P2P Book of the Week, Introduction: Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, by Allison Fine

The following introduction to this work is from The Drum Beat, a weekly electronic publication exploring initiatives, ideas and trends in communication for development.

In this piece, Allison Fine, author of “Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age” and Senior Fellow at Demos: A Network of Ideas and Action, considers the use of new technologies for social activism. She poses two key questions, reflecting on whether increased technological connectedness will lead to increased involvement in social change efforts.

Connected Activism: Revised Social Action or New Paradigm?

In May 2005, the women of Kuwait used their Blackberries and other handheld devices to conduct a stealth campaign to advocate for full women’s political suffrage. The Kuwaiti legislature overwhelmingly passed a new law allowing women to vote and run for office and the male legislators of Kuwait found out the hard way that emails don’t wear skirts or burkas.

So begins “Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age”, my new book published last fall by Wiley & Sons. Momentum is filled with big ideas and stories about 21st century social change fueled by social networks and social media tools like blogs and instant messaging. I call this new way of working connected activism. Connected activism is happening all around the world, catalysing social change efforts and making them more accessible, more participatory and effective than ever before.

However, as I wrote Momentum two questions lingered related to this current “Connected Age”. The answers to these questions will make the difference between connected activism spreading like wildfire – or not. The first is related to the overwhelming number of existing nonprofit organisations that aren’t connected activists. Can people and organisations change how they think and work in order to move away from being closed and proprietary to becoming open and connected? The second question is: Do the new technologies actually involve more new people in social change efforts or are the same people who would have been protesting, writing letters, attending meetings still doing so now, just online?

But, first, a little more on connected activism.

In the click of a mouse we have traveled from an old century to a new one, from the Information Age to the Connected Age.

Our passion for participation and social change is colliding with the reality that we are increasingly connected to one another. The digital tools that promote interactivity and connectedness, including e-mail and the World Wide Web, as well as cell phones, handheld computers (or personal digital assistants), and even iPods that play music and videos, are called “social” media. Social media combine the intimacy of the telephone with the reach of broadcast. These tools are important not for their wizardry but because they are inexpensive and accessible and can make interactions, and potentially social change, massively scalable.

The fact that new tools network us to one another faster and easier than ever before does not change how social change happens. We have a yearning for connectedness and civic life; they just look and feel different using the new technologies. Connected activism is changing the way people create and strengthen communities; these new ways in turn can become significant forces for social change. In the twentieth century new types of transportation vehicles were manufactured in massive numbers to physically connect people to one another. In the twenty-first century, online networks connect people to family, friends, common-interest groups, peers, colleagues, and fellow hobbyists across not only geographic, but also economic, racial, and ethnic boundaries.

Connectedness is not a device or machine but a new way of thinking and acting that affects everything that we do. Starting a blog or a chat room does not make an organisation connected. The only way to increase connectedness is to listen to people and encourage them to participate in meaningful ways. Activists need to reorient themselves and their organisations. We still need to determine how we fit into the larger network of people and organisations, to intentionally develop and implement strategies, to spur social change in order for our efforts, services, and programmes to be relevant and successful.

Being successful in the Connected Age means using technology to achieve an end. All people, in every aspect of their work, will have to know how and when to use various tools to inform and unite people and to fuel collective action. In order to succeed in this new world, we will have to leave behind our old, commodified, proprietary ways. Yet even though the Connected Age is right here in front of us, people (and organisations) are hesitant to move from the old ways of managing information to the new, connected way of life.

Being successful in the Connected Age is about more than knowing which button to push; I feel it is about becoming more open and connected to people and ideas. And here’s where the struggle to answer my two initial questions begins. In the United States alone, there are nearly one million nonprofit organisations. These are people and groups that for the most part came of age within the systems, norms, expectations and education of the old Information Age – a system that no longer applies to the world writ large and in particular the world of social change. When I was doing research for Momentum I tried to find organisations that had reinvented themselves from old, closed proprietary, to new, open and connected. I couldn’t find any. The organisations that I highlighted in Momentum, like Moveon.org, practice connected activism because it is in their DNA, a core part of who they were from the beginning. So the question remains, can organisations change their fundamental culture?

