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The Revolution Will Be Tweeted

The Revolution Will Be Tweeted


COMMENTARY: Snapshot: My 86-year-old mother, a former schoolteacher and missionary, hunched in her darkened second bedroom in front of a glowing iMac, writing social protest e-mails at all hours of the day and night, forwarding links to Mother Jones and The Ragin' Grannies blogs and conversation groups.

Snapshot: Me, waking in the morning, picking up the cell phone charging next to my bed and, with a mix of bleariness and anticipation, logging on to Twitter to see what's happening with friends. After that, I check the CNN app. Facebook is not far behind. By that point, I've usually disturbed my boyfriend sleeping beside me. He rolls over and, after a kiss good morning, gets on his phone, checking in with the world. We lie like this for a few minutes, sharing a funny or disturbing bit of news with each other as we read it, and finally get up to face the day.

Snapshot: A CNN report about teen girls and text messaging shows that American mothers are more and more often having to reach their kids via smart phone. But not by calling -- teen girls seem unlikely to check voice mail. If you want to reach your daughter these days, one mom lamented, you have to message them.

Snapshot: Tahrir Square in Cairo, the street filled with anti-government protesters in what became the first revolution to be born and promoted via social media, namely Facebook pages and Twitter updates. Recognizing the power of what was occurring, (then) President Hosni Mubarak suspended Internet service in Egypt for several days. Social media didn't just make history, it ... MADE ... history.

Snapshot: Starbucks, any city USA. People wait in line to order or pick up coffee. A few sit in small groups chatting. But many are sitting silent, leaning forward, staring at the displays of their laptops and smart phones, interacting on social media sites. This is the new normal.

Snapshot: More than two million people click on the YouTube channel for Dan Savage's It Gets Better, a social media project to help reach bullied LGBT teens at risk of suicide. "Spokespersons" from Hillary Clinton to popular actors to everyday people record videos on their home computers and upload them so teens can watch.

Snapshot: At an evening rehearsal for a local volunteer choir, members are asked to support the group's Twitter and Facebook presence by joining and posting thoughts and comments. "Twitter? Please!" one of the middle-aged performers balks. Then he rejoins, "Yes, I've heard of Twitter. And frankly, I have no need to know what Sarah Palin is up to today!"

Friends, the landscape has changed. There has been a quantum shift in the way people communicate, and not everyone is on board.

It's like the moments in evolution where nature skips a step. But this time, it's brought about by human intervention. We've seen several similar leaps forward in the past century--with the introduction of the automobile, commercial air transportation, the telephone and radio/TV broadcasting. Each has changed the way we live or relate to one another. Cars erase distances in our daily lives and add personal choice and spontaneity to travel. Planes fly in diverse things to eat, facilitate epidemics like HIV and influenza, and bring Grandma from halfway around the world. A shift that began with radio accelerated with the introduction of TV in 1939, making possible what Marshall McLuhan referred to as "the global village." Americans moved from gathering around the hearth in the evening to watching a distinctly cooler fire.

Then, a half-century later, we each went to our own room, which may be the worst outcome of the social media explosion. It seems the technologies which bring us together can just as easily scatter us if we allow it.

The social media phenomenon began quietly in 2002 with Friendster, and the following year MySpace became huge among a certain set of people. It would have been reasonable even a few years ago to simply say, "No, thank you," and opt out of what appeared a cliquish time-waster and yet another avenue for unscrupulous advertisers to hawk investment schemes and snake oil.

But opting out is no longer an option for those who wish to be connected to the larger world, socially, politically and culturally. Mock the former Alaska Governor's tweets if you like, but do so knowing that you're ignoring the front lines of social change. Skip Facebook and Twitter, but be aware that you've placed a wall between yourself and your nieces, nephews and younger colleagues. The wall may not be visible now. It will be later.

As LGBT people, we have long been marginalized and refused a place in mainstream society by shunning or threat of violence. We socialized in the shadows of an underground speakeasy, the docks of port cities, and clandestine clubs and societies. Interaction was always accompanied by a nervous glance over the shoulder, an awareness that one might be caught and persecuted. We began Gay Pride parades and festivals to carve out a bit of space for ourselves push back against this phenomenon, but it persisted.

Now, with social media, we have the opportunity to form new, very visible constructs with people of like mind or experience. For the first time, our opportunities are just as rich in Bozeman, Mont., as Boston, Mass. There is no upper or lower age limit, no expectation (unless you're on a social site with the intention of getting laid) of being pretty, or butch, or tall or able-bodied. Starting a group on Facebook requires nothing more than a web browser and a few clicks. Posting an opinion is far more practical and less scary than standing up in public and speaking one's mind.

I like to think of Facebook as a public commercial building in which people can rent space, free or on the cheap, in a surprisingly democratic manner. The gay bar can exist next to the Justin Bieber fan club, right down from the fundamentalist church storefront. Each is as easily accessible and welcoming as the next. Call it instant legitimacy. But if you're not plugged in, you're not plugged in. And this is a particularly poor time to be a Luddite.

There is definitely an age and generation gap when it comes to social media. Not surprisingly, young people are more inclined to be online interacting than their older family members and acquaintances. But look at my mom. Look at gray haired politicians who've embraced Twitter and found a means of talking directly with their constituents. There is nothing but fear and habit standing in the way of other older people picking up a device and tapping out a few sentences of how they feel or what they think.

As an activist, the sense of liberation I get from speaking my truth is something I wish all could and would experience. A street corner is one place I can share my feelings (and have on occasion), but it's exponentially more effective online. Sitting thinking about it now, I wish Marshall McLuhan were alive today to see how diverse and accessible his global village has grown, and to offer words of encouragement for late adopters to tune in and join the rest of us!
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