Well, having been a student myself for the last three years, I can tell you that the students have always been revolting – anyone who risked entering my kitchen in the first year can attest to this.

As if being a graduate in 2010 couldn’t get any worse, we now have the dubious pleasure of being implicated by association with the student fees protesters. Whether or not we agree with the cuts or disagree is immaterial. The fact is: we are young, we were at university, and so in all likelihood we are now devising new and inventive ways to scale the Cenotaph or thinking of what we’re going to write on the sandwich board that we will inevitably turn up for work wearing. Brilliant…

But for the sake of impartiality, I’m going to avoid getting bogged down in an inevitably dull discussion of the cuts or the protesters or their incredibly disrespectful (woops!) actions last week. I’m not interested in the ‘whats’ and the ‘whys’ of the protests, but rather, the ‘hows’. In particular, the way that the students have used social media to generate, galvanise and mobilise support, and what organisations can learn from this.

Michael Gladwell picks up on the theme of social (media) activism in his article for the New Yorker:

“The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns. When ten thousand protesters took to the streets in Moldova in the spring of 2009 to protest against their country’s Communist government, the action was dubbed the Twitter Revolution, because of the means by which the demonstrators had been brought together.”

Twitter also played a key role in keeping the world aware of post-election protests in Iran in 2009. By using smart phones as opposed to state censored internet providers, protestors were able to outmanoeuvre online censors, and armed with Google maps and warm boots, managed to do so in the real world as well.

The wide availability of information – information that has been created by a range of nominal third parties, as opposed to conventional media sources – coupled with the ease of mass interaction that web 2.0 affords us, both act as kindling for any burgeoning protest movement. Whereas politically minded individuals would previously have upended milk crates and aired their views to the disinterested public in market squares, now these individuals can ‘narrowcast’ their views to specific pockets of interest online.

Whereas the protests that tend to grab headlines take the form of marches or rallies, effective campaigns can generate publicity while still being conducted entirely online. Gap recently had their attempted rebrand overturned by an online outcry. It’s unclear how much the rebrand cost the company, but for an organization the size of Gap to do a U-turn at the behest of their customers really demonstrates the power of the online populous to influence the ‘higher powers’. Another example of online campaign groups getting one over on their corporate counterparts is the ‘Busts for Justice’ group, that managed to force Marks and Spencers into a retreat following their decision to increase the price of bras above DD by £2.

Not only were social media platforms used to generate support for the student’s cause, they were also used to coordinate their movements and disrupt the efforts of the police to stop them. In the build up to Thursday’s vote, online activists proposed a number of sites for flash mobs, without giving a clear indication of which would be taken. This way, the police presence was diverted away from the final location. Students also used Google maps to coordinate their efforts on the ground, and communicate with other protest groups in the area where the police were being deployed:

It’s difficult to condone their actions, but you have to admire this innovative use of online media.

Generation Y are notoriously proficient on digital media – well at least we’re getting some return on the amount of time we seem to spend on Facebook. The student protests have highlighted the power of social media to engage an audience and coordinate their efforts. Organisations, if they haven’t yet, need to capitalise on social media’s ability to draw together disparate groups and facilitate interaction between them. I mean, if social media can tear thousands of students away from Countdown and get them on the streets, actually fighting for something (how much has changed in just 6 months?), imagine what it could do for your business.