By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty
The Spring of 1998. Good times. I was a fourth year college student at Michigan State. I was 21 years old. I was dating my future wife. My biggest concern was where I should go to graduate school. Oh, and I had a cushy job in what was known as the MSU Microbiology Store. For about 9 bucks an hour, I and a couple co-workers made sure the Microbiology labs had enough supplies for…well, whatever Microbiology labs did. It was quite easy, and I had a great deal of free time to study and keep up a nice solid GPA.
One day in late April, I came into the ‘office’ as my two coworkers were looking at The State News. The student newspaper had a small story buried deep inside that had some bad news for a great number of students and alums. The Board and President of the University had decided to disallow alcohol consumption on Munn Field, specifically during football tailgating. I just shrugged off this story. But, for my co-worker Adam this news was troubling. You see, Adam (I can’t even remember his last name) wanted to be a politician. He was soon to graduate and was headed to DC to start graduate studies in Political Science. Adam read this news as a 22 year old defender of democracy. He felt that the powers that be had passed this measure at the end of the school year specifically to avoid student input regarding the decision. Adam believed this was unjust, and authoritarian. He felt something needed to be done.
He decided to call for a protest rally.
Let me just stop for an aside. This was 1998. How do you get the word out about a protest to the community? There was only one week before finals started. You couldn’t get that story to the student paper in time. The 50,000 students attending MSU would be home for the summer by the time The State News picked it up. Picket lines? Flyers on campus? None of these methods were going to have much effect.
Adam decided he was going to spread the word to a small group of students via email. At that time, MSU had it’s own closed email server only for the campus population. Adam, and my other co-worker Deborah, sent out their carefully crafted message ringing the tocsin. The initial message went out from two student email accounts to twenty friends in total. One week from that day (a Friday) there would be a small protest on Munn Field.
The following Tuesday I headed to my political philosophy course. The course had roughly 90-100 students. As with most classes at MSU, I did not know a single person in the class. As I sat down about 10 minutes before the class started, I heard a couple sorority girls next to me having a heated discussion. These girls said, ‘So, are you going to the protest at Munn Field Friday? My whole house (sorority) is going’!
Oh…my…God! Strangers were discussing the protest. How did they find out? That day, I went into work after class and told Adam. He had heard other people discussing it al well. The word was getting around, and Adam had lost control of the information. Friday’s planned protest went from being a small hand-chosen meeting to being….well, we didn’t know what.
The Friday of the protest was cold and rainy. As 7pm grew nearer, I was getting more and more nervous. A couple friends and I decided we needed to trek over to Munn Field to see what was going to happen. A couple days earlier, the Administration learned of the protest. The University wanted to put a stop to it. The campus police took out an ad in The State News that warned about consequences for students ‘trespassing’ on Munn Field. Things were getting serious. Walking over that Friday, I quickly realized thousands of others were heading out to do the same thing as me and my friends. The protest was no more. Now, it was just a gathering.
When I got to the field, a large crowd of students had already formed. The police had fenced off the field with ‘No Trepassing’ signs. On the other side of the field, local police were lined up in their cars. It wasn’t just a couple cops; police were out in force. Of course, many students had already been drinking and it only took one student to climb the fence. A shirtless guy made the leap, ran out onto Munn Field and started to dive in the mud. Others followed. A couple guys started to throw a football around. The police weren’t sure what to do. As they started to move on the field, the students who had ‘trespassed’ jumped back into the big crowd of students outside the fence and disappeared. It seemed the crowd might disperse. Then, someone yelled that the crowd should march on the President’s house. Sure, why not? Hundreds of students started to march.
At this point, I was done. This was going nowhere. It was quickly turning into a waste of time. It was more of a roving party than a protest. I went back to my dorm room to get ready for finals on Monday. But, as I sat in my room, I could see police lights outside. Students were running down the halls of my dorm shouting. Something big was happening out in the streets. Friends started to call me to give me updates. I heard the words ‘fires in the street’, ‘riot gear’ and ‘tear gas’. No, no, no. This couldn’t be happening. Finally, at midnight, I had to go outside and see for myself. It was madness. A major bonfire had been lit in the middle of Grand River Avenue. Police were in riot gear. Tear gas was in the air. My eyes starting watering and my throat was closing up. There was nothing I could do, and I wasn’t going to get involved. I marched back inside my dorm and went to bed.
The events of the previous evening filled the newspapers the next day. Amazingly, it wasn’t just the local media. National organizations started to pick up the story. MSU students had ‘rioted’ for the freedom to drink beer! A bunch of drunk idiots were shown burning couches and breaking windows. It was an embarrassment.
Adam hoped to change the University’s political methods. He wanted to give students a stronger voice. He hoped for a powerful display of direct democracy. Unfortunately, his protest turned into a farce.
This story flooded back to me recently for an interesting reason. I have been reading a good deal about social media lately as I begin preparations for a new ‘History of Social Media’ course at RMU. The other day, I was speaking to a colleague at RMU who has a couple kids in college. We were discussing drinking and the college life, when I began to retell the above story. But, as I told it I had a revelation. Those of us who lived through that night at MSU, and the news media that covered the story, missed the most revolutionary angle of the event. Nineteen years removed, this story is not about drinking, beer or riots; this story is about the viral nature of social media!
When Adam and Deborah wrote to their 20 friends on email, they had no idea what they were doing. They believed they were inviting a handful of well versed, intelligent and serious students to make a show of structured resistance. In fact, they provided the university with a first taste of the Internet’s power. Within a week, that email message did what viral information does; it spread exponentially. It was a glimpse of our future. Twenty years on, and I realize that Adam’s protest did change the world.