Focusing on the recent Schools Strike 4 Climate youth movement, this paper examines how weak ties of Web 2.0 technologies strengthen global advocacy movements. This paper will argue the volume, diversity and speed at which weak ties grow are conducive to activism and that weak ties, global networks and mobility create effective political communities. Finally, the paper will discuss the characteristics of social media and how they offer interesting opportunities for community building and environmental activism.
“Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not. #howdareyou.”
– @GretaThunberg, Twitter, 2019
Concluding an impassioned speech to world leaders at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, leading youth activist Thunberg posted the extract to Twitter, immediately gaining traction on the social networking site. Retweeted almost forty-nine thousand times; ‘liked’ by nearly two hundred and fifteen thousand people and commented on by almost six and a half thousand users (Twitter, 2019), the tweet demonstrates the power of the Web 2.0 microblogging platform as a tool to disseminate information through the weak ties of social networks. The ‘line’ Thunberg refers to, is the perceived inaction by political leaders to treat climate change as a global crisis (Schools Strike 4 Climate, n.d). This issue has propelled school students to unite under the banner, ‘Schools Strike 4 Climate’, or SS4C as it is known here, across time zones and cultures, to skip school to demand government action. The student-led strikes thought to be the most significant climate mobilisation in global history (Laville & Watts, 2019). Despite arguments that weak ties of Web 2.0 technologies are not conducive to political organising and activism, the recent use of Twitter to organise and mobilise the ‘School Strike 4 Climate’ community, demonstrates that these weak ties offer interesting opportunities for community building and environmental activism.
The strength lies in weak ties!
Scholars have argued that political organising and activism are not effective on social media because social ties are too weak. However, it is the volume, diversity and speed at which weak ties grow through online social media platforms such as Twitter, that recently supported a wave of youth activism and the mass mobilisation of people during the 2019 ‘Global week for futures strikes’, an initiative organised by the SS4C community.
Granovetter’s (1973) theoretical framework, ‘The strength of weak ties’, defines a strong social tie as the “combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy, and reciprocal services of the tie” (p.1361). Weak ties can be therefore described as a distant relationship, for example, a ‘friend of a friend’. The author notes that strong ties tend to form in triangles of highly connected groups, whereas weak ties form a bridge between different clusters of people. Although pre-dating social media, Granovetter’s theory applies to the networked structure of Twitter, illustrating a Web 2.0 platform connecting users through weak-tie networks. The site fosters online communities consisting of participants who may have never met in person or engage offline in emotional relationships. Illustrating this concept, the SS4C global community is made up of smaller sub-groups, fused together by weaker ties. This fusion extends the reach of the community into other networks, spreading their message at a local and international scale. At an individual level, many of the organisers and participants of the strikes are geographically and culturally separated, such as the founder of the movement, 16-year-old Swede, Thunberg and 17-year old Varsha Yajman, a member of SS4C organisation team in Australia (Brown, 2019). The teenagers who may never have met in person, are united under the SS4C banner.
Literature also supports that more extensive networks of weak ties are inclined to be more diverse. They offer valuable resources and participation opportunities quickly, as opposed to networks linked by strong ties (Campbell et al., 1986; Eveland & Hively, 2009; Gil de Zúñiga & Valenzuela, 2011; La Due Lake & Huckfeldt, 1998, as cited in Valenzuela et al., 2018). Demonstrating this concept further, what started as a weekly solitary strike by Thunberg in 2018 to Swedish parliament, went on to inspire millions of students around the world to take action and join together in local groups, and Thunberg to form the global grassroots movement. The movement’s hashtag, #SchoolStrike4Climate, spread quickly and in less than a year, groups gathered in a series of globally coordinated school strikes. Organisers of the first events held in March reported more than one million students skipped school to take part (Glenza et al., 2019). The more recent strikes further demonstrate the power of the movement with advocacy group, 350.org (2019), reporting the events to be the most massive climate protest mobilisation in history. Five thousand eight hundred actions took place in one hundred and sixty-three countries, with an estimated six million people taking part in on the ground protests (Taylor et al., 2019). These figures clearly illustrate the speed and scale at which weak social ties spread.
Finally, some scholars subscribe to the belief that social media activism or ‘Slacktivism’ is merely a way to display support for social causes without the personal demand that it takes to effect real change (Morozov, 2012, as cited in Kwak et al., 2018). For instance, the single retweet of Thunberg’s UN speech does not instigate immediate change. The re-tweet of Thunberg’s words on a mass scale, however, through a network of weak ties, particularly members that cross over into in multiple groups (Hampton, 2016), helps to spread knowledge across different networks to quickly and effectively promote the SS4C message, engage and recruit participants and prompt collective action (Kavanaugh et al., 2005).
#SchoolsStrike4Climate as an effective political community
The 2019 global SS4C demonstrates that weak ties, global networks and mobility can be used to create effective political communities. Yes, social movements require strong ties to be successful (Schradie, 2018). However, it is weak ties that are instrumental in helping to build a social movement by acting as bridges between multiple groups (Kavanaugh et al., 2005). Without the movement of information between networks (Granovetter, 1973, 1982 as cited in Cantoni et al., 2015), SS4C may not have gained momentum as fast, nor the attention of the media and the public. Additionally, SS4C community gained support from other, previously unconnected community groups, as seen locally by more than two and a half thousand Australian businesses also taking part in the student-led strikes (ABC News, 2019). Internationally, scientists and digital companies went on strike in solidarity with the youth-led movement (de la Garza, 2019). The collective action, sending a message that leaders cannot ignore.
