Social Media Proving A Powerful Tool For Activists, Sit-In Museum

11:47 AM, Jan 28, 2010   |    comments
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Greensboro, NC -- In just four days, people from all over the world will celebrate the actions of the Greensboro Four. Their activism changed the face of race relations in the United States. But how has activism itself changed?

When David Richmond, Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil set out to change the course of civil rights some 50 years ago, it took a while for word of their efforts to spread. Their sit-in started with just the four of them on the first day, but steadily grew as newspaper and television coverage mixed with word-of-mouth to spread what was happening.


Eventually, word got out and the sit-in museum estimates that by one year later, more than 70,000 people had taken part in sit-ins across the country.


But what if the Greensboro Four had to try the same thing all over again in today's day and age? With Twitter and Facebook and all the other social media that's out there, chances are they could've reached 70,000 people within minutes.


With that in mind, the sit-in museum is harnessing the power of social media. It's on Twitter and Facebook to spread awareness about the museum and all its upcoming events. Both the Civil Rights Museum and an Elon University professor say social media have revolutionized activism and forever changed how people can speak out.


"We don't have to rely so much on activism in the sense where it's a person who goes out and makes speeches or is out in the street," said Tibias Thorne, who will be in charge of the museum's social media efforts once it opens. "Sometimes part of activism is just ... making people aware of what's going on.


"And usually, now in the time period that we're in, if you let people know what's going on they'll take their own part to be active in their own respective ways."


Brooke Barnett, an associate professor at Elon, says activism surrounding breast cancer provides a great example of how social media plays into spreading the word about your cause.


"Initial discussion of breast cancer happened in the traditional media," Barnett said. "People then probably started sending emails about breast cancer and personal stories. Now you can identify with the cause of breast cancer on Facebook. You can sign petitions that will hopefully help create more research money for breast cancer."


The sit-in museum hopes to use its Facebook and Twitter pages to gain similar momentum. Its Facebook page had more than 4,700 fans as of Thursday morning.


"Activism begins with awareness," Thorne said. "So, as long as we can make people aware of what we're doing, we can increase activism through the museum."


And while social media has made it easier for people to share their passions and advocate for issues that matter to them, Barnett says that creates a lot of "noise." That noise makes it harder to filter out relevant messages.


Still, social media are still powerful mechanisms to reach a lot of people in very little time.


"Social media are tools rather than strategies," Barnett said. "So you're still talking about the same public relations persuasion activities, you just have a new arsenal of things to use. So rather than having social media drive the message and the strategy and the campaign, you say 'what do we want from people,' and then 'how do we use these tools to get it?' It's really the way we've been doing this for a long time."


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