Social Media Platforms for Activists
on November 27, 2013
I want to preface my writing with one note: I want these platforms to work. I really do.
So much so that I’ve considered creating my own. So much that I’ve waited years for the well publicized platforms to roll out and…only go halfway.
Let’s face it, Facebook often doesn’t work for activism. It’s a place for people to connect, share photos, stories, etc. It’s not designed for the passionate advocate. No amount of reasoning or pleading with your friends will get them to act on anything unless they’re already committed to it. Once they do act on it, their friends have to support it as well; otherwise it won’t continue to be shared. So, if the campaign at hand is controversial, the average friend might not share because they don’t want to ‘upset’ their friends or they decide it’s not worth the trouble.
Unfortunately it’s generally not sustainable in the way we’d like it to be, especially for new issues/campaigns.
People are either advocates or they’re not.
I speak from experience. When I was younger I was always trying to convert someone into an active citizen. Sometimes it worked, but mostly people fizzled out. Over time I learned to spot a passionate person a mile away.
Since I was a teen, I became an advocate of advocacy, a non profit founder, and the director of the activism documentary series ‘Manifesto.’ Needless to say, I’ve become entrenched in this world and I live, eat and breathe this topic.
I think daily about how to motivate a populace that is systematically repressed/depressed. I also think about the best way to tell our stories.
Facebook is the most widely used, functional, and personal social media platform. We can agree on that point. But Facebook groups/events are the only place the FB cosmos where the doers are separated from the pack. I relate this to dietary choices: people rarely become vegan or vegetarian without too much full frontal conscious deliberation — and then a cathartic moment occurs in their lives — they realize they cannot live as they’ve been living any longer: they are pushed into making a challenging decision.
In my experience, the same applies to activists. They are pushed so far that they can no longer tolerate what they see or experience anymore: they have to act. Once they begin standing up for themselves, their rights, and their communities, they cannot stop, not completely.
We need a portal that is designed for us. For advocates. Where we will gather and cooperate.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the past months regarding niche social platforms. Specifically the potential promise they have for the average person to gravitate to a mobile version of a particular platform. This would make sharing easy and immediate: even when advocates find themselves in remote areas. Imagine protesting in the streets of Cairo, ocean water testing on the coast of Baja, or tracking a rare species along the Amazon river: your only immediate access to the outside world is a mobile phone.
The committed people working on these projects have an audience: friends, family, colleagues, passionate followers. A tribe of folks waiting for updates on their travels. We need something painless that will simultaneously connect us with our audience and distribute our stories.
Let’s take a look at who’s in the game right now.
I’m certain GOOD has a positive influence in the world and I know their relationship with Jumo only helped connect them to passionate users. I can tell you that I had a non-profit setup on Jumo and while i liked the general look/feel of it, there was a distinct lack of functionality.
We also didn’t raise $1 for the organization on Jumo. That’s not how I judge success, but that experience led me to believe that new eyeballs just weren’t seeing our page or our content. With our projects and partnerships on display, I just don’t think the traffic was there (luckily there are obviously plenty of other places to raise money online). GOOD, (who acquired Jumo) will let you post actions, which is a critical starting point. I don’t see a ton of activity there, though. What I do see is promise.
One thing the site has going for it is a kind of indie credibility. Ironic, I know. Especially since it’s the brainchild of Ben Goldhirsh, son of Inc. Magazine founder (and multi-millionaire) Bernie Goldhirsh. But multi-millionaire status shouldn’t dissuade followers ; the Goldhirsh’s were a middle class family enriched by some visionary publishing ideas.
These two details make it a place where successful committed people can connect.
That said, the future of GOOD Magazine, the entity behind the portal is in flux. They laid off much of their staff last year and the magazine is now a quarterly publication that doesn’t really seem to have an online presence.
Good Maker, one of their projects, is an unusual anomaly: a place where companies and non profits ask GOOD users to contribute to their “challenge.” Oddly, I’d never heard of it before I stumbled on it via a Google search. Unfortunately the majority of the [non GOOD or Goldhirsh Foundation initiated] projects are sponsored by corporations looking for ‘stories.’
The “best” story often will “win” the contest and be rewarded with cash and publicity. In other words, pretty cheap cause-based marketing for these companies!
Yes — it’s nice and beneficial that these companies are giving their money away, it’s the least they can do — but the concept needs some work (and leadership from the GOOD team in regards to the basic nature of these corporate partner “projects”) to envision the kind of “challenges” which will actually benefit non-profits and communities.