The SS4C community, driven by scientific evidence that has been warning us for years about human-induced climate change (Revkin, 2018), have injected new energy and a sense of urgency into the climate change debate. The effectiveness of the political community was its ability to mobilise participants in a short space of time and at an unprecedented scale. As such, the strikes coordinated by the movement became an event of international significance with the French president, Emmanuel Macron quoted as saying “we cannot allow our youth to strike every Friday without action” in response to the strikes (Milman, 2019). Most notably, SS4C diverse nature, from members situated around the world, supports its effectiveness as a political community. Through weak ties, activists can share their real-life experiences of climate devastation and activist stories beyond their personal networks, receiving support from others on a mass scale, and serving to inspire more young people to act.
Community building and environmental activism
“We are united by concern for the future of our planet, even though we live hundreds of kilometres apart”.
SS4C Australian community, n.d.
The characteristics of social media offer interesting opportunities for community building and environmental activism. With the introduction of Web 2.0 information and communication technologies, community structures have been reshaped (Hampton & Wellman, 2018) and the notion of community updated. Delanty (2018) notes that the Internet specifically, has increased capacity for community to be imagined, as seen by the different social groups that came together to fight for the same cause. Likewise, new social relationships and interactions have been made possible through the exchange of content on social media. Unlike previous forms of community building, the need to be in the same physical location has been made redundant (Doerfel & Moore, 2016). Moreover, traditional beliefs that community is constrained by geography and face to face interaction are challenged (McMillen & Chavis 1986, as cited by Johnston, 2013). As physical boundaries disappear and information flows more freely, community structure has become “less densely knit, less local, less tightly bounded, more diverse, and more fragmented” (Hampton & Wellman, p. 2018). A concept illustrated by the SS4C Australian community in their own words, as being separated by hundreds of kilometres and united by concern for the future of our planet.
The SS4C global community exists in part, as a virtual community, defined as an online space where users connect through mutual interests (Porter, 2015, as cited in Cantoni & Danowski, 2015). Social media has provided a space for virtual communities to expand and thrive by removing barriers to communicate (Ellison & boyd, 2013). Users are able to effortlessly forge new connections and be active in the exchange of information (Huberman et al., 2008). One of the most pivotal aspects, is the speed and scale at which users can connect with others. Twitter, for example, enables users to ‘follow’ or be ‘followed’ by other users, regardless of location and time, a feature that supports the instantaneous flow of information and a 24/7 connected environment (Motion et al., 2015). The feature also enables users to join online communities outside of their personal networks and speak directly to the public, an affordance that propelled the mobilisation of the SS4C global community, and for participants and community leaders like Thunberg to respond directly to each other, regardless of location and time. What’s more, social media characteristics enable persistent contact (Hampton & Wellman, 2018) to sustain communities, not available in traditional structures, where life interruptions (Hampton, 2016) were a primary cause for members to become disconnected.
Along with new community structures, social media affordances have also modernised environmental activism. The participatory and interactive nature of this web 2.0 technology making it possible for activism to occur on a much larger scale than any other medium (Consalvo & Ess, 2011; Rotman et al., 2011). The youth community, in particular, embrace digital technology, and it seems natural for new types of activism to form in a digital context. The interconnected nature of social media platforms, such as Twitter, are conducive to information sharing, with scholarly sources supporting social media platforms such as Twitter, as an essential tool for all stages of protest, particularly during the organisation stage (Tufecki, 2017, p.8). The speed and breadth of communication that Twitter warrants offer grassroots movements like SS4C to “galvanise support and enable citizens to take action and speak critically to power” (Chadwick & Howard, 2008; Elgot, 2015, as cited in Housley et al., p.2, 2018). The SS4C was, in part, organised and promoted via the platform, among other social media networks. The affordances of the micro-blogging site, such as tweets, retweeting and hashtags helping to drive global awareness of the SS4C demonstrations, leading up to and during the events; the platforms hashtag function utilised to proliferate information quickly and effectively across multiple networks. Moreover, users of social media are more exposed to mobilising information without having to actively search for it (Wellman, 1992, as cited in Kavanaugh et al., 2005). People also not able to take part in physical demonstrations were able to show their solidarity for the movement, by retweeting the community’s messages, further strengthening the campaign.
Social media has also served to sustain environmental activism and continue the momentum of the 2019 strikes. Long after SS4C physical protests took place, students are still calling for change, by striking solo or in small groups and sharing their experiences with the broader SS4C community and their other online networks. More recently, due to social distancing restrictions, the community has created new ways to act by taking their fight entirely online with a series of digital strikes. Community members are taking part in a series of coordinated strikes, replacing crowds with large-scale video calls, and placards with postings of photos and supporting hashtags (Murray, 2020). Harris et al., (2010) previously described young people engaging in more self-expressive acts of activism that are “informal, individualised and everyday activities” (p. 2), such as posting their personal stories and experiences of activism on social media like the SS4C community do and other acts such as boycotting brands. The community have gone as far as launching an initiative online to teach young people activist skills (School Strike 4 Climate, 2019) and as such, we will see environmental activism continue to evolve and take on new forms.
In conclusion, the Schools Strike 4 Climate youth movement illustrates how weak ties serve to strengthen global advocacy movements, by the speed, volume and diverse nature at which they spread. By linking people across different networks, weak ties open up opportunities for community involvement and political expression.
The recent global strikes, coupled with continued digital activism, reveal the determination and solidarity of the worldwide youth community. The network, spanning across time zones and cultures, unite under the SS4C banner to drive political change on a local and global scale and help to bring the issue of climate change into public view.
The collaborative nature of social media and its affordances, such as the instantaneous exchange of information, will continue to support networks to grow and offer new forms of activism, serving only to strengthen offline activism. A web 2.0 technology that encourages social interaction and the building of relationships, we can only look forward to social media characteristics building and supporting social advocacy movements.
In the words of Thunberg (2019):
“This is just the beginning.
Change is coming, whether they like it or not.”
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