Forget about Twitter as a medium for organizing protests, it is surprisingly effective as an actual protest forum. Yesterday there was a story on NPR about a flurry of protest tweets that, within just hours, got JCPenney to remove from their racks a controversial t-shirt with the slogan “I’m too pretty to do homework so I have my brother do it for me.” (I am not 100% sure but I think the parents were worried about the message this was sending to boys. Boys can be pretty too and they shouldn’t always be doing so much homework.)
Electronic communications and social networking change the power structure of protests. One subtle reason is that the act of listening to the protest is no longer public and verifiable. The organization that you are protesting against would like to commit not to listen to your protest. If we believe that there is no way to get JCPenney’s ear then no matter how much we care about boys’ self esteem we waste our effort on a futile protest. In the old days, with the exception of protests so vocal that they make the evening news, this commitment was credible. Just don’t give out any public channel through which to express your protest.
Now the channel is already there. But more importantly, the act of listening to the protest is private and not verifiable. It is impossible to commit not to listen to protests on Twitter. JCPenney would like to announce to the world that no matter how much we protest on Twitter they are just not paying attention, so don’t bother. But even if they believed that announcement worked, they would still have an incentive to monitor #JCPenney hashtags on Twitter just in case some protest happened to break out. We all know that so we don’t believe them when they say they aren’t listening.
So social media change the balance of power of protests because they give the protesters the first-mover advantage.