The Power of Viral?

All of the readings from this week focused on the viral power of the internet and when it can be potentially used for good. Just think about the positive qualities of modern technology. Information and ideas can be disseminated faster than ever and communities of people can be united across the world via online engagement spaces. Everything happens much faster and is exposed to the public eye at a rate never before seen or experienced. The whole concept of something going “viral” and taking over these online spaces (albeit normally for a short period of time) is potentially problematic if there is no productive follow up to the initial act, or if the viral thing is not something that is good in the first place. For the sake of this blog post I will talk about some of the positive aspects of the web for social good.

The internet is powerful because of numbers. The sheer access that the majority of people have now a days to connect and share information is incredible. It is extremely easy for people to voice their opinions and share their thoughts in a public domain (think stream of consciousness twitter, or Facebook rants). Every day it seems like someone new is trying to crowd source to get funding for their new project. Last week a friend of mine was looking to raise $300 for her Costa Rica trip this summer and today the first things I saw on my newsfeed when I went to Facebook was this.

 Ethan Mollick discusses the methods used in crowd sourcing and kick starter campaigns and why they ultimately fail or are successful. The idea of generating unregulated funds from the general public is a relatively new concept and something that brings up a lot of conversations about privacy, obligation, and group manipulation and marketing. Although this isn’t in the realm of activism directly, it still shows the power of the internet, and if it is this easy for people to back a project monetarily, imagine how easy it is to back free ideas.

When there are multiple people on the same platform sharing ideas and interacting, it practically creates the breeding grounds for uniting activism and bringing to light issues that normally would take a while to gain followers and traction. The Zuckerman reading discusses the Arab spring movement and censorship in China in conjunction with activist movements online. The Arab spring movement was as successful as it was in gaining support quickly and bringing the public eye to governmental injustices via photos, tweets, video streams, and posts that broadcast the movement for the whole world to follow. It was there in front of our eyes. We could not turn away. While I observe the speed with which action was taken in this case, I can’t help but think of other movements in the past, before the rampant use of technology, and how ideas traveled back then. My mind jumps to the Civil Rights movement and sit-ins and marches.



I think of how these would have been publicized probably by word of mouth or by flyers. There would be no mass texts, no Facebook groups, no catchy videos to post and share with your friends to get them excited about joining you. What might have happened if the people at the Greensboro sit in had cell phones and could text their friends or live tweet about it? I can’t help but draw parallels to what we are seeing in Ferguson today and how the same situation is seen in a more public eye today and it has quickly become a daily topic of conversation. Likewise, in looking at comparative timelines of both the Civil Rights movement and the Arab Spring movement, we see that in the Arab Spring movement action was obviously seen sooner.



I can’t help but wonder though if something about the lack of technology in the past made people devoted to the cause more dedicated since they worked all that much harder to gain support. Without the ease of the world just a click away each step to get followers and expose the injustices in the world, I could understand how every member mattered more. When there are so many people following a mass movement very easily it seems that some of the camaraderie built from mutual struggle is lost. At the same time I can see how perhaps the same ideals are still present in the more modern context and technology hasn’t changed the nature of relationships in activism, but rather created new ways of doing the same thing. I think of code words used by people of various groups for example to connote meeting places safe from the prying eye of the policing public. In the same article mentioned before Zuckerman discusses how people in China used code words to talk about censorship since the word “censor” triggered keyword filters and alerted authorities. They used Mandarin homonyms to beat the system and have an underground (yet still very public) conversation. In a way this mirrors the physical policing of organizing in the past in this new modern web space. The same dynamics of policing are still at play just in more subtle, less immediately violent ways.


One new way of visible online activism is through Twitter hashtags as we discussed earlier in this course. Suey Park elaborates on the politics of Twitter hashags and says that, “We use Twitter to remember we are not alone — or crazy — but instead part of a collective struggle.” The platform of a public domain unites people in common struggle. The hashtag “#hasjustinelandedyet” is a good example of one positive way that the twitter community pointed out racism and help one woman accountable for her words. By being part of the public space, her once problematic inner thoughts were exposed to the world and communities united to call her out. If she had just said this to her friend and then someone overheard and told some friends and then maybe they shared the story with a few more people, it would not have had the same traction that it did in this very public space. Communities can also be created by in and out groups of who can use and appropriate certain hashtags. Park notes that “#NotYourAsianSidekick” a hashtag that she started to talk about the appropriation of Asian culture in media, “has never existed in a vacuum–it exists in a continuum, within a women of color feminist genealogy — it is the continuation of a dialogue, of a series of efforts that have had successes and failures.”  These hashtags and forms of online activism need to be seen in the larger context of their use and the conversations from which they are born.

Overall in my lifetime I have seen the internet mobilize and unite people across the world in more positive ways than not. There is real power here and we need to take advantage of that when we can, but also understand the implications of public dialogues and movements in these nebulous spaces. How can we make sure we are using it productively and taking advantage of this source at our fingertips.

Questions to think about:

What might activist campaigns (like I,Too, Am Harvard) in the age of the internet have looked without the internet?

How has policing played out in these spaces?

What are some of the positives and negatives of concepts/ideas/campaigns that “go viral”? How can we compare the rise and fall of these viral concepts with the rise and fall of past movements before the internet? Is there something problematic happening here or is speed and brevity everything?


Mollick, Ethan R. 2013. The Dynamics of Crowdfunding: An Exploratory Study. SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 2088298. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network.

Zuckerman, Ethan. 2014. “Cute Cats to the Rescue? Participatory Media and Political Expression.” In Youth, New Media and Political Participation.

Park, Suey, and Eunsong Kim. 2014. “Hashtags as Decolonial Projects with Radical Origins.” Model View Culture. Accessed August 18.



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