This just in: In reaction to protests by its members, Facebook has reversed course on its revised terms of service agreement, returning to the prior terms of service and thereby giving up the ghost on retaining rights to user-posted material even after someone has canceled membership to the site.
This is the new model of civic engagement, a type of activism that goes largely unrecognized by political scientists, cultural theorists, and pollsters but that offers a new model of democratic participation: the struggle over ownership and definition of public spaces, both physical and virtual. It’s hard to identify, harder to measure, because it’s deeply integrated into the everyday activities of an entire generation whose lives, identities, and self-making increasingly extend into virtual spaces.
This is, after all, a generation whose lives are spent in public spaces developed by corporations but marketed as open, democratic spaces where youth are kings of their domains. Think Facebook or MySpace; think YouTube, Google, Hulu. So much of the sense young people make of their world comes from the information gleaned from corporate-sponsored sites; so much of the identity-building happens on sites designed both for this purpose and for a distinct profit to the site developers. It makes sense, then, that civic engagement for this generation involves not voting but negotiating the parameters for engagement in those online spaces. As Jennifer Earl and Alan Shussman argue, in a culture where corporate entities have an increasingly powerful and important role in the lives of citizens, many people “are protesting against corporations themselves in hopes of directly changing corporate policies or products.”
It’s a type of engagement that’s not readily recognized or easily measured. As we’ve seen in the Facebook example, much of the activism—the work that traditionally required, at the very least, leaving the house and convening in a public center (a voting station, a canvassing headquarters, a small African country)—happens without anybody noticing, often least of all the person engaging in the activism. Facebook’s abrupt decision to return to the previous terms of service policy happened because somebody noticed that Facebook had updated its terms of service. That person blogged about it; others linked to the post or wrote about it on their own blogs, which in turn got linked to by others; eventually Facebook members were posting links to the issue on Facebook–thereby using the site as a center for contestation over the site itself. In this case, the distinction between everyday activities (posting interesting links, sharing or commenting on interesting stories) and activism (using Facebook’s affordances to contest a change in its capabilities) is so blurred that it would be difficult to tell where one ended and the other began.
This is what we want, right? A culture in which civic engagement is so seamlessly integrated into the everyday activities that come with being alive that it doesn’t even feel like civic engagement, at least how we traditionally define it?
Chalk one up for the critical mass notion of social movement.
If, however, you prefer cynicism, you can take a look at criticalmass.com, the site for a marketing company whose very purpose is to sell more product by leveraging the affordances of 2.0 technologies. Sadly enough, this is a downright beautiful site—the kind I’d want to spend a lot of time exploring.