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Clay Shirky, writing about how Web 2.0 affects group action in Here Comes Everybody, observes that “Our electronic networks are enabling novel forms of collective action, enabling the creation of collaborative groups that are larger and more distributed than at any other time in history.” No kidding — just ask Betty White.

If you’re on Facebook — and chances are good that you are — you’ve probably seen the never-ending stream of petitions, invitations and calls to action urging you to support a cause or join a group. I use my Facebook account almost exclusively to promote a variety of animal causes, from rescues and rallies to veganism and votes. Granted, social media has dramatically affected animal activism. But how?

Thanks to a massive base of more than 350 million registered users, coupled with the site’s free tools, Facebook is one of the Internet’s most powerful activist assets. It’s become the place to share video links, post articles, generate buzz and gather support for a cause.

Last year, for a VegNews article about the impact of Web 2.0 on animal activism, I interviewed HSUS’ Jennifer Fearing, who told me about the impact Facebook had on the enormously successful Proposition 2 campaign, the California ballot initiative to eliminate battery cages for egg-laying hens, gestation crates for pregnant pigs and veal creates for male calves. The Humane Society of the United States recognized the value of social networking, and they recruited Jennifer’s personal Facebook account as one of the official Prop. 2 pages. “Some people don’t befriend groups or a cause online,” she told me, “and since people were hearing me on the radio or reading my name, we wanted them to be able to be able to find me.”

Jennifer linked her Facebook page to a Twitter account so she could constantly update her site from anywhere. “We had a huge group of very active volunteers in California who had such a thirst for information about everything that was going on in the campaign. Social-networking sites provided our über-advocates, county leaders and others with instant information.”

Knowing whether or not your efforts on Facebook make a difference can be frustrating. Fortunately for Marisa Miller Wolfson, people let her know directly. “It’s the comments and personal feedback from people that tells me that my Facebook activism is making an impact,” she says. “I’ll get thank you’s for posting resources or products that people didn’t know existed.” The director of outreach for Kind Green Planet, Marisa advises activists to share stories and not simply tell users what they should do. “I think ‘Show, don’t tell’ applies to activism on Facebook. I could put ‘Go vegan!’ in my status update every day, but then I’d come across as super preachy. Instead, I’d rather post an article or resource and let someone read it in their own voice and come to their own conclusion. I have yet to see a comment under an activist’s ‘Go vegan!’ status update that says, ‘Okay!’” Marisa also suggests focusing on the positive. “I see some activists using Facebook as a place to vent frustrations about people who aren’t veg. Getting consolation or encouragement from other activists is valuable, but I don’t see how their non-veg friends on Facebook wouldn’t be turned off by it — that is, if they still have non-veg friends. I keep those kinds of vent sessions private and within my veg community.”

Activist Amy Devine takes a personal approach to Facebook. “I firmly believe in interaction, whether that means to post a picture or note with info and tag people — actually, I think that develops the highest quantity of interaction — or just letting people who are active know that you are friends and that you love and support them … that you think of them. That’s what makes a big difference — to develop a Facebook family and stand by them, stick up for them when they are in a tough debate with the opposition, etc. Or just simple gestures to let them know you have taken a personal interest in getting to know them and that you’re not just there to shove posts down their throat.”

Sometimes, those Facebook posts turn into bigger things. Gary Smith frequently posts animal-related links on the site. “Due to my posts,” he says, “I was asked by Elephant Journal to write an article on wool. That has turned into a regular gig of being the animal rights blogger for the online magazine. I was able to get over 4,000 views on two of my articles. The usual view average for their site is around 500. I know that most of those views are due to my activism on Facebook. I will not only post the article on my wall, but I will post it on other friends’ walls and private message friends and activists and ask them to post it. This has been quite effective.” Asked what sorts of Facebook posts get the biggest response, Gary says fellow advocates seem to appreciate his thoughts on activism. “I think that a lot of activists are looking for better ways to address animal rights issues with friends and colleagues. What are the most effective arguments, approaches, etc.? I find this helpful, and people seem to respond favorably when I share musings and thoughts.”

