The list of "Twitter revolutions" is growing -- the Moldova civil unrest and Iranian election protests of 2009, and the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions of 2011, have all been at least partly attributed to the social networking phenomenon's ability to connect groups without alternative ways of organizing.
But Twitter is also facilitating different kinds of revolutions back in the United States. College students, the digital natives who grew up with social media, have been quick to see the potential to connect with people in high places -- leaders in government, industry or just about anyone with influence. Social media is a two-way street and student activists are capitalizing on the fact that Twitter and other social media sites give them more access in higher places than ever before.
Catharine Bellinger, executive director of Students for Education Reform (SFER), said an active social media platform was a priority since she and fellow Princeton University junior Alexis Morin founded the group in September 2009.
"The rest of the education world is active on Twitter and in the blogosphere, so in order to get our names out there, we had to take part," Bellinger said. "It's important for us to add the student voice to the education world -- online and off."
In the past year and a half, SFER, which aims to engage student leaders on education reform issues, has grown from the founding Princeton chapter to a national network of 20 schools, from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to Stanford. Several of those chapter leaders found out about SFER on Twitter and Facebook and liked what they saw enough to start their campus activism with SFER's model instead of branching out on their own.
But in addition to helping them expand faster among their target audience of college students, it's also helped them engage with some of the leading players in education, many of whom are among SFER's 600-plus followers. "We get really excited when Michelle Rhee or Deb Gist retweets something we posted," Bellinger said.
They've used Twitter to arrange summer internships for members, and a Washington Post columnist contacted them about a story after seeing their tweets. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Outreach at the Department of Education Massie Ritsch regularly tweets with SFER. Last week, they got a shout-out from US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan after he visited the campus. It's hard to imagine college students attracting an audience of that caliber five years ago, when Twitter was just getting off the ground.
So what can student activists do to replicate SFER's success for their own movements? Bellinger recommends choosing one topic to focus on -- "the expression 'jack of all trades, master of none' holds true especially in the Web 2.0 world" -- and working on engaging with the top people in that area rather than trying to tackle all the world's problems at once. Constant engagement is also part of SFER's strategy, particularly retweeting and mentioning others in tweets to show an active presence in the online community -- though this brand of "always on" activism may be better for students' advocacy than their grades.
A final takeaway: make the most of the access social media grants. "Don't be afraid to direct message someone you really admire and ask them a question, or ask them to coffee to learn more about their career," Bellinger added.
With social media leveling the playing field of ideas, even students have a voice - and odds are someone's listening.
Follow Lauren Zumbach on Twitter: www.twitter.com/laurenzumbach