Greenpeace asked me to Facebook message Mark Zuckerberg today. Given the hullabaloo surrounding social networking and activism these days (and more specifically, Malcolm Gladwell's controversial New Yorker piece  on the subject), I should have been in some sense prepared for the Rainbow Warriors to request I open to my Facebook home page. The two entities they represent have become, if on some levels superficially, intertwined.
Perhaps my slight sense of shock was due to the fact that while viewing the campaign's web page , which of course I stumbled across when an acquaintance hit it's "Like" button last night, it struck me that this was just the sort that could make a difference. Zuckerberg is probably a guy that bases quite a bit of his decisions on messages that come through that inbox.
Greenpeace has a lot of these sorts of efforts: their current site lists a series of "online actions you can take now" that include:
- Stop nuclear investments!
- Call for an end to whaling in the Southern Ocean
- Call for a GE-free future
- Ask Princes Tuna to stop canning ocean destruction
Which, really, are all things I enjoy. I want to click them all, enter my email address a hundred times, feel better about my inability to personally stop the disastrous victory of the sit-lie measure in last week's election.
But will it change Princes Tuna's actions? I suppose there's really two tiers we should talk about when we talk about activism, though they're not mutually exclusive. One is the people that hit that “like” button (often willy nilly, judging from my more Internet-passionate friends), and two is the physical manifesters of activism. Let's call them Internet and meat activists.
In his New Yorker article, Gladwell makes the point that these kinds of social networking campaigns' strength is the astronomical number of people that can be mobilized to do one relatively simple thing. “But if you're taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy,” he says, rightly filing the networks into another sort of organizational model. But Gladwell glosses over the fact that there even if social networks themselves don't have actual heads, campaigns that use the Internet heavily often do. After all, I'll wager that whosoever designed that Greenpeace effort (okay, a person that conferred heavily with the designers of that website) has ties to the clean energy movement that go beyond Internet messaging.
And there is other crossover between the two. From sit-lie to sweatshop protests, many rally participants these days are called to action from a social network announcement.
I went to a talk at the Commonwealth Club the other day by Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams in the week after the Gladwell article came out. Stone, in his customary jeans and black jacket, was adamant that Twitter -- whose role in the Haiti disaster and the Iranian election was perhaps overstated -- should remain a tool to aide social change, not be it's agent.
Back to Greenpeace's campaign thingy. This is how their campaign to get Zuckerberg to drop the coal fuel – with which he might be powering 1,963 billion kilowatt hours of electricity for the site by 2020 in his proposed Oregon data center, by the way – is described in its explanatory video (which is quite cute but makes me nervous about the accuracy of The Social Network because it seems to be influencing this really intimate perception of a CEO's life that we've really only seen before in movies about Southern guitarists and tempermental heads of state):
[Childrens cartoon image of Mark Zuckerberg stripped naked atop a tall stack of money, between an ominous “coal” shirt marked “Unfriend” and a “wind energy” shirt marked “Friend”] But Mark Zuckerberg can still change his mind. And I know which one I would choose... And so do all his friends. [a big mouse hovers over the two buttons] If you let yourself down, you let your friends down. And with 500 million friends, it's a long way down. [money stack vanishes, Zuckerberg falls down from a long, naked height]
Or just watch the video itself. Greenpeace vs. Facebook on coal
The campaign's suggestions for how you can get involved? Read about the issue on their site and add your email address to their newsletter subscriber list are the only tangible “action ideas” readily visable, but I do both of those things and in a few minutes I have an email that says I should forward itself to my friends, and an email from “Eoin and the Cool IT team” that says I should send Mark Zuckerberg a Facebook message.
[sample email given] Hey Zuck! I love Facebook and use it all the time, but what's up with this coal business? Haven’t you heard of climate change? A BIG company like Facebook can really benefit by going green. I hope you can make the right energy choices to save the planet and your millions of friendships. PEACE
Leaving aside the fact that Eoin probably isn't on a nickname basis with the guy (maybe that's a retro complaint), and perhaps need not sign off with such an aggressive usage of the word “peace,” I'm weirded out. Mostly because I just realized I'm not Mark Zuckerberg's friend on Facebook – not by that site's internal definition at least. Will my words mean the same, not coming from a Facebook friend? I could request his friendship, but isn't it odd to become someone's friend just to lecture them on their company's sustainability practices?
And if I was his friend before, would my email matter any more? Much less send him tumbling, naked, down after a stack of dematerialized dollar bills? Maybe if I canceled my account altogether this will happen.
I was brought up a believer in the power of one's vote. A lot of people get their info on voting from the Internet. I know the website you're reading this on regularly crashes on election day because a bunch of people are checking out the SFBG endorsements. A lot of us get our political news from the Internet and there are way more news sites out there than before that say all kinds of kooky stuff but also the truth sometimes.
But is Mark Zuckerberg gonna switch to wind energy? Will Greenpeace send me word of an action that turns me into a meat activist on the issue? Maybe it's on me – maybe I should take this info, as the Greensboro college students that instigated the lunch counter sit-ins that Gladwell praises in his piece took the guidance of the NAACP chapter of which they were members, and with it do something more bold.
Time's gonna tell us on those questions, but the Zuck vs. Rainbow incident did leave me with an inkling of my feelings on the matter. Which are as follows: at least I signed up to receive the newsletters. If Greenpeace needs people for a boat ride up to Oregon, I have a shot of being on it. Social networks aren't a end, but maybe they can be part of the means to social justice.