What do twenty-first-century women and the sixteenth-century Protestant revolt have in common? The advantages of a new, epoch-changing communications technology.
Last week on the Overland blog Jacinda Woodhead raised the ghost of Marshall McLuhan and his 1960s catch phrase ‘the medium is the message’. The medium might be the message – but what if a message suddenly finds a new medium?
This famously happened in the sixteenth century when Martin Luther wrote the ‘Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences’ in Wittenberg in 1517. This was not a revolutionary act. It was merely one more in a line of scholarly disputations against the church. Luther used the medium of his day – a handwritten Latin tract – to protest against the behaviour of the clergy at his local church, which contained an extensive collection of spurious holy relics including vials of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk.
Theologians had been regularly haranguing the Church for its excesses and hypocrisy for decades, but had zero impact on its practices. Luther did the same and sparked a revolution. Why? Because a powerful new device communicated his ‘95 Theses’ across Europe so rapidly that it seemed ‘as if the angels themselves had been their messengers and brought them before the eyes of all the people’.
What was this powerful new communications device? The printing press.
Luther’s theses caused a revolution because they did not stay in Wittenberg. They went viral.
They were translated into the vernacular and multiple identical copies were made on the printing press. In two weeks Luther’s theses had spread throughout Germany. In four weeks they had spread across Europe. Luther himself was baffled by their rapid dissemination. He told the pope at his interrogation: ‘It is a mystery to me how my theses, more so than my other writings, indeed, those of other professors, were spread to so many places. They were meant exclusively for our academic circle here.’
But thanks to a new medium Luther’s message escaped his academic circle, was disseminated across Europe and prompted the Protestant revolution. Such is the power of communication.
In the twenty-first century, women have also found a new communications medium: the internet. It seems that the internet might be doing for women what the printing press did for Luther: taking our talk beyond its traditional, circumscribed realm.
‘In the old days, women marched to win change. Now, they blog.’ So says Julie Power, a former reporter for the Australian Financial Review who now blogs at MomstoWork.com. As Power says, ‘Change starts with talk. And these conversations are happening among the 42 million American women who blog, tweet and update their social networks every week.’
Women across the world are blogging for change. Bahrain activist and blogger Esra’a al-Shafei says the goal of her blog Mideast Youth is ‘to piss off as many dictators as possible’. She says: ‘The stuff we publish is not the cutesy stuff your mum wants to see. It’s the kind of stuff that can get you killed.’
‘Women bloggers have so much power,’ says the activist Gloria Feldt, who started blogging after 30 years of lobbying for women’s reproductive rights. She says that blogging liberated her: ‘At last I could say what I wanted to say.’
Gynaecologist Lissa Rankins would concur. She blogs at Owning The Pink and writes: ‘Vagina, vagina, vagina. Say it with me … Let’s change the way television, and the rest of the world, talks about what it means to be a woman … come on. We’ve all got ’em. There’s nothing dirty or icky about them. And don’t forget. Vaginas make the world go round.’
In the Sydney Morning Herald (31 March 2011) Dr Johanna Blakley also argues that the new medium has the potential to bring change by and for women. She’s been studying the impact of demographics on advertising and media at the Norman Lear Centre, a US research institute, and writes: ‘Recently we’ve been focusing our attention on social media, and we’ve discovered some very interesting things – particularly about the role that women play.’
Speaking of online taste communities, she says that one of the more surprising things about them ‘is that they are being shaped primarily by women’. A report released last June found that ‘because of their full embrace of social media, women are taking the lead in redefining what 21st century audiences are and what they actually want. I believe that the content that makes up our media environment is going to experience a profound shift … Media content, and the advertising that accompanies it, will be tailored to the taste of networked online communities where women happen to be the driving force.’
Last year popular local blogger and tweeter Mia Freedman felt the power of an online community when she and her followers were able to influence the behaviour of a corporation, the church of the twenty-first century. Through blogging and tweeting, Freedman forced the clothing company Cotton On to withdraw baby clothes which carried offensive slogans like ‘I’m a tits man’, ‘F**k the milk, where’s the whiskey’ and ‘They shake me’. The company initially resisted the blogosphere backlash, failing to realise its significance. But eventually Cotton On gave in to its demands, apologised and withdrew the offending t-shirts. It also promised to review its range ‘to ensure no reference is made to categories pertaining to sexually explicit behaviour, child abuse, drugs and profanity’.
Small changes so far, but perhaps in the twenty-first century women’s tweets will prove more potent than our roars.