#ShellNo, Kayaktivists, and Social Media

Early Wednesday afternoon, I scrolled past a tweet containing the phrase “a flotilla of Portland kayaktivists joined the danglers.” Needless to say, I was hooked. I expected the tweet to lead to a variation of outlandish, Portlandia-esque activism and maybe a Unipiper sighting. When I clicked the embedded link, however, I found so much more. An entire movement was taking place—and thanks to social media, I was able to spend the next two days following along in real time. What I saw was a coordinated, social effort that spanned multiple platforms and reached millions organically.

In an attempt to keep the ice-breaking vessel, the Fennica, from traveling on, towards an offshore oil drilling mission in the arctic, 13 Greenpeace affiliated activists dangled from the St. Johns Bridge for over 40 hours. The “flotilla of kayaktivists” offered support to the climbers from the water below, while creating a second barrier between the Fennica and the Arctic.

Because the environment of the Arctic is so harsh, Shell had a small window of time before offshore drilling would become too dangerous to continue. Suspended hundreds of feet above the Willamette river, the climbers’ goals were twofold: to halt the passing of the Fennica long enough for that small window to close, and to raise awareness about offshore drilling in the Arctic. While the overall outcome of the protest remains to be seen, the second part of their goal has been a huge success, largely because of the climbers' multi-platform social media efforts.

This isn’t the first time social media has been used to further activism, with such examples ranging from the Arab Spring to last summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge and its various spinoffs. The climbers’ protest in particular, though, gives us a unique look at the power of a solid, multi-platform social strategy.

Within the first two days of the protest, its hashtag, #ShellNo, had appeared in over 10 million Twitter timelines, trended on both Twitter and Facebook, and reached over 200,000 Instagram users—and unless you count the $2,500-per-hour fines facing the climbers, it was completely organic.

#ShellNo spread across the Internet in a fashion similar to many viral, social stories. First came a pretty badass, live activation (rappelling down the 400 ft. bridge under the cover of darkness? That’s almost too badass!). Then, facilitated by the climbers themselves, accounts of the activation spread via Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Like any good community managers, the climbers engaged with their audience. They explained why they were dangling from the bridge and what they hoped to achieve. They answered logistical questions (“but really, how will you go to the restroom?”). They humored the obvious (“how’s it hanging?”). Through frequent engagement with their audience, the climbers were able to shape #ShellNo’s social story. They shared messages of support from their audience to their audience; to those watching online, it seemed like everyone was on the side of the climbers.

Once they had captured the attention of millions, the climbers gave their audience the chance to get even closer to the action. They created personalized connections with their audience, sharing introductory videos on YouTube. They streamed real-time coverage from their posts on Periscope. The climbers gave their audience the chance to be personally involved in the protest as it happened in real time—they gave their audience the chance to become armchair activists.

This is where climbers brought their social media game to the next level.

Dangling above the Willamette, they took to Reddit for an “Ask Me Anything” interview.

The power and potential of a well-executed social media campaign became even clearer during the AMA. Redditors came together in the mutual fear that the climbers might drop their phones into the river below, thus cutting off contact. They offered assistance in the form of food, extra cell phone batteries, marijuana and more. The conversation briefly branched into a philosophical debate on the societal implications of civil disobedience, before returning back to the issue at hand (and everyone’s favorite question: “seriously, what if you have to go to the bathroom?”).

But it wasn’t all bathroom talk and Thoreau references. Redditors against #ShellNo shared their questions and concerns. The climbers engaged with a selection of negative comments, usually thanking the commenters for their input and directing them to more information about the other side’s view. More often than not, though, supporters of #ShellNo stepped in before the climbers had to respond.

Whether you agreed with the #ShellNo climbers or not, you can't deny that their social game was on fleek (in part because they avoided saying things like "fleek"). In all seriousness, though, the climbers sparked conversations that went far beyond the usual social noise. They reached a widespread, engaged audience. The climbers educated their followers and empowered them to take well-informed actions of their own. And that is what social media is all about.

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