Some of my colleagues who are immersed in using social media for social change are convinced that these more traditional organisations don’t, won’t, can’t get connected activism. I am not prepared to believe that, but becoming connected activists will require these organisations to change the way they think and act – and I know that this kind of change is difficult.

Much has been made of the fact that younger people are “native” to social media while older people are just “tourists” in it. Still, adults thrown into a foreign culture have been known to go native. People can change; I certainly have. I started and ran a nonprofit organisation for twelve years. During that time, our operating culture focused on branding our products and services, beating the competition to funding, and talking at rather than with our community. We did good, important work in all the wrong ways. I feel I have learned how to be more open and connected, how to work side-to-side not up-and-down and to view my work as part of an ecosystem of other people and organisations doing good work. There is evidence of mature organisations starting to experiment in using social media to engage their constituents in meaningful ways (e.g. the ACLU’s online action network). Though this evidence doesn’t yet indicate a wholesale shift in the way that organisations relate to their volunteers and other constituents, it is promising of the change needed for organisations to engage in connected activism. However, a sample of change in one person (me) and some organisations like the ACLU is not enough to prove that the entire nonprofit sector could fundamentally shift how it works and what it values. More and more organisations are implementing blogs, beginning to use videos as a way to communicate and advocate for their issues, but, again, whether these new tools are indicators of a willingness by organisations to push power out to the edges is still to be determined.

My second question focuses on who is involved in connected activism efforts. Is it the same people who have always been involved in social change efforts, or are the barriers to participation sufficiently lowered so that many new people have become involved?

“The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell describes the phenomenon of ideas and products that reach critical mass, or “tip”, because of a groundswell of interest by large numbers of people. Gladwell describes a group of people who are connectors; they have a natural ability to create and maintain a wide-flung network of friends and acquaintances. They can go through a phone book and find a much higher percentage of people that they know than most of the population can. Extending Gladwell’s framework, in the Connected Age, everyone can potentially become a connector. I may never know thousands of people on a first-name basis, but by using social media I can reach out to more people in more meaningful ways than I currently do. But are people actually using and experiencing social media this way – do normally reticent and retiring people become more active and connected online?

I experienced Gladwell’s concept in action at a staff retreat a few years back. The facilitator posted descriptions of various committees around the room. She then asked people to survey the groups and put a post-it note on themselves if they would be interested in participating in that activity with a group of people. The room of twenty people turned into a post-it continuum of introverts wearing one or two post-its to the mega-connectors who were eclipsed in post-it notes. The natural tendency of people to join or not to join activities is a core part of them and has great implications for who is involved and how they are involved in social change efforts.

A group of psychologists at Western Australia University have been studying the interactions of shy people online and on land. Their findings show that “the absence of visual and auditory cues online reduces shy individuals’ experience of detecting negative or inhibitory feedback cues from others.” But will these new interactions extend to social change efforts that require not only online interactions but also on-the-ground mobilising and organising? Can people, shy or not, learn to become more like Gladwell’s connectors?

For both questions there is an overarching issue: can we teach connectedness to create a broader circle of activists? We know several things for sure already: 1) young people are learning how to be connected from the get-go; and 2) introverts are able to participate in group dialogues much more easily than before. But is this enough to ignite and sustain large-scale social change efforts?

I don’t have empirical answers to these questions. According to the Pew Center for American Life and the Internet, more people are reading more about social change efforts on mainstream media news sites and on blogs, they are clicking for causes like mad, donating online, self-organising meetings about issues and candidates. These trends are mirrored in other countries, although perhaps not at the same level of widespread engagement yet, around the world, enabling people to become and stay involved in a richer variety of ways in social change efforts. Ultimately, though, for organisations and efforts that are rich in intentions and effort and poor in resources, we need to know how or whether these new tools, gadgets, and widgets are enhancing our natural tendencies or creating entirely new ones. It is worth trying to unravel these questions and provide guidance and assistance to organisations working so hard to create positive social change, with few resources.

Visit my website at http://afine.us to learn more about Momentum.

Allison Fine [email protected]

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