The Startup
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The Startup

The Power of One

Sharing opinions online is a growing industry, and it’s giving Millennials and Gen Z the platform that their ancestors didn’t have.

I can safely say that I am addicted to offering my opinions online. Don’t get me wrong, I am a very busy person. I’m like that white dad on vacation: the trunk is packed to the absolute brim with things that I may or may not need, but I’m still grabbing the bungee cord I’ve had since 1987 so I can strap on that one extra thing that yes, Barb, we will need. Just in case!

For me, it’s Instagram — particularly the story feature.

Young girl posting her opinions online. Work by Kaia Ross, 2020. Partially traced from Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honore Fragonard.

I always turn the background all one color — usually a light blue, pink, or green — and let my thumbs whir away across my screen, letting every little passing opinion paint the background white from top to bottom with text. Sometimes it’s about abortion, sometimes it’s about gun laws, and sometimes it’s about war with Iran; whenever I realize I may have a unique take on a topic, it’s on my story within the hour.

I get “Nobody cares lol” a lot. It doesn’t happen particularly often, but I figure more than thrice qualifies as a lot in context. It’s enough to make the average person think twice about posting their opinions online, but luckily for those three people, I am a definitive snowflake.

Luckily for them, five times the amount of people who oppose me support me, and outwardly so. Those little pink and white images will get screenshotted and posted on other people’s stories and accredited to me, occasionally accompanied by a tasteful fire emoji. A lot of times, people show their support with a hearty “YESSSSSSS,” which never fails to warm my heart. And sometimes, on very special occasions, the nice colorguard girl will send me a treasured “I love all of your posts!”

These are the things that keep me posting. I know I have a voice, and I know people want to hear it. Luckily for them, we both want me to keep shouting from the rooftops, and luckily for both of us, I do.

It eventually got me thinking about how formulaic the whole ordeal is. I want to spread my unique ideas, so I do. I gain some opposition, but enough support to keep me going. It’s the pattern you have to learn to get a decent score on the AP World History exam, which I got a 4 on last year.

It’s how movements are started, and it’s often political, cultural, and religious leaders’ path to success.

Gen Z is widely known as the liberal generation that spreads its unwanted opinion like wildfire. How is Gen Z any different from people from hundreds and thousands of years ago, though?

The internet, above all, gives all that access it a voice. That’s why people are so drawn to social media — people can speak their mind to a wide audience with little call for crowd confidence or education. During the waxing years of the Renaissance, 98% of the population was illiterate and made little to no money. Because of this, they didn’t have access to the socioeconomic platforms that educated people — the upper 2% — had.

Gen Z carrying the torch for the next generation of protesters. Work by Kaia Ross, 2020. Partially traced from this image of British actor Matt Smith carrying the torch for the 2012 Olympics.

There were a few well-known voices during the Renaissance, people who were known for driving forward reformation and the rebirth of Roman educational practices. Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Martin Luther come to mind. There were, looking back on the population of Europe at the time (an estimated 83 million at its peak), not a lot of fantastic thinkers.

Now, many historians, teachers, and students alike brush this phenomenon off with what I refer to as the Dark Ages Conundrum: the belief that Europeans didn’t think, but rather listened to what the church had to say without protest. The period is even called the Dark Ages because it was a time in which intelligent thought (i. e. Modern sciences, mathematics, astronomy, art, politics, and linguistics) hit its lowest point since the rise of the Roman empire, and the lower 98% was “in the dark” about scientific truths.

It’s a proven fact that people knew damn well what was going on around them during the Dark Ages, though. Back when the Catholic church sold indulgences, those who claimed them to be unjust or a hoax were denoted blasphemers and were promptly and permanently removed from the church as a whole. That is, for the 15-year-olds who are getting at least a C in World History, another well-known fact.

So well-known, in fact, that it must have been attempted by tens or hundreds of Catholics in multiple areas across Europe t such attention. After all, a few occurrences in one place on such a small scale would not have earned its place in the history books; at least, not without the protesters’ names, given how such accounts treat other individual and small-group revolts. Through that reasoning, we can only assume that this was not a small phenomenon but rather a widely-held opinion that few acted upon.

This would explain why Martin Luther isn’t recorded having had any open sermons to convince people to join his church; many Catholics were hesitant to leave what they knew, but those who were excommunicated breathed a sigh of relief with the introduction of Protestantism. At that, Catholics that were disquieted at the use of indulgences weren’t few or far to come by, and often converted. People were so disquieted by the church’s malpractice that conversion was practically a no-brainer.

In short, thousands of people had already considered the points that Martin Luther made before he made them, making them partially unoriginal in basis. That begs the question, though, of why nobody else stepped forward to degrade the church in such a way. Problem is, the would-be Protestant converts that did step forward were excommunicated, and those who didn’t were likely aiming to avoid suffering the same fate. So why was Martin Luther’s the only successful attempt?

Because he had a platform.

The average member of the Catholic church belonged to Europe’s lower 98%, most of which could not read. Additionally, they weren’t educated enough to work under a specialized labor field, so most of them made little to no money. The upper 2%, however, spoke eloquently and read well, and had been through an extensive education, often since birth. Martin Luther was a well-spoken Catholic priest and monk (before his excommunication) and part of that upper 2%.

Martin Luther nailing a “Save the Turtles” sign to the Wittenberg Castle Church. Work by Kaia Ross, 2020. Partially traced from this painting. **

People listened to what Luther had to say because he had a level of audience and ethos. He suffered the same fate as the members of the lower 98%, but he was able to cause such a seismic ripple because even a monk opposed the application of indulgences. He wasn’t a little nobody — he was a monk. He was the upper 2%.

