Virtual Darfur: Civic Engagement or Fake Activism?
Beyond Broadcast towards Citizen Empowerment

Activist Tech: from listservs to virtual worlds

Beyond Broadcast
I went to a workshop on "Technology and Social Activism" at the Beyond Broadcast conference this weekend. I suppose it was ambitious to expect anything other than a quick fly-over of interesting initiatives in using technology for activism, since this could have easily been the subject of a three-day conference. As one participant Sean Coon blogged, "the discussion was a bit broad."

The key we all agreed on was to know (1) what your end goal was and (2) who your intended audience is before rolling out your tech solutions. I.e., using an English-only blog to reach out to illegal immigrants in Texas is probably a poor choice of technology.

I remarked that there are a wide range of uses of ICTs for various advocacy efforts, from email listservs to virtual 3D environments modelling real-world problems. But one of the biggest obstacles activist groups face is thinking outside-of-the-box. Many groups still organize like they want to be the next Amnesty International, with a million members and a large centralized secretariat giving them their marching orders. The problem is that this strategy doesn't even work for Amnesty anymore, who has to pay for expensive mailing campaigns and hundreds of canvassers annoying people on the streets to maintain their levels of membership.

As Alex Steffen writes in an essay on Worldchanging.com:

It's a dysfunctional model, all the way around. Mass-marketing, direct mail, subsidiary income tracks (like selling T-shirts) and the rest of the modern NGO racket degrade everyone involved. It turns passionate advocates into carnies and citizens into consumers of change-related program activities and products, who cannot in any meaningful way act on their beliefs (and, as Ed Abbey reminded us, Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul). It wastes vast amounts of resources. It doesn't even work particularly well. We're still losing, nearly across the board.

Meanwhile people and websites like Marty Kearns's Net Centric Campaigns, techsoup.org and Worldchanging.com are doing a lot to aggregate some of the "best practices" in the use of tech to promote social change. Key to this strategy is creating a new vision of activism beyond the centralized membership campaign and coalition-building efforts of the 1990s.

The new net-centric vision centers on the idea of using technology to empower individuals to do good in ways that bring them social and emotional benefits while also building social ties to other like-minded people. This paradigm shift involves letting go of a bit of the reins of control, allowing your members to help you craft your message and letting individuals inspire each other with new ideas and strategies. The obvious examples are the Howard Dean campaign as well as the best aspects of Moveon.org.

The net-centric approach is based on what Marty calls "dense communication ties to provide the synchronizing effects, prioritization and deployment roles of the organization." In other words, creating new kinds of campaigns that use information communications technology to coordinate a distributed body of volunteers.

PenisOne sign of things to come is the recent hijacking of a Chevy marketing campaign for their Tahoe line of trucks. Chevy hired a marketing firm to create a website where anyone could create their own Chevy Tahoe web-vertisements (ugh) using stock footage and their own scripts. Activists soon seized on the tool to create web-ads that sarcastically commented on the environmental effects of C02 emissions from cars and America's addiction to oil, among other things.

No one organization coordinated the production of these subversive ads. Instead it was one of these viral (sorry) ideas that spread via blog, email and IM into something that looked like a spontaneous national campaign.

The activist organization that has a strong, clearly stated message and can seize these tools and deploy them in ways that empower a distributed network of activists will be a force to be reckoned with.

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