Saturday, June 7, 2014

Speed as Strategy

Social media scholar Clay Shirky likes to tell the story of Russia's Voina street-art activists and the June night in 2010, when some of its members painted a drawbridge leading to the Bolshoy Dom, the former headquarters of the KGB and Soviet secret police in St. Petersburg, where Russian President Vladimir Putin would be arriving the next morning. To passersby, what they had painted wasn't immediately clear —until the drawbridge was raised slowly the next morning, revealing a giant phallus rising skyward in full glory at precisely the time Putin pulled up in his motorcade.

Fast forward almost six years, to this past Thursday, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation released an article detailing 65 things the public did not know about NSA surveillance at this same time last year. EFF had been working on the analysis for weeks, based on a year of reporting on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations of mass NSA surveillance of U.S. citizens. The EFF's article was released to mark the first anniversary of the Snowden leaks—as well as EFF's 25th anniversary.

Both Voina's overnight street provocations and EFF's months of reporting are examples of cause activism—but occurring at two vastly different speeds. "Voina's drawbridge stunt occurred in the Internet's native time signature of right now," Shirky said, in remarks at this week's meeting of the annual Personal Democracy Forum in New York. "EFF's occurred in the institutional time signature of a quarter of a century."

Causes need activism at both speeds to thrive and survive, Shirky says. "As online cause communities grow and mature, it's tempting to think we should move the time signatures we operate at from the short-term to the long term, away from quick actions to longer ones. But I think that's wrong. I think what we should do is expand the window of the time signatures in which we can operate because things work better when (the two speeds) can be made to work in tandem."

Just don't underestimate the strategic power of short-term actions, Shirky cautioned. Slacktivism works, he said.

"We've been hearing for some time now that slacktivism is ridiculous, stupid and, 'How can you think that would work, right?'" Shirky said. "But if (slacktivism) never worked, Brendan Eich would still have a job," Shirky added, referring to the former CEO of Mozilla who was pressured into resigning earlier this year following an online protest of his support earlier this year for taking away the right of same sex couples to marry in California. The online campaign to oust Eich, Shirky said, "was a pure slacktivist movement. It was an entirely virtual uprising and it was about public humiliation, and yet it worked."

Slacktivism also works, Shirky said—even when short-term defeat is absolutely assured. "Putin is still very much in control of Russia," Shirky said. "But Voina's action and a thousand other public manifestations of one sort or another robbed incumbents there of their ability to insist that the seeming consensus of the Russian public is real. That (short-term) activity, even if it doesn't lead to revolution, is incrementally achieved."

The takeaway here? If you're a cause organization, don't ask which speed is best, but rather consider how the organization can operate better at both speeds.  "If you're an institution, ask yourself what would happen if something on your issue forced you to react overnight, what could you do? Could you only issue a press release or could you also paint a bridge if you had to?" Shirky asked PDFers. "Or, if you're part of a ragtag group fighting for net neutrality and you know you're up against a September 10th deadline, ask yourself what you might do differently if you knew you'd be having that same fight over and over and over again over the next five years."

"And if you're going to pull a stunt, ask yourselves what residue of human connection and trust will it leave," Shirky added. "When people turned out in Tahrir Square, the social media that turned out to matter the most was that which fed the physical occupation of the Square. It wasn't Facebook or Twitter. Those were good for broadcasting things internationally and nationally. The social media that mattered most was SMS. The biggest social media predictor of physical presence in Tahrir Square was whether your name was in the address book of the phone of someone already in the Square."

"Stunts don't leave that residue of trust. They don't introduce people to each other.  If you're building an institution, ask yourself of all long-term thinking: 'What if we had to surprise the world tomorrow? What would we do?' Because you might have to, "Shirky said.

"I think we cannot forget the lessons of complex movements like the Arab Spring and like Occupy Wall Street, which is that the various time signatures work better together," Shirky said. "Shorter-term is good for surprises but it is lousy for continuity and capacity-building. Long-term is great for continuity but lousy for surprises.  ...We need to start thinking of time itself as a strategic weapon."

-- Marcia Stepanek

[Photography: Bowie15]

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