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5 min

How Facebook and Web 2.0 are changing the nature of gay activism

Old methods haven't fallen completely by the wayside, but groups will need to adapt to survive

Knowing there are at least 13,000 people across the world who support them has been a tremendous boost to Jane Currie and Anji Dimitriou.

The Oshawa lesbian couple was brutally assaulted in front of their children on Nov 3 in an attack that left them battered and bloodied. The couple chose to fight back, but not through press releases and phone calls, the traditional weapons of established activist organizations. Three days after the assault Currie and Dimitriou started a Facebook group.

“One of our friends phoned and said, ‘You should call the newspapers,'” says Currie. “We said, ‘We’re not sure about that.’ Then Anji said, ‘Holy shit. We should start a Facebook group.’ Not only is it unbelievably worldwide, it’s free.”

Currie says when they checked the group a couple of days later there were 87 members.

“We were on there yesterday [Nov 28] and there were 13,000 people,” she says. “Roughly every three minutes a new member joins. We’ve got emails from Norway, Spain, Australia, France, Scotland, Ireland. They’ve seen it [bashings] happen, if not had it happen to themselves.

“We were just trying to get the message out that it’s not an isolated incident, that it happens all the time. It completely snowballed from there.”

Among the snowball’s effects was that rather than having to chase media attention the media, including Xtra, ended up coming to them.

“One girl who was checking out Facebook, her sister was a reporter for the Durham News, which is owned by the Toronto Star,” says Currie. “It was the gay sister of this reporter who was saying, ‘That could have been my sister.’ CNN in New York came across it on Facebook.”

Facebook also played a crucial role in organizing another staple of traditional activism: the rally. The Nov 14 Oshawa rally drew several hundred people out on a windy, rainy night to support Currie and Dimitriou. The event was organized by the Durham chapter of Pflag, but Currie says much of the crowd learned of it through Facebook.

“The rally was started online, it was sent out to all the people in the group,” she says. “We had people we’ve never met saying, ‘We’ll be at your rally.’ This might be an easier, less time-consuming method [than traditional organizing methods]. People don’t have time to sit at the kitchen table with a phone and a pen.”

The result, says Currie, has been that even without traditional media and activist organizations taking the lead, the campaign has been a roaring success.

“You can reach thousands of people just like that,” she says. “This way, even if we hadn’t got any media coverage, we would still have reached thousands of people.

“It might be easier for people to get things rolling for what they believe in without drawing as much attention to themselves. I think this is the way of the future.”

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Even veteran queer activists agree. While AIDS Action Now has never been a traditional suit-and-tie type organization it has used many of the traditional methods of organizing. But Tim McCaskell, who cofounded the group in the ’80s, says things are going to have to change.

“I bounced your message around to the steering committee and the replies ranged from the fact that we’ve given up on phone trees to our ability to use email and that we have a Yahoo group to send out stuff to our membership, to the fact that we are in immediate electronic touch with activists around the world for solidarity work,” he writes in an email.

“But we are still trying to get our website up and running and are nowhere in terms of social networking groups like Facebook. It’s not that we’re Luddites, at least we know we are desperately behind the times and that if we are to continue to be effective we have to catch up…. Sigh.”

The old reliable methods of activism haven’t fallen completely by the wayside. To be most successful groups still have to be able to reach the media and those who aren’t necessarily on social networking sites.

“In my studies I found that the successful activist groups had a balance of both grassroots online participation and attention in more traditional media,” writes Jaigris Hodson in an email. Hodson completed her master’s thesis at York University this year on how what she calls “Web 2.0 technologies” like blogs or social networks affect activism.

“I don’t think that traditional organizations have to be left behind by this shift, but there is a key element that they have to consider if they are going to continue to be relevant to a Web 2.0 world. Traditional media works on a broadcast paradigm. In other words, they talk and the audience listens. Web 2.0 works on a participatory paradigm where everyone contributes to the conversation. The traditional organizations that allow for participation will continue to be successful in a Web 2.0 world, and those organizations that continue to push a broadcast model will be left behind.”

The protest in Toronto over the passage of Proposition Eight — the California legislation that banned same-sex marriage — is a prime example. Protests and rallies happened all over North America almost spontaneously, with virtually no input from the large, established queer activist organizations. Much of the organizing happened through Facebook.

Katherina Yerro, one of the organizers of the Nov 15 Toronto protest, says she put up posters but most of the organizing was done through Facebook and Jointheimpact.com [a website started to protest Prop Eight across North America].

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that the protest was primarily Facebook-based,” writes Yerro in an email. “Thursday night a couple friends and I posted flyers all over Church St, and I made sure to post the information on Join the Impact as well as Facebook. Most people emailed me via the Join the Impact website because they don’t have Facebook.

“I do believe that Facebook is the reason it grew so big, so quickly though. On Facebook events like that grow exponentially, as compared to one-by-one through word of mouth.”

Join the Impact was also the impetus behind 300 other demonstrations across North America and Europe, demonstrations that mostly involved grassroots marchers.

“A crowd estimated at up to 10,000 assembled along Broadway adjacent to City Hall on Nov 15 to decry the elimination of marriage rights in California,” stated an article in New York’s Gay City News.

“The City Hall protest was just one of 300 such simultaneous demonstrations in every state and several foreign countries conceived 10 days earlier by Amy Balliet, a lone 26-year-old in Seattle, who, in the wake of the California defeat, put up the website Jointheimpact.com to discuss what needed to be done. The website’s suggestion to mount a coordinated campaign of street actions was taken up aggressively by the gay netroots nationwide.

“At first activists in New York thought the call to come to City Hall on a Saturday might result in thousands of people just milling around with their handmade signs. But a 17-year-old girl in Connecticut named Emma apparently took it upon herself to organize the New York action and was quickly overwhelmed with the response. Five young neophyte activists, none of whom had known each other, connected on Facebook and took up the challenge of giving some shape to the New York demonstration.

“‘We took the initiative,’ said Evan Terry, 20, one of the lead organizers. ‘Every one of us is under 22.'”