Thursday, February 15, 2007

Rethinking online activism networks part 1

Hundreds of activists everywhere are trying to find out better ways of bringing activism to the web. The Talk Lab and its brethren want to use new internet technologies to build a single vibrant community that can share its wealth of experience, coordinate action and engage in group activities of which we haven't yet conceived.

There are communities that have already sprung up all over the place. There are different approaches falling at different points on the spectrum bounded by social networking at one end and resource provider/info consumer at the other end. One which I found, Zaadz , is about social networking and encouraging individuals to pursue their independent projects. Its proposal is to change the world not by fighting and winning specific campaigns, but creating a community of independently active individuals, each fighting their own battles. Conversely, Campaigns Wikia follows the encyclopedia model and invites users to write content to be consumed by themselves and other users. It is a little colder, a little less personal than the social networking model, but it is a lot better at conveying information.

I don't know what is more effective, but I can see how the Zaadz model, which makes no demands on the activists other than to be willing to showcase their own ideas, is better suited to the modern organizing paradigm. No one has to do anything with anybody else, but it still encourages action offline. Treehugger ranks top 5 environment-related social networking sites, Zaadz among them, and they are worth a look, if only for comparison to other types of communities.

The Treehugger post mentions and interview with Phil Mitchell, founder of 2People in which he says "Our aim is to build a network of 20 million climate voters by 2008, and make climate the dominant issue in the 2008 elections: the Climate Elections.That number sounds pretty high, but exponential growth can get us there in a short time — all the polls show that there are far more than 20 million people in the U.S. who already get this issue. They’re just not connected. They’re not empowered. We aim to do that."

Maybe we process oriented activists are barking up the wrong tree with this idea? Are we trying to create a network of activists in which all individuals are connected to a single (or a very small number) of central connecting nodes? This isn't a new strategy - this is using new technology to recreate the centrally coordinated (or at lease centrally connected) organizations that have dominated for decades: a few dominant nodes producing value for other consumer nodes to, well, consume. If you were to picture this type of network, it would look like a star.

But this isn't the future of the internet's networks, and I think we'd do better if it isn't the future of activists' online networks either. This post has a nice graphical illustration of the phenomenon. It shows a book-buying network from Amazon.com. Individuals buying one book bought others too, and thus created a network of books leading to other books. The post illustrates how a network segments into smaller communities. But it also shows that this well connected network is not based on a single central node connecting all its spokes. Rather, each node maintains its own connections, each node supporting a roughly equal number of connections.

This is a more democratic structure. In the old paradigm, a single power asks all other nodes to use it for access to the network. Remove that single node and the network fails. One node is agent and the others are consumers. But in the modern evenly distributed structure, each node has the tools to create and maintain connections with other nodes. Each node is as agent as all the others.

So I think that what we need to be building for activist communities are not new nodes that activists are supposed to go to and use to get access to the network. It is difficult to be a part of more than one such centralized community. Instead we should be building collections of tools that activists can use simultaneously, widgets for activism. The trend to use widgets is already growing. Google with the Personalized Home tab allows users to create personal home pages with personalized collections of widgets. Macs have incorporated widgets into their operating system as well.

The new network will not be users plugged into monolithic gateways. Rather users will pick their technology to create links of their own to places they deem valuable. So what we need to build are not new single gateways, but tools, such as widgets for Google and desktop computers, that activists can use simultaneously with other tools. What tools can work? I have no idea.

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