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Facebook makes more sense to Irish protesters than marching

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Is it just me, or are Facebook Petitions more powerful these days than real-life protests?

Take, for example, a Facebook group created this past Tuesday, “Petition – N21 Barnagh Road Layout” – aimed at drawing attention to a dangerous stretch of road between Abbeyfeale and Newcastle West, Co. Limerick.

“Four people were killed on this road in four weeks,” explains one of the petition’s co-founders , Brian Murphy, of Templeglantine, Co. Limerick.

One month ago, three out of four men on their way home from the Listowel Races were killed in a car crash on that stretch of land. And just last week, another crash took the life of a woman on the same road.

“That doesn’t include numerous accidents where people haven’t been killed, or who have wrote off their cars but haven’t made the papers because it’s just a car crash,” Murphy added.

Limerick County Councillor Patrick O’Donovan even weighed in on the Facebook group’s wall: “This should be the last fatality at this bend. 8 in 6 years is just a scandal.”

The Facebook group has over 2,300 members, more than 1,700 likes, and dozens of discussion posts, within less than a week of its existence. Another Limerick County Councillor, Michael Collins, even discussed the topic during a radio interview on West Limerick 102fm.

While I was speaking to Murphy on the telephone, he stopped and suddenly announced, “I’m just after clicking on the website now, and the councillor just wrote to say there’s going to be a meeting to discuss the road on Friday.” Councillor Patrick O’Donovan, a regular contributor to the site and passionate advocate for reforming the road, had posted on the group’s wall: The council meeting which I called to discuss the condition of the N21 west of Newcastle West, takes place this Friday.

“I think it’s mind blowing,” Murphy says, “that you can sit here drinking a glass of coke and typing your opinion on your computer – and it turns into positive action from an actual politician. It’s absolutely crazy, absolutely crazy.”

The Barnagh Road group seems like just one example of how taking action – through the limited physical activity of clicking a ‘like’ button, adding a comment to a discussion board, or creating an online community dedicated to an issue – can pay off much more these days than actually taking action might.

This past week, I’ve heard repeatedly about massive French protests regarding increasing the retirement age, and mostly, about how ineffective they were at accomplishing much of anything.

And this entire year, Ireland saw hundreds of huge protests from public service employees . Yet, their perseverance did little more than perturb the rest of the nation’s workers, who had been laid off, seen their hours cut, or taken much larger pay cuts than those proposed for the strikers.

By now it seems, newscasters are so used to covering protests that they merely mention them in the daily news round up, with a few seconds of tape, and, most of the time, they don’t even bother to include soundbites from any of the speeches. There have, indeed, been in-depth stories about the issues that cause these massive rallies, but let’s face it, protests aren’t what they used to be.

In the 1960s, mass protests were disruptive enough to force society to pay attention. But nowadays, they are merely mild inconveniences, and so frequent that they’ve become routine, almost mundane: situations to be handled with a few traffic diversions.

At the same time, it seems that having an impact on the world has never been easier.

If you visit the website of a cause that you care about, you’ll often see an invitation, “Make a difference: click here” next to an option to share information through your accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz, Reddit, StumbeUpon, Digg, LinkedIn, MySpace, or Bebo, et al.

There’s a reason: you actually can make a difference by making your voice – or, rather, your E-voice – heard.

Facebook singlehandedly revamped Betty White’s career, and generated enough interest to force the notoriously tight-lipped FIFA World Cup handlers to at least have a discussion about whether to re-play the now infamous Ireland v. France qualifying match.

Just recently, Audi announced that it would bring a car design to market based on the Facebook feedback the model received.

And, thanks to a joint Facebook/Twitter campaign, for the first time since 2005, last year’s UK Christmas chart-topper wasn’t the work of an X-Factor winner, but an old song from 90’s rock band, Rage Against the Machine. Over 500,000 people around the world conspired to topple the pop hegemony by purchasing the track online during the specific time frame that accounted for Christmas sales.

In many ways, checking in with, and being an active member of, your preferred social media network is as powerful as being an active citizen in reality. It may be even more powerful. In the real world, we can only reach ten or twenty close friends, or even a hundred fellow activists and advocates through conversations, but through social media, we – and the interests in which we are most passionate – have the potential to be heard around the world.

After January’s earthquake it Haiti, dozens of humanitarian agencies marveled about how fundraising was made easy for them because of social media tools like tweets, re-tweets, wall posts, and status updates with information about how and where to donate.

Even our local Limerick social justice advocate could not fathom how long it would’ve taken him to drum up the attention that his issue has thus far gained, if he was doing so in the world before social media.

“If you thought about doing this before Facebook, you’d have to go door to door, house to house, meet with people outside church,” he said, but now, “without having to leave your house, you can get the word out, not just locally, or to people you know, or to the next village or town beside you, but to people all over the world.”

And that has its advantages even for small road-repair campaigns in West Limerick, as, for instance, someone might write to the group, “We’re sitting in Queensland, we had a situation like yours, this is what the local authorities did here and maybe someone can do that over there.”

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