By: Louise W. Knight
When I showed up for my Op Ed Project seminar in Chicago one Saturday last June, I thought I understood what an op ed was – a short piece that, if I was lucky, would be published by a newspaper or website, and which I and my family and friends could then circulate further via social media. Little did I know.
Last Friday, the Chicago Tribune published my op ed about the three Nobel Peace Prize winners for 2011 – President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen. I did my part. I sent the link to friends and family and posted it on Facebook and Twitter.
But then my brother-in-law, a former Peace Corps volunteer, took action. He sent it to a human rights activist he knows who has some pretty high level ties in the international human rights community. Within an hour, this activist emailed me that she had sent my op ed to President Sirleaf’s office, to Abigail Disney’s office (Ms. Disney made a documentary about Leymah Gbowee’s grassroots organizing for peace), and to the office of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. That left me pretty speechless.
What strikes me most about this experience is that in the digital age an op ed has far greater reach than ever before. I know this is obvious, but now I get it. A piece can circulate not only among readers of the newspaper or website and friends via email and the social media; a particular person with an interest in the topic can relaunch it into another stratosphere, and then, it can be relaunched again!
In fact, that is what happened to me Friday afternoon. I learned from the same energetic human rights activist that President Sirleaf’s office had just sent out my piece as one of two items in their media update email (related to the re-election effort) to the president’s cabinet and “key actors” in Liberia and U.S.
I am now a complete convert to op eds as a powerful means of communicating ideas. They are little essays that pack a wallop in a way that has nothing to do with the newspapers or websites that publish them. The newspaper or website is mostly just the credentialer, or gatekeeper. I have learned that distribution is mainly in many other hands, and that nobody can predict whose hands will help send your message on, and who may eventually read it.