The internet doesn’t call for people to be part of the upper 2% anymore. Anybody can speak to a wide audience simply because the internet is a big place, and hashtags can often work in their favor. The top 1% of today definitely have the opportunity to make ripples online, but they don’t have the dominant power over the lower 99% that they would have had centuries ago.

I almost hate to say it, but recall Instagram user @world_record_egg. Prior to the account’s first post, Kylie Jenner, the youngest self-made billionaire to walk the Earth, held the world record for the most likes on an Instagram post with a picture of her newborn daughter Stormi’s hand wrapped around her thumb. She almost held the record for almost an entire year, but on January 13th, 2019, the picture of the egg surpassed 18 million likes only a week after it was posted.

The person behind the egg was Chris Godfrey, a then-29-year-old who worked in marketing but was otherwise a nobody in the scope of social media. Don’t let his occupation throw you off, though; from the time it was originally posted on January 4th, 2019 until its success on the 13th, Godfrey made no effort to gain traction for the egg.

“I think it was perhaps the younger generation,” Godfrey stated in an interview with the New York Times. “In the schools and stuff, it started to spread. It sort of spread through playgrounds.” Indeed, the egg was huge at my school, and I remember its reign quite clearly. I saw it posted on a few people’s stories, and then a lot of people’s stories. About five days into its reign, I liked it and posted it on my story.

Moses breaks the record. Work by Kaia Ross, 2020. Partially traced from Moses Breaks the Tablets of the Law.

The thing was everywhere, and it wasn’t any individual’s doing. All 54 million+ people who initially liked the egg made it happen not only by liking it, but by sharing it as well. Their network of friends saw it, and, when reposted, a whole other network of people saw it. A bunch of kids posting on their Instagram stories got a picture of an egg to beat Kylie Jenner’s record, and then double it.

The best part?

Most of those kids were in the lower 98%.

I’m not nearly a part of the upper 2%. I’m solidly a middle-class citizen, living in one of California’s armpits. My school is good at what it does, but it is a public school, and the fire alarm gets set off at least once a week due to either pranksters or not-so-stealthy potheads. I’m relatively eloquent, but I’m not studying under Copernicus. During the Renaissance, I would economically belong to the lower 98% without a doubt.

The fact that people care about what I have to say is not shrouded in much mystery, though; I post online relatively often, and my thoughts are relatively coherent. Even when I’m sleepy and don’t use the highest academic language, people agree with me. I’m not shut down since I have a right to post what I do, and a lot of people will listen to me due to my platform. Luther’s platform was ethos. My platform is a system that automatically spreads my message to all who can see it.

Those people, the bottom 98% that live off of 99 Cent Store groceries, agree with me. Not because I’m eloquent, not because I hold leadership positions in extracurriculars, and certainly not because of my (meager) account balance. It’s because, despite the suggestions made by the aforementioned Dark Ages Conundrum, my thoughts are original but not unique.

Beliefs are shared and have been shared since before the Renaissance. My posts may state a concept that people have never heard of before, but those that agree with me do so because the core beliefs that sit at the center of my claims are shared with many members of my audience. We’re all the same animals living in the same world, so the fact that we share opinions doesn’t puzzle me much.

During the hippie movement, activists didn’t have the platform that I did for obvious reasons. Still, they shared beliefs. Droves of them attended marches on Washington, but such protests only exist to show people of power — often mayors and members of the House of Representatives — that a large number of people care about an issue. Individualized opinions aren’t exactly bolstered by these protests, as they rely upon multiple people sharing an idea. New ideas don’t rise out of marches on Washington — they support existing ones.

The internet is a whole different rodeo. People do attend to rallying cries from #MeToo to “Eat the Rich,” but individuals and their opinions get a lot more credit than their parents’ did back in the ’60s. Ever since Twitter became a political epicenter around 2016, the culture of spreading one’s unique opinions on social issues has been huge. Twitter doesn’t act as most social media does; people tend to post good pictures of themselves, blog about their business, or post about creators that they like on private Instagram and Snapchat accounts, but those same people often use a public Twitter account to voice their political opinions to the world. By fostering a culture of acceptance and ideological proliferation, Twitter gets people feeling more inclined to share the tiny opinions that start rallying cries like #MeToo.

Twitter is doing what all of us need to do. Twitter is giving people a space and reason to talk about the things that matter the most to us. Twitter is proving that individuals have valuable things to bring to the table if we only pull up a chair. Twitter is disproving the Dark Ages Conundrum. If we act as though most thoughts that cross our minds are menial, we won’t have the strength to speak out about the things that matter.

Our thoughts aren’t menial. Our thoughts are the ripples that form the waves that drag ships underwater and lead emigrants across oceans. Our thoughts turn into the words that can ruin a rapist’s whole career. Our thoughts are the theses that change the course of history. Our thoughts are all of this and more if we only turn our thoughts into words and our words into actions. We only need to bolster the voice inside every one of us. We only need to recognize the power of one.

**AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am aware that Martin Luther was an anti-semite and is often hailed by Nazis for his anti-Semitic views. Know that I do not condone his actions pertaining to the treatment of the Jewish people or his beliefs that they should be restricted or eradicated. Luther is brought up solely for the notation of his 95 theses and the ensuing movement that led to the division of the Catholic church.

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Kaia Ross

Kaia Ross

High school senior who always has something to say. Activist, artist, musician, lifelong Girl Scout…and writer, of course. She/her.