There are growing numbers of people who are organizing themselves online into social action groups, and these groups are about to start making a much bigger mark offline, a panel of social media experts agreed today during the final day of this week's TechCrunch Disrupt conference in Manhattan.
Sure, online social networks are already having an impact offline -- from pressuring schools to serve kids healthier lunches to mobilizing support for anti-establishment candidates in state and local elections. But all of that is just for starters, panelists agreed: people have only just begun to tap the potential of digital networks to affect change offline as the Net becomes more "social."
"With existing networks and start-ups, it's becoming easier to build a movement," said Chris Hughes, the developer of President Obama's Web site and social media campaign. Meetup Co-founder and CEO Scott Heiferman added: "We're starting to use the Net to move off the Net, in the spirit of disrupt, to ... enable people to become more powerful and ... reinvent the world."
To underscore the point, Heiferman announced the launch of Meetup Everywhere, an expanded Meetup platform that Heiferman described as "an easy way for any organization or company or cause to catalyze Meetups everywhere about themselves." So far, he said, Meetup Everywhere has 15 different launch partners, including the social marketing guru Seth Godin, who two days ago asked his social network to hold a Seth Godin Meetup using Meetup Everywhere. The result? As of today, Seth Godin Meetups have self-organized in 672 cities around the world and plan to meet up on June 19. And that's not all. Etsy, the luxury crafts start-up, has Meetups scheduled in 254 cities, and The Huffington Post has organized "green Meetups" in 110 cities so far to talk about the BP oil spill. Groupon and Foursquare also are using the new Everywhere platform to catalyze company-hosted events among their friends and followers. "This is more important than the iPad because the most amazing things happen when people meet up," Heiferman gushed, plugging his new initiative from the stage.
Heiferman also predicted that the 2012 state and federal elections will "look a lot more like the Tea Party movement." He said there are 600 local Tea Party Meetup groups "and what's interesting about them is that each has a self-contained, self-organizing system for leadership. With the Tea Party, leadership is distributed. Some would call it scary but I think this is something to look at about the way the future will work" -- for political candidates as well as for nonprofit causes and businesses seeking to engage support for their products and ideas.
Key takeaways on using social media to mobilize change:
1. It's not enough to make it easier for people to share online, Hughes said. "You have to create a whole new culture and eco-system of sharing." For example, Hughes said, the Obama campaign created 1,500 Youtube videos during the span of the election cycle "but there were 100 times that number of YouTube videos, or more, created by everyday people who were out there for Obama because they understood the campaign was about sharing and having their own voice and responsibility." Another key? "Relationship-building is also important," Hughes said. "It's not enough to have people speaking and saying 'I care, I care, I care.' You also need to build a network that enables those people to connect to other people who care about similar causes."
2. The money happens last in online fundraising. "First," says Hughes, "you connect people, then you foster relationships with them. Only then will people come in and give 15 or 20 bucks."
3. Social media can help you to "build your own machine" to change the status quo, says Reshman Saujani, a congressional candidate for the 14th District of New York, who has been organizing her campaign for the last 18 months, mostly on social networks. "I believe technology can really disrupt the Establishment," she told the panel. "Normally, you need to belong to a political party or club that brings endorsements, contributions and visibility ... and outsiders, therefore, find it hard to run." But social media change that, Saujani said. She is testing a new social media organizing platform created by Jim Gilliam(Brave New Films) called pro.act.ly, which Saujani described as being "Obama 3.0." She said "we knew that we would need 30,000 votes to win our campaign on September 14 and we knew we would not get the support of the party or the labor unions, so we had to build our own machine." Pro.act.ly, she said, enables movement organizers to look up any single supporter and learn instantly how many people in their networks are supporting a campaign. "It measures the intensity of their commitment," she said. It's a kind of digital dashboard to community organizers. "Jim (Gilliam) wants to give Pro.act.ly to a lot of people in 2012 who want to run all across the country and get them to change Congress," she said.
4. Tie online to offline at every opportunity. Meetup's Heiferman said there are now nearly 15,000 Meetups going on each week "on almost everything" -- with less than 1 percent of them tech-related. "The real opportunity of social media," Hughes said, "is for people who don't have an infrastructure or an established entity." Added Heiferman: "Mass engagement, on many fronts, is becoming a reality -- faster than you think."
What do you think? Wishful thinking or growing force?
-- Marcia Stepanek
[This post first appeared on Justmeans.com and runs here with permission]