Colour Me Political

Posted by Nishant Shah at Apr 09, 2010 02:25 PM |
What are the tools that Digital Natives use to mobilise groups towards a particular cause? How do they engage with crises in their immediate environments? Are they using their popular social networking sites and web 2.0 applications for merely entertainment? Or are these tools actually helping them to re-articulate the realm of the political? Nishant Shah looks at the recent Facebook Colour Meme to see how new forms of political participation and engagement are being initiated by young people across the world.

On Facebook, now acclaimed as one of the most popular social networking sites in the world, the one thing that almost all the users engage is, in updating their status updates. These updates can be varied – capturing personal moods and emotions, reporting on things that strike one in the course of a normal day, offering political opinions, suggesting movies and books to friends, and often making public announcements of important events in life. The updates appear as a live feed, updates in almost-real time, letting people in networks connect, know, discuss and share information about their personal lives. Often, to outsiders, these updates would appear pointless; I remember somebody asking me, “But why would I want to know what you had for breakfast?” Many status updates indeed border on the everyday and ordinary, of no interest to anybody but the immediate networks.

However, in the first half of January in 2010, Facebook users across the world started observing a strange pattern. Many people in their networks were making one word status updates with the name of a colour. Just that. A colour. Facebook users woke up to find “Green!”, “Red!”, “White!” “Black!” in their live feed. No explanations and a cryptic silence. It was a viral phenomenon, with the colours appearing across the board, in different parts of the world, spanning all languages, cultures, and contexts. Also, it was observed, almost all of the users putting this update, were women. It created a lot of discussion, speculation, curiosity and conspiracy theories. Blog posts discussing this phenomenon started appearing. People were twitting about it. There was an element of surprise, and perhaps of frustration, because the people making those colour updates were refusing to offer any explanations.

Eventually, after a few internet years (about 3 days, I think!) the word got out. It was a meme. A meme is an internet gene (because it replicates) which spreads virally, through different social communication and networking sites. It invites people to participate in a series of actions, either to answer a question or perform a certain act, and pass it along. The colour updates were a part of the meme which was doing the rounds on the internet:

 "Some fun is going on.... just write the color of your bra in your status. Just the color, nothing else. And send this on to ONLY girls, no men .... It will be neat to see if this will spread the wings of cancer awareness. It will be fun to see how long it takes before the men will wonder why all the girls have a color in their status."

What the message managed to do was take an important cause and through fun, and play, and a little bit of excitement, got young women around the world to ponder on the possibility, cure and prevention of breast cancer. What was just a personal update capturing space suddenly became a place of political mobilisation and participation. Both, men and women, reading those colours, took a moment to think about breast cancer and spread the word among their friends. Discussions, which started with curiosity, ended with a sombre note. While there are speculative theories about how some women in Detroit started this particular meme, there is no credible source of information.

What is particularly of interest, is how, without any apparent funding, or organisation, or the infrastructure that generally accompanies such behemoth projects, this viral meme captured more attention and had more people participating than most campaigns started by traditional activists or governments. What Facebook, and other spaces like it offer, is the infrastructure and the potential for such massive movements. As the Digital Natives grow up with new technologies, they change the landscape of political and social transformation. And the cryptic colour updates is telling us the story of how things will change in the future.