Note: I wrote this essay in 2007, shortly after a classroom discussion in my second week as a freshman Berkeley. A professor had our class read a New Yorker article that suggests that Facebook has spawned a generation of awkward hermits that need to re-learn the value of basic social skills. My professor had an especially negative view of Facebook, insisting that it breeds social lethargy and political passivity (“passive” is always a buzzword directed at young people during an election season).
I begged to differ, and the debate that followed ultimately led to this essay.
Do remember that I wrote this back in 2007, before Facebook had “Pages,” or “Likes.” Back when it had a measly 49 million users, as opposed to 2012’s over 1 billion users.
I’ll be the first to admit it: the ubiquity of Facebook is fairly annoying. That said, I greedily indulge in its social juiciness on a daily basis. I am not quite as obnoxious about it as many of my Facebooking comrades: I resist the urge to drag my twenty-inch monitor to class and plug it into the nearest power strip for uninterrupted networking. But when I get home, I love to inspect the latest Facebook climate, a ritual that is nothing more than brainless and unproductive, right?
It’s easy to criticize such an attention vacuum if you’re not part of it. An article appearing in The New Yorker just last month suggests that Facebook is fathering a generation of antisocial birdbrains. Unfortunately, many of Facebook’s harshest critics have not actually been on the website. They do not know what is actually brewing past the log-in page of a 49 million-user empire. And, unless they’re avid readers of Google news, they probably have no idea that Facebook is the current breeding ground for a small-scale political revolution.
On October 16, Comedy Central’s infamous satirist and faux-news reporter Stephen Colbert announced his plans to run for president. Sort of. He is only running in one state (South Carolina, his home-state) as both a Republican and a Democrat. Raj Vachhani, a sophomore at the succinctly-named Loveless Academic Magnet Program High School, seized the opportunity to create a Facebook group of Colbert ’08 supporters. The group—“1,000,000 strong for Stephen T Colbert”—is a clever parody of the Obama supporters’ own “One Million Strong for Barack.”
Overnight, Vachhani, who will not even be old enough to vote in the ’08 election, became a Facebook celebrity, and, most likely, one of the youngest and most valuable assets to Colbert’s “campaign.” Though Facebook does not keep statistics for the growth-rate of groups, Vachhani’s is clearly among the fastest-growing ever on Facebook. The group reached one million members within just ten days of its creation. A number of members, including myself, stayed up until 2:56 A.M. on October 26th to see it hit the million mark (a bonding event that comically resulted in another group called, “I was there when the 1,000,000 for Colbert hit a million”). While a few other organizations on Facebook have more members (“The Largest Facebook Group Ever” has over 1.2 million users), Vachhani’s is both the largest political group and the largest group tribute to a person. And it continues to grow at an incredible rate, with over 1,185,000 members on its twelfth day. “One Million Strong for Barack,” now nine months old, has yet to exceed 400,000 members.
Vachhani, impressed with the group’s popularity, is using the exposure to encourage young people to vote. A link to Rock the Vote voter registration forms has resulted in over 5,360 registrations in just ten days. This enthusiasm shows that Colbert’s “phony” campaign and Vachhani’s entertainment-based group are actually making an impact on Colbert fans (better known as the Colbert Nation).
Stephen Colbert is known for creating cult movements in his name. Last year, he was temporarily banned from Wikipedia after he convinced his audience to vandalize the website’s articles. He also coined the term “truthiness” (describing claims that are passed off as fact without regard to evidence) which was named “Word of the Year” by both the American Dialect Society and Merriam-Webster, and has become a slang staple in the Colbert Nation. Colbert understands the value of television as a medium through which to influence and inspire youth. But this time, Colbert’s cause has both the support of his television audience, and the free Internet publicity that Facebook’s vast social networking provides. Colbert’s campaign highlights the potential of these two major avenues of media as tools to generate social assembly at faster rates than ever before, and may eventually provide a solution to the political apathy of the younger demographic.
Members of “1,000,000 Strong for Stephen T Colbert” generally admit that Colbert will not win the election, let alone the state of South Carolina. However, they remain inspired by his boldness, and seem to appreciate the distraction from media saturated with information (much of it only speculative “truthiness”) about the real frontrunners. Tyler Morehart, a hopeful Colbert supporter, told me, “I am voting for Stephen Colbert, I promise you. . . . He might not win; Hell, he will not win, but a strong showing might turn Stephen’s head and make him think about actually running in ’12. Let’s hope and pray that he is the person to finally turn the American government around!”
Colbert’s ridiculous, perhaps sarcastic, decision to participate in the presidential election adds much-needed humor and life to a political institution that has otherwise become washed-up and tedious. Yet the most useful consequence of his decision was accidental: his surging online support has demonstrated the value of Facebook as the youth’s political medium. Facebook is more than just “poking,” photos, messages, and wall posts. It is a significant force in the modern youth culture. It is a place for youth to connect, communicate, and, in a case such as this, create momentum where the misinformed critics least expect it. Rather than bemoan our chosen medium as distracting, numbing, and impairing, the older generation must come to understand Facebook’s underlying potential. Behind the computer screen, we’re not just tapping away: we’re starting a revolution.