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The theory of bottom-up social networking

Recently, the Genocide Intervention Network’s efforts in “social networking” — things like MySpaceMySpace is a social network that is not built around a single identity. Users can and do have multiple profiles, with no restrictions on the “names” they use. MySpace is used by many musical groups., FacebookFacebook is a social network encouraging real identity — each user has a single account under their full, real name. Facebook began among US college students but has quickly expanded to people of all ages around the world., FlickrFlickr is a social media site for photographs and digital images. Like a social network, it allows users to “friend” one another, join groups, and see a recent-updates feed of their own and their friends’ images. Flickr is owned by Yahoo!. and del.icio.us — have been attracting a fair amount of attention. I was invited to write guest posts for the Democracy in Action blog and Idealware (a fleshed-out and updated version of the DiA post) and was asked to present at the DC NetSquared MeetUp and the Internet Advocacy Roundtable. That all follows some more general ideas on blogging that I wrote as an introduction to the NetSquared national conference last May (see also a PDF of the brochure distributed to attendees).

Today, Joshua Levy at Personal Democracy Forum posts the “rules for using MySpace” derived from interviews with me and with Scott Goodstein, another online organizer who has done some amazing work with Save the Internet, Save1800Suicide and the Military Free Zone. (Scott was also the person who originally contacted GI-Net about collaborating with the band Anti-Flag on a Darfur essay included in their newest album.)

One thing I have been emphasizing in all of these presentations and interviews has been the idea of using social networking as a “bottom-up” way of online mobilization — in the words of GI-Net’s mission, “empowering individuals and communities with the tools” to effect change.

Salient quote from Joshua’s article:

Offering concrete ideas for how to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem can give people a sense that they, as individuals, have a stake in an issue. The Genocide Intervention Network links to a list of “ten things you can do to stop genocide.” Ivan Boothe argues that these steps, broken down into easily digestible chunks, give people an easy way to participate. Although they also link to the Genocide Intervention Network’s main web site, that isn’t always the point. “A number of these steps aren’t even within our organization,” Boothe says. This sort of advocacy is similar to bottom-up, open-source collaborative projects like Wikipedia, in which no one group has proprietary ownership over an idea or a product; instead, the goal is a constant generation of awareness and ideas. A MySpace page, says Boothe, isn’t simply an advertisement for an organization, “it’s a tool for mobilizing people for different kinds of action.”

I don’t by any means consider myself an expert (personally I find myself less interested in MySpace than you might expect — but then again I’m a techie who hates cell phones, so maybe that’s not a surprise) but I do think there’s a lot to be accomplished in this space. I think organizations just have to stay focused on empowering their members rather than simply advertising to them, and really being willing engaging them in a constructive way.

Many of the approaches to social networking seem to involve nothing more than acquiring banner space:

If anyone out in the world needs help, all they have to do is look to MySpace. You just have to get up on the wall at MySpace, and represent. Good things will happen.

Yes, you can reach a large audience with MySpace, and statistically, with a large enough audience you will have talented people volunteer their services. But that’s not “social networking,” it’s just advertising — if nonprofits could easily and cheaply fly banner advertisements behind airplanes in the world’s major cities, they would probably get a lot of volunteers, too. The only difference in this case is that it’s electronic and (relatively) free.

And — as our organization has certainly found out — getting a lot of volunteers often means getting a lot of people wanting to do things you don’t do or can’t do (like volunteering to go to Darfur, or raising money for guns for rebels, or adopting orphaned Darfurian children). Getting a lot of exposure all of a sudden can overwhelm a nonprofit, and if there isn’t a clear understanding already in place about how to effectively mobilize people toward actions that will make a positive difference, then I would be worried about getting distracted by chasing benefit concerts and bake sales all over the world. Enthusiastic supporters are great, but sometimes you have to channel them in the right direction.

Finally, even if online organizing dovetails well with community organizing, the mobilizing of third-party advocates only effects change if that mobilization is directed in a useful direction.* You might get a lot of people to sign a petition, but does that actually aid the community you supposedly help? You might attract a lot of donations, but does that actually support the people you say you represent? These are classic nonprofit challenges that don’t go away simply through electronic networking.

Online organizing doesn’t replace real on-the-ground community organizing or empowerment. (This is actually one of my concerns with the Second Life nonprofit fad, but that’s for another post.) Action online only matters if it can be translated into the real world, or if it can develop social bonds that provide the framework for real-world action.

Social Networking to Stop Genocide

Some of GI-Net’s social networking campaigns online:

* Interestingly, there have been very few effective online campaigns (using SNS or otherwise) with organizations that directly represent the communities they organize (e.g. homeless rights movements as opposed to advocates from the Global North raising money for Africa). The big one that comes to mind is the immigrants rights marches in the United States. Yet in that case, most of the mobilization came from radio DJs and existing labor ties, not the Internet. And when social networking did come into play, such as the student walkouts in Virginia and Maryland, they were largely decentralized, with no organization pointing the way or setting up MySpace profiles to encourage the movement.