This is the 1st in a series of short articles that are intended to help grassroots activists better utilize social media websites. These are the definitive and comprehensive guides for progressives. Every week after the Intro, there will be a new guide published about how to more effectively use Reddit, Digg, StumbleUpon, Twitter, Facebook,Google+, Other Sites (including Newsvine), and on Advanced Strategies.
Social Media is going to be one of the central battlegrounds in the 2012 election cycle in the US. The corporate right understands this very well, and they have invested mass sums from their war chest to send in legions of mindless astroturfers to try to control content aggregation and spin. It is essential for genuine grassroots supporters of real change and reform to take an active role on this front to fight back. If you believe that all men and women are created equal, that every person deserves to start out on a level playing field in life to succeed or fail on their own merits, if you believe that science, reason, education, and truth are valuable in this world, and that freedom requires ordinary people to stand up and fight, then these guides are for you.
It is more important than ever for progressives to take an active role across the social media spectrum. The internet in general and all tech-savvy folks are far more likely to tilt left, and that has been used with great success since 2004 to spread center-left issues and debunk right wing lies. Starting in December 2008, right wing corporate front groups began invading social media en masse. Their methods have grown more sophisticated since then, like using automated software to handle hundreds of sock puppet accounts. There is a massive amount of astroturfing from the Tea Party, anti-science groups, "patriot" groups, the the military-industrial complex, federal security contractors, and anti-environmental groups. This is all meant to create the illusion of popular support for theocratic, corporate, or imperial forces that are actually not supported by a majority. Anti-authoritarian progressives like us need to redouble our efforts to counter this manipulation.
The Social Media Solar System
There are generally two tiers of social media: the larger websites with more traffic (Reddit, Digg, StumbleUpon, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+) and the smaller, more personal websites (Newsvine, Slashdot, Fark, Chime, MetaFilter, etc.). Within the realm of social media, there are also different types of sites:
Social news sites like Reddit, Digg, Newsvine, Slashdot, Fark, Chime, and MetaFilter are places to post and discuss the latest headlines. They the primary focal point for activism. Social bookmarking sites like StumbleUpon, Delicious, Diigo, etc. are places where longer news has a role, but longer term topics do better. They are also not very social. Social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, and Linkedin are the most social but not the best aggregators of good content. Miscellaneous sites like Disqus, YouTube, Quora, etc. combine various aspects in an original way. Social blogging sites like Tumblr, Blogger, Posterous, Care2, the Daily Kos, etc. provide a unique method to add your own input and focus your message.
The chart above reflects the overall user base of the main social media sites discussed in this series. The 2-dimensional values are based on various sources, run through a magic algorithm, adjusted by my whims, and not meant to be taken as literal figures. There is exponential growth in communication technologies in the world, including social media communities. Facebook projects 1 billion users this year (up from 6 million in 2006) and other sites are rapidly expanding as well. This means social media will play an increasing role in activism for the foreseeable future, and is an essential vehicle to get onboard.
The key to any social media activist is to invest a large amount of time initially to build a strong, loyal network on the big sites. The larger the following base you have, the greater impact your work will have. Eventually, anything you share will generate hundreds to tens of thousands of page views and hopefully shape and focus the larger debate. Consider everything you have done prior to this moment as prelude. This is your starting point.
Before You Begin
Start by creating a simple but catchy username. While you can certainly use your real name and in fact will get more respect if you do, most activists wish to protect their personal identity. While you may think that using your real birth name is fine since you have nothing to hide, remember that our opponents are not kind, rational, respectful people. They thrive on fear, anger, hate, and conflict, and if you are really bold in confronting their disinformation, propaganda, and lies, they will stalk, harass, and even threaten you. That is their nature.
Think of a username that demonstrates your core beliefs with a humorous twist like FreedomDonkey, Johnalicious, SirSpeaksAlot, ScienceMonkey, peacetronaut, etc. Something short, sweet, and easily recognizable. Google search your preferred username first to make sure there is not already someone using it. Avoid underscores and symbols at all costs, although a number that looks like a letter embedded in the text can work (for instance eth3real or 5ecularist). There is nothing more annoying than someone with a confusing username like 111111rogerdg7241, diepalatidescapesinMB, yNgREdIL, or Pl#bius_Harrring_9.
Then chose a visually appealing avatar. Search around a bit for it. It should be something memorable with a strong contrast that looks great when it is tiny, as most Social Media websites only allow for ~150x150 pixel avatars or less (sometimes as small as 20x20px). It should be something that stands out, a uniform expression of your identity that people will be able to recognize the instant they see it. After you sign up for your email address, put your avatar on Gravatar to save time from having to upload it on every site you register for.
To keep your activities more anonymous, you can use a proxy like Hide My *ss one. You can also install TOR (free) or pay a small monthly sum to have a professional service do it. Just be forewarned that this will slow down your activity and some snoopy sites like Facebook may force you to log back in and sometimes verify your identity by various means if they see different IP addresses being used.
It should be noted at this point that if you would like separate your activism from your personal accounts, rather than constantly logging out and back in, just use a different browser. You can set up all of your activist accounts on Firefox, then use Chrome for everything personal or vice versa (Safari, IE, and other browsers can also be used, but are more cumbersome). Some social sites strictly prohibit multiple accounts however (Digg, SU, FB, and G+) while others do not (Reddit and Twitter), so check with each site first so you do not violate any rules.
