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.
The problem, I wrote, is fragmentation: the LGBT community is so segmented and self-isolated in its current form that we are hindering our own ability to organize online. This has serious implications for our ability to undertake collective actions:
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.
I will now discuss how we can overcome this barrier and join together as a singular, unified movement, online. My "prescription" may at first seem startling, naive, or unrealistic, but I fervently believe that it will greatly increase our ability to organize quickly and easily. It will revolutionize the way we interact, engage, and act together as a movement and make us a true political force to be reckoned with.
If the problem we are currently facing is segmentation, then the only solution is to foster greater unity. We need to bring the entire LGBT movement together in one place where we can discuss the issues, organize collective actions, and spark one another's creative activism.
During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's, the African American community had such a meeting place: the church. The Black Church was the anchor of their movement, acting as a physical meeting place where many of the most famous acts of non-violent civil disobedience were first crafted (Source). Having a cultural and geographical center where the African American community could come together, air their grievances, and organize protests allowed the movement to truly flourish.
The LGBT community does not have this sort of social center. Yet.
The LGBT movement really is an example of a "digital movement" - one that is primarily shaped and organized online. Even though the Stonewall Riots occurred long before the invention of the web, LGBT advocacy as a true social movement was weaned on the internet. Given this history - as well as the fact of how small the LGBT community is and how geographically dispersed we are - it is only appropriate that we create this sort of central hub online. One does not yet exist, and that needs to change, for the benefit of our activism.
In the most basic of terms, what I am proposing is an LGBT mega-site where everyone in the LGBT community can come together to engage their fellow advocates, bounce ideas off one another, and organize collective actions. There is no doubt that such an "online hub" for LGBT activism will ignite this movement and greatly increase our ability to advocate for our rights.
What would such a hub look like? What would it offer to LGBT advocates, and how would it bring us together in a way that is currently missing from our movement's online activity? I will now lay out some of the central, defining characteristics of this LGBT mega-site in order to give you a clearer picture as to exactly what I am proposing.
The most important thing any central hub for the LGBT community must have is a social networking component. Social networks allow you not only to bring pre-existing relationships online, but also to foster new relationships with people you may not otherwise have met. Social networking has been an extremely important factor in the LGBT movement from the start. Just as the African American community was able to foster relationships with fellow advocates at their local churches, so too must LGBT people be able to find each other online and cultivate relationships there.
This social networking tool would not only let people connect, but it would also allow people to share content (articles, videos, photos, etc), interact with one another (by posting on people's walls a la Facebook), and establish an online presence (by completing a profile that lets people find you, see your interests, etc.). These profiles would be designed specifically for advocates: instead of just showing your favorite music and movies, it would also show the issue areas you're most interested in, or your top legislative priorities, or some of the protests you've been to, etc. LGBT activists would be able to connect more easily than ever before.
Much like Facebook, you would be able to join groups relating to causes you care about the most - whether it's an "out servicemembers" group, or "LGBT Latinos" group, etc. Again, this will allow people to engage with one another at a higher level and cultivate relationships with other activists who care about the issues you care about.
The problem with most social networks is that you can really only interact with people you've already connected with. In a discussion forum, however, this is not the case: you can go into any topic and join the conversation. Our LGBT mega-site would need a discussion forum to foster the many important discussions and debates that currently are either happening in different little corners of the internet, or that aren't happening at all because of self-isolation.
In these discussion forums, any activist could join a conversation and have a say in shaping the movement. You don't have to be "friends" with the other participants or otherwise "in the loop"; the only criteria is that you care enough about the issue to want to participate. And you could post about virtually anything LGBT-related: there would obviously be a sub-forum for legislative issues, but also one for LGBT culture, for discussing the movement and how to improve it, etc. The sky is the limit when we open up the conversation to include literally everybody.
Importantly, there would be no anonymity in these discussion forums: you would post as yourself, based on the profile you're logged into. I honestly don't believe in internet anonymity because I think it brings out the worst in people, but the reason these discussion forums would prohibit anonymity is because it's counter-productive: these forums are designed to give advocates a place where they can flesh out ideas, debate the issues of the day, etc. What is the point of having these conversations if we don't even know who we are having them with?
The discussion forums would be moderated to keep out anything that is blatantly spam or completely anti-gay.
While the LGBT movement is certainly a digital movement, it is very important that we have a big offline presence. Currently, Facebook allows you to create "events" and invite people you are connected with. This is great, and the LGBT community has been quick to utilize this tool in organizing offline actions. Our hub would have an event function that would be connected with the social networking platform as well, the difference being that you would be able to invite more than just your "friends." People would receive information regarding events in their geographical proximity on their landing page so that they can "discover" the events, link in their own networks, etc. If every member of the LGBT movement is on the same website, then organizing flash mobs, call-ins, and other actions will be easier and faster than ever before.
