There was a time when any protest worth its salt meant time and sweat, with picketing in inclement weather, massing in Washington and possibly even the risk of violence or getting arrested. People went to jail to support the Montgomery bus boycott during the civil rights movement. People died during the United Farm Workers boycott of grapes and lettuce during the 1970s.
Now, it seems, protesters can advocate change without getting up from their desks.
Case in point: 28-year-old Baltimorean Rodney Foxworth, who's not only forsaking a certain restaurant's chicken sandwiches, he's also tweeting about it, blogging and throwing down a few zingers on Facebook.
With little more than a click of a mouse, he is helping turn inactivity into the new political action.
"I don't like seeing people denied rights that I have," says Foxworth, a freelance writer and communications consultant who considers himself "definitely" politically active and has decided, like thousands of others, not to eat at Chick-fil-A because of the company's opposition to gay marriage. "Chick-fil-A was my favorite, but I don't have to patronize it. It's a simple thing for me."
"Simple" is perhaps the operative word. Recent history has shown that it's possible to create change without getting anywhere near a picket line.
When the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation pulled funding from Planned Parenthood earlier this year, the communal howl — coming largely from social media — had the organization changing its tune within days.
When conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh called a Georgetown law student who spoke in favor of contraception a "slut," the resulting outcry had advertisers bailing from Limbaugh's program and the host apologizing soon after.
Michael Reisch, a professor of social justice at the University of Maryland, says social media have made it easier than ever for organizers to spread the word about an issue and be heard.
If not for the snowballing of outrage on Facebook and Twitter, he doubts Komen would have reversed its position on Planned Parenthood. Yet when it comes to more complex issues, like those intrinsic to the Chick-fil-A drama, Reisch guesses real change will take more than tweeting.
He points to the Occupy movement, where social media helped mobilize people and raise awareness about financial inequality. Yet despite all of the online angst — to say nothing of hundreds of people sleeping outside for weeks on end — the poor are still poor and the rich are still rich, with no meaningful resolution in sight.
"Because of social media and the changing nature of communication in the world, everything is communicated more widely and more quickly than ever, but most systemic and structural change still doesn't occur overnight," he says. "Change still occurs in a very complicated way."
The uproar over Chick-fil-A was born earlier this month and raised online.
Chick-fil-A president and CEO Dan Cathy, the son of the company's founder, told a Baptist publication in no uncertain terms how his company felt about same-sex marriage.
"We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit," Cathy said. "We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that."
Cathy's quote spread on social media, with proponents of gay marriage leading the charge for a boycott of what up until then had been a largely well-liked fast-food chain.
Chick-fil-A supporters and conservatives sprang to the company's defense. By Monday afternoon, more than a half-million people on Facebook had pledged to participate in "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" on Wednesday.
Former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and her husband tweeted pictures of themselves holding bags of Chick-fil-A sandwiches and giving the thumbs-up sign. On Friday, Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray coined a new Twitter hashtag when he tweeted, "I would not support #hatechicken."
Reisch doesn't expect to see Cathy suddenly waving a rainbow flag. But with a November referendum on same-sex marriage looming in Maryland and the issue politically in play elsewhere across the country, he thinks the protest is effectively keeping the topic front and center.
"Supporters want to make sure people are aware of these issues and keep them active," he says. "Especially in a state like Maryland, where there's a ballot initiative. They want people to remember that the future of marriage equality is still in jeopardy, no matter what the state legislature did."