Friday, June 4, 2010

Fixing Social Media

A lot of cause-wired groups aren't using social media effectively enough yet to bring about large-scale social change, NYU Professor and author Clay Shirky told people attending Day 2 of this week's Personal Democracy Forum in Manhattan. "Digital activism has, in a large part, trapped itself in a tragedy of the commons," he said today.

Rather than help a majority of cause activists to become more active and effective, he said, social media -- more often than not -- are being used to simply make activists more vocal. "Much activism online so far has been more about making noise than sending persuasively strong signals" to those in power that change is necessary, Shirky said. Failure by cause-wired groups to improve this "signal-to-noise ratio," Shirky said, will risk turning digital activism into little more than "crowdsourced PR" for any number of do-good causes. "The thing I would like most to see now is more of an effort by social activists" to help cause-wired groups send stronger signals for change to those in power, he said.

The popular author of Here Comes Everybody (and a new book, Cognitive Surplus -- both about the rise of self-organized groups online) -- shared three ways that cause-wired groups might become more effective online:

1. Raise the cost of communication. Design your cause around group commitments to do more than simply fire off emails. "When the cost of communication falls, the (strength of the) signal falls," Shirky said. Case in point: A group of women in India last year formed a group on Facebook called The Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women to fight beatings by religious conservatives seeking to squelch their freedom of expression. The group attracted hundreds of supporters, who organized a campaign to send pink underwear to leaders of the conservative group and to government officials to fight the harassment. The women won; the government stepped in to stop it. "Governments (authorities) tend to respond to groups rather than individuals," Shirky said.

2. Assume factions. The Obama Administration's site, during its first days, stumbled when it asked people to list what one issue they wanted the government to tackle most immediately. The crowdsourced favorite? Marijuana law reform -- above all other issues facing the nation at the time, including war and the failing economy. "Was this a result of people who hadn't been given a voice before finally getting their say or was it a successful effort by some people to game the system so that their issue could came out on top?" Shirky queried. "That's one of the central tensions facing online activism today." The government, in this case, needed to enable multiple discussions around multiple issues on the site, Shirky said -- rather than invite supporters to make just one list. "By making one list, the Obama administration made a mistake," Shirky said. "It didn't give each faction room to have its say online."

3. Regard elected representatives (or corporate managers) as partners, not targets, in your push for change. On Capitol Hill, Shirky said, lawmakers consider messages from activist groups that are delivered via thousands of emails to have "zero signal" and so they largely are ignored. But if a social action group could say, instead, to a lawmaker that it was "sending only 1,000 emails from people who really care about a particular issue, who live in your district and who vote in each election," the noise turns to signal -- "and a rare kind of signal that is largely missing in digital political activism these days," Shirky said.

Among other conference highlights from today:

* Alison Fine and Beth Kanter, coauthors of the new book, The Networked Nonprofit, said most nonprofits still act like fortresses, detached and self-protected from the world around them. This needs to change, Fine said. Nonprofits needs to start engaging their supporters and others interested in the issues they're advocating, or these organizations will risk losing support and won't survive.

* Howard Rheingold, author of the 2003 book, SmartMobs, said it's time to start teaching people how to better vet and shoulder the explosion of information that's coming at them over the Web. He also urged conferees to be more mindful -- intentional and deliberate -- in what they do to fight for change online. "By mindful, I mean there needs to be more directed attention given to things," Rheingold said. "We need to get out and meet each other and engage in the physical world. ... We need to give more active attention to the big issues .. to making sure, for example, that the information we are getting online is not getting narrorwer and narrower" because of rising use of Web filters by Web companies seeking to provide personalized information to their users.

* Susan Crawford, on the law faculty at the University of Michigan and formerly an FCC advisor to President Obama, urged conferees to fight for keeping high-speed access to the Internet accessible to all. “We are in the course of a titanic battle for the future of the Internet in the United States," she said. "The technology community is radically underrepresented in this battle" and needs to speak out so that digital citizen activism can have a strong future. Crawford urged the few hundred technologists in the audience not to take "high-speed, open Internet access for granted" and to speak up against further consolidation of broadband control by corporate interests.

The conference ends tomorrow.

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Anonymous TECHNOLOGY MONITOR said...

it is very valuable information

June 5, 2010 at 4:55 AM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks for reading!

June 5, 2010 at 9:28 AM  

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