Bloggers strike for Burma – but what did it achieve?

You may not have realised it, but yesterday there was a worldwide bloggers’ strike.

Orchestrated by a group called Free Burma, the aim of the strike was to show support for the Burmese people protesting against their country’s ruling military junta. Free Burma called on bloggers to ‘refrain from posting to their blogs’ on Thursday 4th October, and instead to display a single banner image reading ‘Free Burma’.

The exercise seems at first like a nice case study in the use of social media to organise and stage a global event. Free Burma used the ‘events’ feature of Facebook to spread the word quickly about the strike, relied on bloggers recruiting other bloggers in their social networks, and made it easy for people to participate by giving them a piece of code to paste into their blogs to display the banner image.

By 8pm yesterday, more than 10,000 bloggers had apparently taken part. By some measures, this would be classed as an enormous success and a testament to the word of mouth marketing power of social media. Most marketers I know would give anything to attract 10,000 people to an event without printing a single flyer, making a single call, or renting a single list.

But what has actually been achieved? Those 10,000 blogs displaying the ‘Free Burma’ banner can’t be seen by the Burmese people, because their government has blocked internet access. As a gesture of solidarity, then, it’s all but useless. As some bloggers have noted, by encouraging bloggers not to post, Free Burma effectively shut down a potentially powerful worldwide lobby for 24 hours, creating ‘dead air’ in the blogosphere and nothing of note for the mainstream media to report. Which is why you probably weren’t even aware the strike was happening.

And by ‘making it easy’ for people to participate, the group may inadvertently have made it too easy. Cutting and pasting a piece of javascript into a blog takes seconds. Joining a protest group on Facebook only takes a single click. People are being made to feel that by pasting and clicking they’ve done something to help, but in reality I doubt they have done anything to affect the situation on the ground in Burma.

But there’s one way the strike might have been successful: by using social media to raise awareness of important political events among the growing number of (mostly young) people who don’t watch television news or read newspapers. And if that motivates people to examine the world around them and to try to make a positive difference, then social media will indeed be fulfilling an important role in society.

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