Care2 is amazing. It’s been around forever. I remember when much of the draw on the site was centered around endangered species actions and sending e-cards. Who couldn’t love that?! That’s also why they have more than 23 million users.
The amazing thing about them is that there is an actual social network here, with real people who really care. Everyone has a profile and you can befriend people like any robust social network. They have featured actions each day that they ask you to participate in.
The only downside is the sharing aspect. You can start your own petitions, make donations, et cetera, but there is no way for the average user to “share” via a wall or blast of any kind. You can message your friends or share in a group, but otherwise functionality seems fairly limited.
TakePart is great at first look. It’s got the ‘zing an activist portal needs. But can you launch your own project? Not really. It’s not a true social platform for activists. It’s really more of a platform for what TakePart wants it to be. You can’t start your own “Action” nor is there a robust way to share — anything — or connect with other users. It’s kind of like ‘Yahoo’ for ho-hum activists.
With the site’s track record, including it in this list is really just wishful thinking on my part.
I don’t know how many users they have. It’s hard to tell if TakePart is really interested in developing a true portal or just promoting their own projects. I’ll guess the latter since the site — although it has evolved — hasn’t really shown an interest in being the portal that we need over the course of several years.
There is one final contender. The giraffe on “Lestercorp’s” 7 1/2th floor: Causes.com.
You’ve probably noticed that Causes has officially relaunched. Instead of being a Facebook application, it’s all grown up into an…adolescent. It has a dedicated website now that’s all it’s own. Will it mature into the warrior-tool that we need? It definitely holds the most potential of the group, with a Facebook-backed team and probably the largest number of “users” at 170 million at it’s high point. But these numbers come from Facebookland, where a Causes user was really just a Facebook user who decided to make a donation or tell their friends about a particular campaign or issue.
There may be a silver lining here. I receive more Causes.com notifications every day. Dedicated netizens are starting to use the site again.
That said, to be truly effective it will need further development and a strong plan to port to mobile users. Facebook could accelerate the Causes project if they choose to place a priority there. Like GOOD, Causes will also let you start your own campaigns, which is critical: not only to engage users, but also to get things done.
The final question with Causes, though, is will it be policed like Facebook? I think we should assume that it will be. Facebook basically gives away your information. In fact it’s widely known that an early investor was a high ranking DOD official.
Am I saying that these sites need to be ‘Facebook for activists’? Not really. It doesn’t need to be that robust. No activist is going to gift their friends with Starbucks cards or poke their business associates. They’re not going to expect to play Amish Mafia Wars or listen to Hasselhoff on Spotify. But I would like to see a central portal for activists and activism where citizens can promote projects and connect with other people with similar interests. Dedicated, activated people.
I envision something truly functional where activists/problem solvers (scientists, teachers, social workers, etc) can build support for their projects and connect with those who can actually help them.
There are a few other campaign oriented activist sites that could take this concept on. These include Change.org, ActionNetwork.org, Sumofus.org, Avaaz, even Adbusters could be a contender with the right leadership and concept. But let’s be honest, each of these — except Change.org and Avaaz — would need to partner with one of the big boys to gain the number of users they’d desperately need. Luckily the petition oriented sites are so popular in the US and Northern Europe that they would likely already have enough users in place for a launch.
Where does that leave us? I’d say ‘out in the cold’ but that would be an exaggeration. It leaves us disjointed: using Causes for particular campaigns and individual actions, Facebook to get groups/actions organized, GOOD to meet other activists who aren’t in our circle as well as outreach, Youtube to promote/tell stories (sprinkled with some livestream), and Twitter/Facebook to get the general word out about things. Top it off with a social relationship platform to ‘grease the wheels’ and reduce cross chatter confusion.I have a feeling we’ll be using these current platforms to get the word out for several years. In fact research projects like DARP (the Digital Activism Research Project) confirm this detail: there is no killer app available for our kind. They also stress the ongoing importance of the old standbys: Youtube/Facebook/Twitter.Let’s not forget: the big three played a huge role (really the leading role) in the Arab Spring in Egypt. These tools allowed activists to share immediately with one another and quickly grow their ranks. So many people came onboard when they shared their stories and their fervor for change, that it helped ignite a peaceful revolution, if short lived.For now, we’ll just continue using this multitude of tools until Causes takes off or a new platform gets built/crowdsourced among our ranks.