t know Richards’ personal story, at a guess I would say that she has experienced this before and knows that the traditional avenues of trying to address sexual harassment or inappropriate comments in the workplace don’t work.
Enter social media. Where typically Richards would likely have to simply sit through whatever is happening that makes her uncomfortable, or risk being ridiculed or blamed by management, now she can simply tweet about it and make the world aware of the clearly inappropriate behaviors of these men. She took matters into her own hands because she knew that the systems in place were not effective and would not help. As an individual, this is an incredibly brave thing to do, and an incredibly resourceful move. It was effective, and it illustrated the ongoing problems of sexism and harassment in the tech world.
As an individual, Richards used the available technology to protect herself and the other women in the tech industry. To an outsider it may seem like she’s making a big deal of nothing, but constant sexual comments, discrimination, and sexual harassment make things like this a big deal.
This is one example that is illustrative of how minorities and oppressed groups can use social media to gain a voice. There have been a number of campaigns by women, LGBT groups, and people of color flooding the social media of companies who have done something inappropriate and discriminatory. These are the types of campaigns that would never be seen otherwise, but because of the incredibly public nature of social media, everyone becomes aware of them and the company is forced to act. Similarly, when discrimination happens, social media gives the oppressed party a voice. Where typically they would be forced to go to authorities who may or may not be sympathetic, social media allows them to speak up for themselves, connect to others with similar experiences, shed a light on what has happened to them, and make it clear that they will not stand for it anymore.
An important element of this is the anonymity of the internet. While there is often vicious pushback to people speaking out, there is some measure of safety in that the people who are responding likely do not know where you live and cannot harm you. In addition, being able to hide your demographic information behind an avatar can be an important step towards gaining respect online. A prime example of this was the website “I fucking love science”, created by a female grad student simply because she really loved science. She acted as a curator for interesting science articles across the internet and gained a huge internet following. After becoming fairly famous online, she inadvertently mentioned her gender. The response was vicious: many people insulted, threatened, unfollowed her. This is a prime illustration of the fact that in order to gain respect, oppressed groups often have to pass as the dominant group. The internet allows us to do this, but also to then reveal ourselves and break down people’s conceptions of what we should have been.
Because of the intensely democratic nature of the internet, people who otherwise would be silenced get to speak. Incidents that would be ignored in most cases get publicity, particularly when they happen to people who are well-known and respected in their fields. On a professional level, this can be difficult as it might lead to getting fired like Richards did, but on a personal level and on an ethical level it is often the way we move forward and change things. The voices that get heard online are so important to leveling the playing field for women, GLBT people, racial minorities, and anyone else who is rarely heard. Recognizing that rocking the boat can be a positive thing is so important for seeing the potential of social media.