For a long time, advocating student concerns to the City of Williamsburg has been a difficult task, with high town-gown tensions on issues ranging from the construction of dormitories to off-campus house rentals, not to mention student voting rights.
Tonight’s topic is on how to more effectively advocate student life issues to the city.
Having met with Mayor Zeidler and the Williamsburg Economic Development Manager Michelle DeWitt at the City/College Forum last week, I believe that the City would be genuinely interested in figuring out how to bring profitable businesses that target students to Williamsburg- they are very anxious to stem the drain of businesses from the City into New Town.
So… how can students more effectively advocate?
As crazy as it sounds, Facebook is a powerful yet largely unused tool in shaping the direction of advocacy with the City. With the entire student body ‘wired’, many of whom check their Facebook accounts 3-4 times a day, social networks such as Facebook and MySpace have great potential for vocalizing student opinions.
Already we have seen one example on online network advocacy- The Defense of Nightlife Act by Senators Zach Pilchen and Victor Sulkowski.
When news spread that the College Delly was going to be purchased by Starbucks, the Defense of Nightlife Act was passed in the SA and a petition was created to express disapproval of the deal.
So… while the petition may have been signed by the SA and their immediate friends, it never would have had the impact that it did except that it was linked to two recently created Facebook groups- Save the College Delly and the less subtle Not Another Motherfucking Starbucks. Instead of hundreds, over 1,500 students signed the petition, which gained notice from the local press, the College Delly, and Starbucks.
Did this work, and if so, why?
Well… Dean Tsoumorias was quoted in the Flat Hat as mentioning that his decision on whether to sell the business to Starbucks was complicated by the petitions from students, which gave him cause to reconsider. While the College Delly still might not last until 2008, the petition clearly articulated students preferences- a feat that usually is reserved for referendums during SA election season.
Colin Delany wrote about the power of social networking sites in his paper Social Media that the power of advocacy on websites such as Facebook and MySpace comes from a ‘network effect’- where the more people that sign up, the more useful the group. If either of the Facebook groups only had 40+ users, the impact of the group would be limited at best. Another way of looking at the situation is by considering Reed’s Law- the value of a network is intensely more powerful if you can form groups within the network. Information can be easily shared by the group through use of ‘Message All’ features within the Facebook programs. When new information developed, or a certain number of signatures were acquired, messages would be sent out and students would post on the Facebook wall.
As predicted by Reed’s Law, each individual that joined the two Facebook groups were able to exert more pressure on the College Delly and Starbucks than possible on an individual level. In the future, Facebook groups may serve as a new form of referendum on rising issues relating to student life. Rather than advocacy being the responsibility of a few individuals, the entire student body can use the internet to find their own voice.