The buzzword this week in class was “grass-roots.” It’s a word we throw around a lot in the International Communications program, but what does it really mean? According to dictionary.com, grass-roots is defined as “the common or ordinary people, especially as contrasted with the leadership or elite of a political party, social organization, etc.; the rank and file.” We often use the term to refer to an organization or movement that has been started by ordinary people, creating change from the bottom up instead of the usual top down.
So what is the role of grass-roots in the world of communications? There is an interesting dichotomy in the communications world today. On one hand, much of communications today is controlled by major corporations like Disney, GE (owners of NBC), or Comcast. On the other hand, anyone with internet access can start a blog or twitter feed in hopes that someone out there will read it. But with all the competition out there for the media consumer’s attention, how can you make your voice heard to people outside your friends and family? And how about if you are not just wanting to share vacation photos or recipes, but to create real social change?
I had all these thoughts about our classwork swirling about in my head when a WaPo (Washington Post) tweet in my twitter feed Sunday morning caught my eye. It posited the question, “What do Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sesame Street and JC Penny [sic] have in common?” Who can resist a teaser like that? The link in the tweet led me to an article titled “Change.org fuels grass-roots campaigns with social media”. The article talks about what we can call grass-root campaigns waged through the website Change.org, a website which provides “free online petition tools for social change.”
Some of the petitions have fulfilled their goal of making a difference. For instance, the petition for Caylee’s Law, a proposed law based on the Casey Anthony trial which would require parents to report a child as missing within 24 hours, received over one million signatures and led 22 lawmakers to support the proposal. Another campaign, which had over 100,000 signatories in 150 countries, persuaded an initially reluctant Hillary Clinton to speak out against the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. Other proposals, such as gay rights activists’ campaign for Sesame Street residents Bert and Ernie to get married, have been shot down (Children’s Television Workshop insists they are just friends and roommates, okay?!). Still, whether a campaign succeeds or not, it seems that corporations and governments are paying attention to what the ordinary person has to say (…if enough people are saying it).