This session will be a look at the strategy of using online tools for social change.
I’ll be filling it with examples: How Kenyans in the midst of violent chaos used mobile phones to report attacks in real-time, ultimately helping to end the violence. How attempted revolutions in Madagascar and Moldova attracted the mainstream media’s attention thanks to constant online updates of people on the ground. How college students on MySpace and Facebook raised half a million dollars for Darfur.
Online tools comprising the “participatory web” offer groups a powerful way to empower supporters with ways to speak in their own voice. In the long-term, this means less focus on the organization and more focus on the movement, with individuals who know their voice matters and have seen the power of collective action. For museums and educational institutions, this may seem treacherous, but I believe it could lead these organizations to fulfill their deeper missions of social change.
Below, I sketch out some of the basic ideas for the session; I’ll leave the case studies for the presentation itself.
GRASSROOTS COMMUNITY ORGANIZING
One of the defining aspects of web 2.0 is social organization. People are constantly presented with their social circles in visual media: Facebook news feeds, MySpace top friends, Twitter updates, etc. In short, more people can see their network, in a much more literal way. This is especially true for young adults (currently Millennials) who might have social networks scattered across wide geographic areas and are less firmly rooted to a specific place through vocational, familial or other commitments.
Communities at the margins of society have always had a more visceral understanding of their social networks, which are often the sites of social change planning and strategizing — consider the role of black churches in the US civil rights movement, or gay bars and bathhouses in the early Stonewall era of the gay rights movement. So I don’t want to suggest that this phenomenon of a community visualized is necessarily new for everyone, but I think it is new for many folks in the mainstream of society.
The online “social web” — social networks and social media — allows people to organize their social connections, not simply to put them in order, but to connect and collaborate with others. Evite invitations and Facebook events are clear examples of this, as is Wikipedia.
Increasingly, the social web is teaching everyday folks how to be community organizers.
ORGANIZATIONS AND NONPROFITS: AMPLIFYING THE MOVEMENT’S VOICE
The question, then, is what role organizations and “professional organizers” (for lack of a better term) can play in this ecosystem. The fact that more people are organizers, and that everyone can exercise leadership, does not mean that there is no role for the full-time organizer. Indeed, those with particular knowledge become more important than ever, passing on stories and lived experience, and sharing a pedagogy for cultivating new leadership. What fades away is the positioning of some people within a movement as “experts” to whom everyone looks for direction — and that has big implications for organizations.
Many nonprofits use social networks and online activism as a way to boost their membership rolls and donation levels. That seems less useful to me than focusing on empowering an effective movement — whether or not people donate to your organization or sign up for your newsletter. This isn’t to minimize the challenges everyone faces on how to support working for social change, both financially and emotionally. But it is to say that movements are bigger than any one nonprofit.
Only when the operational concerns are placed secondary to social change concerns do I see social change really being possible. It’s not a secondary outcome; it has to be the primary concern. And that’s true, in my opinion, whether you’re talking about online or offline social change.
What’s interesting is that this time around, there’s a significantly higher ability for activists to self-organize. The message to nonprofits from the past few years seems pretty clear: Stand in our way, and we’ll just go around you. The 2006 student walkouts for immigrant rights spread through MySpace without any “sponsoring” organization. As I explained in a presentation on social networks, when the Genocide Intervention Network first arrived on the scene, we found dozens of existing groups and networks already active — our objective was simply to connect them and provide them with effective tools for action. A participant in the protests over the Jena Six said, “I am so disappointed with the media right now. I live in Connecticut and I never even heard of this. Honestly if it wasn’t for Facebook, I still wouldn’t know.”
So the question really goes to the nonprofits and other groups using social networks and social media: What kind of social change do you want? And are you willing to help facilitate even if you don’t get credit/coverage/donations?
You need to let your supporters speak for you on social networks. The whole point of the social experience is the coveted “recommendation from a friend.” Forcing your members to send out only board-approved talking points won’t inspire much loyalty, and probably won’t be very persuasive to their friends. Nonprofits have to be willing to lose some of their message control in exchange for member loyalty and long-term movement building.
Further ideas on organizing and movement-building online:
• Finding the movement’s voice: Online social networks and social change (list of resources, including numerous blogs)
• Accountability Through Web 2.0: A Sudan Case Study (how “web 2.0″ could be driving a new model in “crowdsourced” high-level advocacy)
• Gurus Are Not Enough: A Call for Organizers and Organizing in Social Media
• Using Social Networks for Social Change: Facebook, MySpace and More
Tags: advocacy, community organizing, Darfur, democratization, digital divide, discussion, Facebook, fundraising, genocide, Human Rights, MySpace, participation, proposal, Twitter, user-generated content, video