Capitol Thoughts

The Message, The Medium & The Movement

Sep 25, 2015

Gil Scott Heron said in a 1970 poem, “the revolution will not be televised,” explaining in an interview years later that he meant change can’t be captured on film. In the poem, Heron says, “you will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out,” pointing to a movement where people have to engage in action in order to create change. Forty-five years later and there is a new medium – social media and just like television before it, the revolution won’t be on social media.    

Technology has been extremely helpful to engaging people on the issues of social justice and civil rights activism. We have come a long way from the days of the 1950s when telephones and handwritten letters were used to communicate with people in other cities or states. Now, in almost an instant, people can communicate not only to one person about injustices or upcoming actions, but can send their message out far and wide and it can be sent en masse throughout the world. This has created a phenomenon of social media voices – people who share their thoughts and amass followers based on people agreeing with or wanting to hear what they have to say. These people, at times, achieve pseudo-celebrity status and it is often less about what they do than it is about what they say.

In the struggle to increase actual participation and encourage people to act, there is a tension that is created when the work of organizations and people on the ground are drowned out by the voices on social media. When you are spending time organizing, there isn’t always time to engage in social media. Even more, people can at times confuse the message, the medium and the movement – thinking that they are the same thing. Recently, The Dream Defenders, an organization that gained prominence after the death of Trayvon Martin and whose leaders rose to become recognized voices for the millennial generation, decided that they will be initiating a social media blackout. As the group stated in an email that went out to members and others in their network:

“The answer is clear for us: Social media is a microphone—it amplifies the grassroots organizing work that we are doing to transform our circumstances. It does not, and never will, take the place of building deep relationships which are at the core of organizing. Everything outside of that — though important in shifting culture, changing policy, and transforming our communities — simply is not organizing. To change our communities, we must have power, not just followers.”

During NAN’s 2015 Triumph Awards, rapper T.I. talked about the confusion between being involved in the movement and posting things for reaction, to fit in or for likes. His performance piece, United We Stand” can be seen when the full show airs on October 3rd on TV One, but during the performance he said, “Are we really about the movement or more concerned with our follower count growing fatter?”

What we must understand is that in this day, the revolution will not be tweeted. You will not be able to “like” it with the push of a button or the tap on a screen. You won’t be able to periscope yourself into a march or snapchat your way out of jail. The revolution will not be Instagrammed where your friends and family will be able to post messages. There will not be pop up ads that take the form of commercials. You won’t be able to swipe to the left or share it on Facebook. The revolution or movement has been and will always be live. We need to understand that social media is a medium where messages can be shared, but the movement for justice has existed and will continue to exist without technology. It just needs you.