Just a little more than two weeks ago, a news story broke in a local Charlottesville, Virginia newspaper about the ousting of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan. Over the course of the day, more stories were published, and several hours later, the local television stations began picking up on the news and running it as part of their nightly broadcasts. Within days, much of the nation would be reading not so flattering details of how the President was unjustly removed from office in stories written in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and many other news publications. For the city of Charlottesville, known more for its musical scene with bands like Dave Matthews and Sons of Bill, what ensued was a nasty battle filled with name-calling, vigils and protests, and even a graffiti laced tirade as the word "G-R-E-E-D" was spraypainted on the hallowed columns of the Rotunda on campus.
What some may not know is that prior to the first story being published in the newspaper, and many hours before the first television stories came to light, the social media universe had been going full throttle and the digital groundswell continued until finally, more than two weeks later, the President was reinstated. Social media outlets Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and several social media news sites such as Digg, Reddit, and StumbleUpon played a key role in providing not only communciations and information but also in helping to organize protests, vigils and online petitions on behalf of the ousted President. Students from the University of Virginia were joined by other students, professors, and academians in a nearly unanimous calling for action to be taken and for the President to be reinstated. And, it worked.
A happy ending for Teresa Sullivan and the Charlottesville community, and a model case study on how social media, digital communities, word-of-mouth, and downright persistence can have an impact - a powerful impact.
The viral communities that sprung up on Facebook, creating protests, sharing media stories, and organizing on-site protests and gatherings were not only lightning quick, but also incredibly effective. On Twitter, hashtags for #Sullivan and her ouster, #Dragas, were quickly created and spread across the world, well outside of Charlottesville. At several points during the two week episode the hashtag #UVA was trending on Twitter, and hashtags #Sullivan and #Dragas were trending in the DC area. Several Facebook campaigns and pages were created and hundreds of posts poured in from people around the world chiming in with their support for Sullivan.
The viral nature of YouTube videos also played an important role in keeping people informed of the sights and sounds of an on-campus rally, and one incredibly clever video highlighted how Twitter can be mined and studied by analyzing hashtags. Interviews were conducted and posted onto YouTube with thoughts from Tom Faulders, President and CEO of UVA Alumni Association and Siva Vaidhyanathan, Chairman of the Department of Media Studies. Countless other videos were created including several reactions from students, alumni, and local Charlottesville citizens, all expressing some level of concern (or outrage) about what had happened.
Finally, a petition on Change.org garnered more than 5,200 responses within just two weeks and included comments from people far from Charlottesville, highlighting the spreadability of news that social media provides. In fact, in a recent survey that we produced, the 2012 Social Media News Survey, we found that Twitter and Facebook were two very powerful resources that people use to follow, share, and consume news and in this case, both were used effectively to spread the news and to provide a platform for ultra-fast community organization.
While this certainly is an event that many in Charlottesville and alumni of UVA hope the University can move past, it should be remembered as a testament to the power and effectiveness of social media and how tools such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube can be used for spreading news and organizing communities, and in this case to enact change.