When organizers announced last May that they planned a national march on Washington for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, to take place less than five months later, movement veterans were skeptical.
But the National Equality March (NEM), held October 11, 2009 in Washington DC, drew an estimated 200,000 participants and cost only $156,000 to produce— far less than the cost of all previous national LGBT marches. Key to this success was the extensive use of online tools and media channels that didn’t exist at the time of those previous marches.
Equality Across America (EAA), the mostly-volunteer group formed to organize the event, launched a blog about the NEM, which invited interested parties to join by submitting an email address and zip code. Those who did so were invited to become volunteers, and volunteers were organized via Google Groups.
EAA also linked its web site to NEM’s Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube pages. The 58,000 fans of the NEM Facebook page received regular information and shared it with their friends. The page also drew traffic and donations to the EAA web site.
EAA held two online contests that generated buzz. The “Equality Idol” contest solicited users to submit video auditions for a speaking spot onstage at the event; submissions were uploaded to the NEM YouTube channel (where users could “vote” for their favorites via star ratings) and posted to the Facebook page (where users could vote by “liking” their favorites). The “Equality Song” contest solicited original songs, with an onstage performing spot for the winner; organizers posted the audio files on the NEM blog and used a polling plug-in to collect votes. The public was also able to vote in these contests via SMS text message thanks to software developed by Distributive Networks.
Organizers used Twitter to post updates about the event and about breaking news relevant to the LGBT equality cause. Twitter also helped bring volunteers on board.
Event publicists produced video testimonials from pop star Lady Gaga, Queer As Folk actor Michele Clunie, and spoken word poet Staceyann Chin, uploaded them to the NEM YouTube channel, and embedded or linked to them elsewhere online.
The NEM’s social media-savvy organizers knew, of course, that messages about the event would spread primarily via “word of mouse” as people cross-posted, re-tweeted, and blogged about the March.
EAA encouraged people who couldn’t come to Washington to organize equality-related events in their own towns. Radical Designs of San Francisco worked with NEM co-director Kip Williams, 27, of San Francisco, to build a custom application for EAA that displayed a U.S. map on the EAA web site; stars appeared in the map based on the zip codes of groups that were organizing for the March, and if those groups had Facebook accounts, the stars linked to them.
During the weekend of the event itself, many participants live-blogged and vlogged. Organizers used text messaging to coordinate demonstrations and flashmobs. Using the slideshow function from Flickr’s application programming interface, the NEM web site was set up to display a slideshow of fresh photos taken at the event; participants could simply send photos directly from their smartphones to a special email address.
Thanks to the cost savings afforded by the use of social media tools, the NEM was the most cost-effective LGBT march on Washington yet, as measured by turnout. The 1979 march, with expenses* of about $297,764 and attendance** by about 100,000 people, cost about $2.98 per head. The 1987 march, with expenses of $600,978 and attendance by about 425,000 people, cost about $1.41 per head. The 1993 march, with expenses of about $2,692,862 and attendance by about 950,000 people, cost about $2.83 per head. The 2000 march, with expenses of about $2,385,228 and attendance by about 462,500 people, cost about $5.16 per head. The NEM, with expenses of about $156,000 and attendance by about 200,000 people, cost about $0.78 per head.
Mobilizing a couple hundred thousand people to a rally still requires a compelling cause, but social media tools have clearly lowered other barriers, to the delight of activists and the discomfort of their targets.
*Expense figures adjusted for inflation.
**Crowd estimates are averages of figures in The Dividends of Dissent: How Conflict and Culture Work in Lesbian and Gay Marches on Washington by Amin Ghaziani, Ph.D. of Princeton University. The crowd estimate for the NEM is from Time Magazine.
Ben Carlson is a San Francisco-based public relations professional.