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Experience 4: What’s at stake?

// Posted by on 11/03/2014 (1:05 PM)

I remember chatting nonchalantly with Damian, my fellow group member for this fourth experience, after class a week and a half before our project was due. We both agreed that it would be so cool to do develop and participate… Read more


I remember chatting nonchalantly with Damian, my fellow group member for this fourth experience, after class a week and a half before our project was due. We both agreed that it would be so cool to do develop and participate in some sort of protest to go along with our class discussions of the rebirth of counterculture and new forms of activism in the digital age. We were concerned, however, that organizing an effective and powerful protest would be difficult to do with the limited time and number of students our class alone offers. We ended the conversation with a sort of mutual shrug, a casual promise to keep brainstorming what we could do with our class, and a cheerful “See you on Wednesday!”

Flash forward to a week later. Our group met, discussed our options, and eventually put Damain and I’s initial concerns aside and pursued the idea of participating in a protest. We wanted the campaign to have two parts: a physical and a digital demonstration. For the physical protest, we would make signs and stand outside the library for approximately half an hour. For the digital protest, we would utilize social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook and apps like Yik Yak and Instagram. We decided that it would be most relevant to protest a campus issue, with the hope that something affecting our campus community would have the greatest potential to start a conversation at UR. We brainstormed such problems and came up with a concise list: UR’s coordinate college system (the separation of the men’s and women’s colleges and Dean’s offices), the problems with our campus’s dining options (in particular, the lack of dining options after 9:00 PM) and the conditions of Westhampton Lake, which contains high levels of bacteria such as E. Coli and is generally polluted. In true democratic fashion, we would allow students to vote on their preferred issue. And thus the CleanURlake campaign was born.

Inspired by the social movements in recent years that we read about in class, including Occupy Wall Street and the hacktivist group Anonymous, our group decided that we too would adopt a policy of “horizontalism” for our two-part protest. In his piece “Inside Occupy Wall Street,” Jeff Sharlet describes this value simply; in the context of Occupy, it was “the evasion of organized leadership,” and an attempt by the 99% to avoid a hierarchy or power structure in their movement—which made sense, considering that the existing hierarchy in American society was essentially what they were protesting. In the context of our project, the idea was simpler: we just hoped that our protest would be a truly collective effort, that we could organize the campaign together as a class and that our group could be participants, not instructors, in the experience; this was done both to test the effectiveness of leaderless-ness and to ensure that no one was made uncomfortable in the process of our protest.

As we all discovered, our “horizontal” approach had its issues. First of all, we as a group made a big error in choosing not to reveal to the class that we were attempting and testing this tactic. Initially, instead of inspiring them to participate (although they did eventually, and were very creative and engaged in the effort), this generated confusion while they awaited instruction from our group and we ultimately wasted time that could have been spent “getting the (digital) word out.” And in reflecting on the literature and history of the term, this is something we should have recognized and predicted: horizontalism didn’t just develop in either of the two movements we studied, but rather was established from the start as valuable to each of the groups and thus inspired participation from thousands of individuals, each bringing their own beliefs and goals to the table.

Fortunately, though, our issue and the mini-movement we attempted to create didn’t necessarily have all the problems of horizontalism faced by those larger groups like Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous. Because there were only eight of us in the class, we were all clearly in agreement that we were choosing to protest the conditions of Westhampton Lake because the water is contaminated by E. Coli and other hazardous bacteria and elements (namely, Nitrous and Phosphorous from fertilizer run-off) and because we all agreed that the problem was too significant to be as unknown as it is on our campus.

Then again, each of us seemed to bring different reasons for our feelings against the lake to the table. Emily was frustrated with the inability of her organization to host its philanthropy event that involved boating on the lake. Damian had a friend who accidentally fell in the lake and suffered sickness afterwards. I was most angered by the persistence of this problem, despite a continued awareness by school administration that the lake’s water quality is dangerous, and the lack of demonstrated action to improve its conditions—as The Collegian article reported, the school banned students from swimming in the lake due to its toxicity thirty-eight years ago, in 1976. Perhaps, should our campaign to clean up the lake continue and grow into a larger effort by the campus community to address the issue, we would begin to differ in opinions or proposals about what should be done to solve the problem of the dirty lake. Without a leader to streamline our beliefs and represent our general views to campus administration, we could come off just as disorganized as Occupy or Anonymous—but that’s only speculation.

To return to Damian and I’s original hesitation about executing an effective protest for this project, we were right to be as worried as we were about the potential of our small, short class. I’m not sure what ultimately allowed us to overcome these concerns, but somehow they fell to the wayside, and I think our group went into the experience overly optimistic. Again, that we didn’t communicate our “horizontal” intentions contributed to this confidence, but we should have at least considered the need for an established campaign name, slogan and hashtag without Dr. Rosatelli’s help.

But this is not to say that I regret our decision to protest the conditions of the lake or that I am not satisfied with the results of our experience. We inspired an article in our campus newspaper, The Collegian, and there was a real, if temporary, “buzz” around our efforts. So the question remains: were we successful?

On the one hand, I certainly see elements of “slacktivism” in CleanURlake’s digital presence. There are now eighteen likes on the Cleanurlake Facebook page. The truth is, I believe I could increase that number easily, as could the other students in the class, if I invited more of my friends to like the page. But as sad as it is, I believe that even if I did get 50 more people to click the like button on our page, those additional likes wouldn’t necessary make our message more powerful or our campaign to clean up the lake stronger. And in fact, of the eighteen existing likes, ten are my mutual Facebook friends, and I wouldn’t be surprised if five of those ten would admit that they actually don’t give a sh*t about the pollution in the Westhampton lake and really just liked the page in an effort to support me as their friend. The reality is that likes on our Facebook page, upvotes on our Yik Yak post and followers on our Twitter and Instagram accounts aren’t necessarily an accurate reflection of student concern or even awareness about the conditions of the lake, because liking a page or following an account are mindless actions that require minimal effort.

On the other hand, I do believe we raised awareness about this issue, and while we can’t measure it to be sure, I’m confident that our various posts on social media inspired someone to search for more information about the polluted lake; the threat of E. Coli certainly caught people’s attention.

What’s more, we have no idea the potential this small effort may have for the future. While we intentionally chose an issue local to UR’s campus, who’s to say it couldn’t inspire support from other places outside of Richmond? I think if we had chosen to combat an issue more like the coordinate college system—an institution that many argue is old-fashioned and even promotes sexism—perhaps we could have garnered more attention. Either way, it’s true that anyone who searches, intentionally or not, #ispyecoli or #cleanURlake online will discover our various social media outlets. This is still a powerful notion to me, even if nothing ever comes of the project, considering that we were just eight students with computers and a cause. And this is certainly an instance where I believe that Saskia Sassen is right to argue that with the help of the Internet, the local can become global and vice versa in a sort of “feedback loop” that makes digital technology an incredible tool and creates a new realm for global activism.

Maybe one day, another group of students will decide that they want to be able to take full advantage of the Westhampton Lake and be able to paddle around it in canoes on sunny afternoons. I hope that they’ll search The Collegian’s archives, as we did, and read our story. But even if that never happens, I’ll still consider our protest to be a meaningful, thought-provoking and fun fourth experience that allowed us to reflect on the impact of digital tools and Internet culture on activism and social change.


A clip from the physical protest outside Boatwright Memorial Library

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