Wednesday, October 12, 2011

United Online: Maximizing the LGBT Community's Collective Power (Part I)

We are living in an era in which exercising our civic duties and democratic rights is easier than ever before. With social media – including blogs, social networks (Facebook, Twitter), content-sharing sites (Flickr, YouTube), and wikis – we can connect with one another, share information, engage in important discussions, and organize collective action at almost no cost. 

As Clay Shirky writes in Here Comes Everybody, “most of the barriers to group action have collapsed” (pg. 22). The internet has, as Yohai Benkler writes in The Wealth of Networks, made it so much easier for citizens to become active participants in the public sphere – to not just passively receive information from some elite source, but to actively engage that information, discuss it with others, and act on it (pg. 212-213). 

The internet, particularly with regards to social media, has a profoundly democratizing effect because it allows us to fulfill our democratic duties – such as, as Richard Butsch puts it, to become informed and deliberate over the issues (The Citizen Audience, pg. 1, 12-13) – much more easily and cost-effectively than before. It allows us to come together, sometimes from great geographical distances, and deliberate over the issues, organize collective action, and hold our government and one another accountable – with just a few clicks of the mouse.

There is no doubt, then, that social media have removed the barriers to collective action and allowed us to exercise our Constitution-given rights more easily. But is the LGBT community harnessing these tools to the greatest extent that it can?

I will submit that it does not. The LGBT community has yet to fully realize the potential of social media, and thus is not yet operating at maximum capacity. In this three-part series, I will explore the recurring problems with the LGBT community’s social media efforts, and how these problems can be remedied. 

In Part I (which you are reading right now), I will describe just how it is that the LGBT community has thus far failed to maximize the latent organizational power of social media. 

In Part II, I will prescribe for the LGBT community a panacea – a cure-all that, if given the opportunity, could greatly unite the LGBT community online and make our advocacy efforts so much easier and more efficient. 

And in Part III, I will turn my arguments against myself and play Devil’s Advocate, answering the tough questions regarding the solution outlined in Part II. 

These three posts, when taken together, will make extremely useful – I would call them necessary – suggestions for the LGBT community going forward, and I hope that you will read it, respond to it, and share it with your networks.

Just how is it that the LGBT community is lacking in its harnessing of social media? I would never say that we are not using social media properly at all, or that we are using it worse than any other group. In fact, quite the opposite is true: the LGBT community has been quick to adapt to the ever-changing online environment. We organize actions using Facebook events; we post videos and photos from said actions on Flickr, Facebook, and YouTube; we engage with one another through Facebook, Twitter, and Friendster; we keep tabs on our elected officials using Change.org petitions and ACT On Principles public whip counts; we voice our opinions on our blogs and Tumblrs. Suffice it to say, the LGBT community is very much online, and very much engaged.

The problem is segmentation. Benkler writes that one of the major critiques of the internet’s democratizing potential is that, because of “information overload,” there will be so many speakers that nobody will be heard, leading to (and simultaneously being caused by) fragmentation (233-4). Benkler personally disagrees with this critique (241), but I would say that the LGBT community is certainly fragmented – and this fragmentation is self-inflicted. 

The blogosphere is the best example of this self-isolation. I have my blog, sure, but why come here when you can go to TowleRoad, or Joe My God, or AmericaBlog, or Pam’s House Blend, or The New Civil Rights Movement, or Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters, or… There are hundreds, if not thousands, if not tens of thousands, of LGBT blogs. We are isolating ourselves, and in doing so we are limiting the extent to which we can engage one another.

Another example would be our petitions. When “We the People” launched, I was among the first to suggest petitioning President Obama to support full LGBT equality. But now there are bunches of LGBT petitions on a variety of different sub-issues, all of which have varying levels of support (and most of which have yet to reach the 5,000 signature threshold). Different activists are pushing different petitions, thus limiting our ability to reach the entire community at once.

When we isolate ourselves in our own blogs and side-projects, we are limiting our collective power and our potential for broad and far-reaching collective action. To maximize our social media efficiency, we must eliminate that segmentation.

Not only that, but we also do much of our advocacy on social networks that have connection barriers. You can’t engage with someone on Facebook unless you’re “friends.” You can do so on Twitter, but as I’ve said before, Twitter has character limits that make it impossible to really engage, and @’s are easy to ignore. Again, we are isolating ourselves, and in doing so we are limiting ourselves. Given the fact that we are a very small minority, this poses serious problems when it comes time to pressure our government. To fix this problem, we need to stop isolating ourselves.

How do we do that? How do we remove ourselves from the institutions that have isolated us from one another and come together online to maximize our collective power? In Part II, I’m going to tell you exactly how we can unite online and revolutionize the way in which we interact, engage, and act together.

Stay tuned, because we’re about to completely shake up how the LGBT community visualizes its online presence.

(Click here to read Part II.)

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References

Benkler, Y (2006) The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Butsch, R (2008) The Citizen Audience: Crowds, Publics, and Individuals (New York: Routledge)

Shirky, C (2008) Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (New York: Penguin Group)

4 comments:

  1. The irony is some of those blogs you cited above are isolating themselves; and that's because they seek to take or assign the credit to a particular constituency which represents their own lifestyles or views.

    Want to know why we don't utilize social media? Blame them.

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  2. I think this gets back to the niche too niche and also I'm stoked that you are referencing readings... but seriously, this is a really important issue-- I think it comes down to the fact that there is really NO LGBT "movement" really...

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  3. I am really enjoying this, and definitely looking forward to Parts 2 and 3. I would love your thoughts and feedback on the "It Gets Better Campaign." So many amazing people have participated, and since Google Chrome began to use it in their ads, the whole campaign really launched. I would definitely say that the campaign is an example of success with LGBT+social media.
    The White House one rocked my socks off, as it was amazing so see so many members of the LGBT community leading the country. However, I must admit, during the long version of Dan Savage and his partner Terry's video, I was CRYING. Its so good:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IcVyvg2Qlo

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  4. I think the point about segmentation is great - it really points out the way in which social media is a double-edged sword for the movement.

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