Pride at Work's latest stunt infiltrating the Westin St. Francis is now a YouTube sensation, generating over 35,000 hits yesterday. It was featured on two local evening news shows, the progressive webzine Common Dreams, and the LGBT blog Towleroad - and on countless Facebook pages. But besides being a fun video, it deftly shows how activists can adapt to new ways of getting their message out. Mass rallies are much less effective today than they were in the Sixties, but too often progressives want to re-live this era by using the same tools and expecting a different result. People don't get their news from just a few channels anymore, so it's possible to have a march with thousands of people with little effect. Today, ideas catch fire and take hold through online social networks. "Caught in a Bad Hotel" was not the first YouTube flashmob, but it was the first one with a political purpose. And hopefully, it won't be the last.
In Taking On the System, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas made a point that I've been thinking a lot over the past two years. Whatever era they live in, activists must adapt to the most effective medium to get their message across. In the 1920's and 30's, Gandhi used newsreels to show how the British were exploiting his people. Martin Luther King used television to cover civil rights marches, and to capture the hateful response from Southern law enforcement. But today, people get their news in a far more fragmented way - on the Internet, through their friends, on Facebook and in silly YouTube videos.
I argued this point yesterday on (where else?) my Facebook page, but not everyone was convinced. The video was fun, but how do we know it will be effective at getting people to boycott the Westin St. Francis?
A friend responded with this point: "It will be seen by a lot more people than your average - 'what do we want and when do we want it' protest - because as much as I am pro union and will support boycotts, I don't forward info on every single boycott because seriously, nobody would read my reports if I did. I saw the YouTube video and then saw that the Palace Hotel was part of the boycott list and canceled my reservations for tea at the Garden Room. I probably would not have found out about the boycott if it wasn't entertaining enough to go viral, and I definitely wouldn't have posted it in my [Facebook] status and then five of my friends probably wouldn't have posted in theirs ..."
In the 21st Century, people spend a lot of time online - and a huge amount on Facebook, talking to their friends and procrastinating. A fun YouTube video can go viral, because you're reaching people where they're at - and it's easy for them to post it on their page.
As far as getting "bang for your buck," Pride at Work hit a home run. They didn't have to mobilize a huge number of people, the whole action took 5 minutes and nobody got arrested. How many times can you say that - and get that amount of media coverage?
Could Pride at Work have done a similar direct action without YouTube or Facebook? Of course, but no one would have seen it - unless they happened to be in the Westin St. Francis at the time, or activists were lucky to get reporters present - never a sure thing.
And while onlookers in the hotel appeared supportive (activists handed out flyers during the flashmob about the hotel boycott), it can be difficult convincing an apolitical tourist who already paid for their room to check out of the hotel in solidarity. By broadcasting it on YouTube and generating a viral campaign, more will hear about it and not stay there.
We won't know how effective "Caught in a Bad Hotel" will be until Gay Pride weekend, when thousands of LGBT tourists come into town. The Westin St. Francis was targeted in part because a lot of them stay there that weekend. Pride at Work used the Lady Gaga theme to let them know they are welcome in San Francisco, but don't stay at a "bad hotel." Getting a plug yesterday in Towleroad was very helpful, because the popular blog on gay politics and culture is based in New York.
"Caught in a Bad Hotel" didn't just make me happy because it's a fun video. It made me hopeful that creative activists can use this medium to more effectively get their message out.
Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco's Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.