A free and open democracy necessitates a well-informed public. Likewise, a successful movement requires well-informed members. The site will have a news aggregator that will constantly show you the most important LGBT-related stories of the day. On the front page, you will be able to see a "ticker" that is constantly streaming updates from major news sites, blogs, etc. that have to do with LGBT rights. This would be distinguished from your newsfeed that shows you what your "friends" are posting. Another possibility is that users could generate a blogroll that would likewise show them the news of the day. You would be able to post any of these articles to your profile at the click of a button, which would then show up on your network's feeds, where they can comment on the content and start a discussion - which could always be taken to the discussion forum to bring in other opinions.
One thing I have learned about the LGBT community is that literally everybody has an opinion on everything. Unfortunately, LGBT advocates have isolated themselves into their own blogs, rarely interacting save for the occasional tweet or hat-tip. Much like Myspace, I would suggest that our mega-site should have a blog function in each profile, so that people can sound off on the issues. People in their network could then comment on those posts, share them to their own feed, etc. As you can see, one of the most important aspects of this site is that everything is instantly sharable - and with everyone in the same place, the ripple effects are gigantic.
Political Action Center
Perhaps the most important aspect of the LGBT movement is policy: the state of various LGBT bills in Congress, for instance. Our mega-site would need to have a political action center, where people can get all of the information they need about the political issues affecting our community, and get involved in these efforts as well. One important tool would be a feature that allows you to see the status of particular bills via Thomas. Anyone can see whether their legislators support their rights, and instantly call them.
There would also need to be a public whip count, which allows users to call their members of Congress and report back on how they feel about particular issues: this was very helpful in solidifying 60 Senate votes for "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal. Act on Principles already supplies this function, but it is segregated from the rest of the LGBT online community. Having a political action center will bring all of these different tools together into one place, making political activism that much easier.
There would also be an election center, where people can determine easily which candidate in every race in their state, district, and town supports equality. By having electoral information specifically catered towards LGBT rights, advocates will be able to make informed decisions.
Lastly, there would be an Equality Map, where you would be able to see the state of LGBT rights throughout the country (perhaps later the world). Which states don't yet have transgender protections? Which states have civil unions but not full marriage equality? Find that information here. Again, this mega-site is about making our wealth of information available to everyone instantly - and then fostering real discussions about this information and fleshing out actions to address it.
The LGBT community has a love affair with petitions. Change.org always has new petitions up for people to sign. Our mega-site would bring all of these petitions into one place. This would avoid redundancy, but more importantly it would make racking up signatures extremely easy. Imagine if every member of the LGBT online community had a profile on this mega-site and instantly saw a petition go live? It would have thousands of signatures within the hour. That can be a reality with this new central hub.
Many LGBT advocates have great ideas that they can't bring to fruition due to limited funds. Our mega-site would have a donation center that would allow advocates (or entire groups) to make their case and have people donate to any causes they're interested in. This will revolutionize the way LGBT advocates and organizations do business: instead of having to send out those tired listservs asking for more donations, they can take to the web and procure funding for new and exciting projects. People could browse these causes and find ones they want to donate to. This brings the ideas and the resources together in a way like never before.
Right now, there is no definitive source for all of the photos and videos that come out of this movement. Our mega-site would allow you to post photos and videos from protests, meetings, etc. that could then make their way to other activists. People could comment on this media, share them on their profiles, etc.
Nowhere does there exist a definitive source for LGBT history. Wikipedia obviously provides plenty of information, but an interesting aspect of this nega-site would be a wiki specifically for LGBT-related topics. Issues ("Don't Ask, Don't Tell," ENDA, gay marriage), people (Harvey Milk, Cleve Jones, Dan Choi), organizations (HRC, Act Up, GetEQUAL), and major events (Stonewall, National Equality March) would have pages so that people could easily research LGBT history, past and present. This is another example of a function that already exists elsewhere (Wikipedia, as it were) but that would better serve the LGBT community in a central location.
Tools like this already exist, but having a directory of LGBT-friendly businesses in this mega-site would ensure that LGBT dollars are only going to LGBT-friendly places. Going on vacation? Make sure you're not staying in a hotel that hosts anti-gay organizations' events. Want to buy a new car? Don't buy one from a company that discriminates against transgender employees. The more we know, the better we can act: this directory will allow us to keep track of the companies that are truly on our side.
What I have just laid out for you is a proposal for an LGBT mega-site which would completely revolutionize the way the LGBT movement engages and acts together online. These are just some aspects of a central hub that would allow our community to get informed, engaged, and active together in our pursuit for equality in the most efficient way possible. As you can see, it is a massive undertaking, and there are many questions that need to be answered before such a project could be fully fleshed-out. Part III will seek to answer those questions.
What do you think an LGBT mega-site should look like? What do you think it should have that I have excluded? Sound off in the comments.