Shelter Showcase

One of the best examples of virtual outreach turning into real-world change is the case of animal shelters. Humane societies are using Facebook to post animal photos and stories, helping get the word out in their communities. Recently The Washington Post reported on a particular shelter that has seen an increase in adoptions, donations and volunteers thanks to Facebook.

That’s only one shelter, of course, so I checked with a few others to learn how they are using Facebook in their adoption and outreach efforts. The biggest benefit seems to be in letting potential adopters scroll through available animals. “Facebook allows us to post pictures and profiles of animals who might not otherwise be seen,” says Heather Mehi, manager of the Dearborn Animal Shelter in Michigan.

Julie Goff agrees. “We have been using Facebook for about a year to promote our different events, but in the last three weeks I have started doing daily updates,” says Julie, special events manager for Operation Kindness, a no-kill shelter in Carrollton, Texas. “Since we have begun the daily posts, most of which highlight a specific animal available for adoption, we have had one adoption in which the new owner saw the animal on Facebook — not bad for just the time period we have been doing it. We also mentioned that we were going to start needing additional animal foster homes for the upcoming ‘kitten season,’ and we had four new volunteers sign on to start fostering.” Julie also notes that the shelter gets a tremendous response when their Facebook status is updated to reflect the latest adopted animal. “People really like to know there are happy endings out there for homeless animals.”

Individual activists further boost shelter efforts by cross posting profiles of animals who need forever homes.

And woe betide the shelter that runs afoul of an Internet-armed society. Earlier this month, animal activists bombarded the Facebook page of North Carolina’s governor, Bev Perdue, urging her to investigate abusive conditions at an animal shelter in Robeson County. Governor Perdue responded on Facebook, saying her office had contacted the Department of Agriculture and the Robeson County sheriff, and that an inspector was being dispatched. (Shelter staff have denied they mistreat animals.)

Herd Mentality?

Beyond anecdotal evidence, it’s difficult to determine just how effective Facebook is as an activist tool, and the site has its share of skeptics. Some detractors argue that people who engage on Facebook by joining groups, for example, are more interested in connecting with others and being part of a group effort than in the effort itself. Last year, Anders Colding-Jorgensen, a psychologist at the University of Copenhagen, created a Facebook page complaining that the city’s historic Stork Fountain was going to be demolished and replaced with a clothing store. In two weeks, his “No to Demolition of Stork Fountain” group had attracted 27,000 people, all of whom signed a petition to protest the landmark fountain’s destruction. But there were never any plans to tear down Stork Fountain, which is a listed monument, and the Facebook group was clearly labeled fake. Colding-Jorgensen says he believed that most of those who signed on did so because they thought it was a real cause. In the group’s forum he explained that the group was a social experiment. “But people just went in and joined,” he says. “They didn’t read anything.”

Does this little online test mean we’re just interested in doing what our peers do, or is it another reflection of our busy lifestyle? I mean, if we were asked to join a group called, say, “Tell NASA We Don’t Want Pigs Sent to Pluto,” it seems likely many of us would join without reading the fine print. After all, animal activists care about pigs, and it only takes a second to join a group to help our porcine friends. Yet the take-away message of Colding-Jorgensen’s experiment is that people on Facebook may be more motivated by appearances than real-world activism, and animals need us to be their spokespeople ― very outspoken, vocal spokespeople ― not merely people along for the ride.

Used in conjunction with Twitter, blogs, Flickr, online videos and other social media, Facebook is an incredibly powerful tool. But it’s up to us to make it work for animals. We each have the ability to make a meaningful difference for animals every day, if only we’d commit a little time, whether it’s with friends on Facebook or face to face with strangers. On that note, I’ll conclude with the words of one of my Facebook friends, animal activist Sandra Lubrano. “Everything we do, no matter how seemingly small the response, has a ripple effect,” says Sandra. “Much of my activism is, of medical necessity, online and from a bed-bound position. It does not prevent me from playing my part, living cruelty-free and doing whatever I can do to make a more compassionate world.”

Keep in mind that Facebook is not the only tactic we can use. There’s simply no way the Internet can take the place of such models as leafleting, tabling or using delicious vegan food in your outreach.

Welcome to the official blog for Striking at the Roots by Mark Hawthorne, your source for interviews, profiles, and advice for more effective animal activism.

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