Next you should set up your primary activism email account through any free email service on the internet. Gmail is preferable for compatibility. Also consider opening identical email addresses at Yahoo! and other free email hosts. Then go sign up at Reddit, Digg, StumbleUpon, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, using the exact same username and avatar. Fill in some personal details on your profile page. Link and list all of your accounts to each other so folks can know where you are active and can follow you everywhere.
The final thing to do before you get started is download and install the Shareaholic add-on/extension for your browser. This gives you a button in your url bar that makes it easy to share content on Reddit, Digg, SU, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and many more social media sites. Also essential is the SU toolbar or add-on which takes up a bit more real-estate on your browser, but will ultimately be well worth it.
Phase I. The initial strategy at this point is to invest a lot of time into building up your profile on every network. Don't submit much, but generally try to vote up at least 100 articles per day on social news/bookmarking sites like Digg and SU. Share 5-10 links per day on social networking sites like Twitter , Facebook, and G+. Don't worry about following/followers or generating traction at this stage, you need to spend at least a month just clicking buttons on stories you like to build up your profile before there is potential to link up with other progressively oriented activists. Explore and become familiar with all of the functionality on every social media website you use.
Phase II. While future articles will describe how to proceed on each specific social media website in detail, in general after about a month, you can start to focus on making connections. At this point you should have noticed other like-minded individuals on each site. Begin to send a few friend requests with a personal message (if that option is available). For the next month or so while in Phase II, you don't need to read/vote on as many articles across the social media spectrum as you did on Phase I, but still engage in this process. Stay active.
To help yourself get noticed, craft a good brief comment that you can copy and paste on every social media site for a particular article. For instance, you've found a good story on corporate tax dodgers on Think Progress. Write a reply on TP (most sites use Disqus, so link that to your Twitter and/or Facebook account), then you can copy/paste that same reply to Reddit, Digg, Facebook, G+, etc. Comments get you noticed, but don't get lured into long debates yet. That is the biggest time suck on social media, and you still have work to do.
Phase III. While keeping your activism diversified across a wide range of social media sites is extremely important both for message impact and to hedge your bets, this is the stage where you should pick one or two sites to focus on more heavily. Rather than being a mid-level user across the board, be a rockstar on one or two social media sites and a mid-level user everywhere else. You can now start to engage in longer discussions on the comment streams, both to get a deeper understanding of various issues and to hone your messaging skills. Also bookmark important citations for future discussions. All of the hard work you put in during the first two phases should now start to pay off, but be mindful that this is a long path towards the horizon. There are no shortcuts to being a genuinely organic grassroots activist.
There are different strategies to social media activism, but the methods outlined in these manuals are the quickest paths to become an influencer who can have a strong impact. This requires having a presence on multiple sites, connecting with a large network of friends who actually listen, broadcasting a clear message on a diverse set of issues, and building up a respected reputation.
Many progressive social media activists fall into a few common traps that prohibit them from becoming more influential. For instance the numerous content sharers that submit everything they find to every social media site. While aggregation is essential to retaining a responsive network, if you share everything under the sun, it drowns out the key messages and people will stop paying attention. Worse still, important news stories and analysis articles shared this way will usually get absolutely no traction what so ever. This is usually wasted effort, and in the case of Digg can actually be counter-productive as it prevents those who can actually get traction from doing so on that article.
Another trap is to get sucked too deep into debates. Understand that about 20% of the population does nothing other than spew talking points from the corporate right. They will deliberately waste your time, try to bait you into saying something foolish to try to get you banned, and never be convinced of anything reasonable or factually based no matter how clearly you explain things and how good your citations are. For all intents and purposes you can just block/ban these trolls and save your time, or just severely limit the amount of time you spend.
A third trap is to focus on only one social media site. While we all have time constraints, don't put all of your eggs in one basket. Sites wax and wane, and you might find that the site where you have devoted all of your time and energy suddenly suddenly declines, goes bankrupt, or disappears (e.g. MySpace, Propeller, Orkut, Mixx). Work on a variety of sites and be adaptable.
This series of guides will not spell out the basic functionality of each social media site. There are plenty of instructions either on the website itself or on previously written tech articles to learn the basic steps. This series is intended to be used by progressive activists who seek the most effectiveness for the least amount of required effort.
It should be noted that internet activism is important, but it also cannot replace real-world activism. In order to have an impact on your community, state, and nation, you need to make connections in real life, go to meetings, support reform minded candidates, and participate outside your castle. That being said, for progressive Americans and liberal people around the world who wish to fight for expanded freedom, human rights, equal rights for women, LGBT folks, and people of every color and creed, campaign finance reform, science, a separation of church and state, education, worker's rights, unions, peace, economic freedom, legalization, medical marijuana, health, social justice, justice, and real reforms for humanity, these guides should help you immensely.
There are some things in this world that are worth fighting for, and the internet is an important battleground. The Progressives Guide to Social Media series will give you the tools to get started.
Progressive Guides to Social Media articles:
8. Other sites
9. Advanced Strategies