"But how do the hash tags work, exactly?" "How can I link my blog to my Facebook page?" The questions were directed at me and came from a retired female cop from upstate New York. Our dining companions, seventysomethings from North Carolina, asked for my professional media expertise. They hadn't yet joined Twitter but planned to after all they'd heard about it at the Smart Girl Summit, a recent conference of conservative—mostly Tea Party—women. They listened eagerly to my answers, then even more eagerly as featured speaker Michele Bachmann told the group that 61 percent of independent voters distrust the "lamestream" media, that the media are even angrier than the Tea Party. The ex-cop blogger clapped loudly and politely passed the rolls my way.
The Smart Girl Summit, attended by about 250 (largely women, with a smattering of husbands and male speakers), grew out of a blog started by a stay-at-home mother. One of the featured speakers, Dana Loesch, a rising conservative pundit and home-schooling mother, initially grabbed attention for her blog, Mamalogues, which she still maintains in addition to her TV and radio work. Another, Rachel Campos-Duffy, a Real World alum, has maintained her media presence through a combination of mommy-blogging and TV punditry. One attendee, a hairdresser turned full-time mother, grabbed national attention during the 2008 election for her blog, Moms4SarahPalin. *
The new wave of Mama Grizzlies believes—and they have some evidence to prove it—that social media is the key to their success. In nearly every session I sat in on, the speaker drove home the point that the easiest way to work for the Tea Party was to be active on Twitter and Facebook—this was the sort of political organizing that a busy mom could do, without even leaving the house. And by many measures, women already dominate social media: They outnumber men nearly 60 percent to 40 percent on Facebook and Twitter, and married women between 35 and 50 are the fastest-growing group of social-networkers. Their usage also tends to be more relationship- and communication-driven, less "transactional." "Nontraditional media will give you the courage to tell your story," one speaker said, echoing a blogger who told me she thinks women are more bold behind the safety of our computer screens.
None of them mentions a recent New Yorker article on Twitter activism by Malcolm Gladwell, which would dampen their cause. Gladwell is thoroughly skeptical of its effectiveness, comparing Twitter activism in Iran and Moldova unfavorably with the activism of the 1960s American civil rights movement. The key distinction, according to Gladwell, is that "Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires" rather than effecting actual change. And true, that's exactly what the online Grizzlies emphasize, how easy it is to be part of the movement online.
Gladwell concedes that "[t]he drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn't interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash." But is that true of the Tea Party moms? Yes, their poll numbers are relatively unpromising for the November general election. But they seem to still want to turn their online power into noise on the streets. The group that sponsored the conference also sponsored the first Tea Party rally last year, and the point of the summit was to take "weak-tie" online bonds and turn them into real-life connections (which, Gladwell says, drive effective activism). To get people to move from just being part of an inchoate network and to think about becoming leaders within a movement. To have women meet the people they'd been retweeting on Twitter, so that maybe they'd volunteer for the other's candidate of choice, or even her campaign. To spawn more organizations, more networks within a network. According to Loesch, "Activism is just as much building relationships as getting out there."