Skip to content

Working to build something
Social change takes more than social media


In social media for social change, you still have to use all the old skills of coalition-building, strategic planning, creative social action, managing relationships and preventing burnout.

Over at the NetSquared blog, Joe Solomon provided a great roundup of reasons people might be “jaded about social media for change” and ways they overcome it.

I’ve been getting Twitter DMs from top players in the nonprofit tech and social media for change space – sharing how they’re unmotivated or jaded with using the web and social media for change. As if the phrase has lost its meaning somehow. Or a bubble had been burst. I know I’ve been feeling the same way. Perhaps you’ve been feeling it too – or come across others with a similar vibe?

Joe runs through some great responses from a whole bevy of social-media-for-change folks, including me.

One of the comments on Joe’s blog post was from Texans Against Hunger. Here’s what the author said:

Funny, I clicked on this post from Twitter expecting a realistic conversation about the limitations of social media tools. Instead, it appears everyone took your question about being jaded to mean “How can I get un-jaded,” and not, “Should I be jaded?”

The assumption of most twitters above seems to be that these tools work because they’re cool OR they’ve built a career around them, so if you’re feeling jaded due to lack of results or encouraging metrics, get over it and get back to your (disappointing) work.

IMO, social media tools are pretty poor at changing anything that takes more than one or two mouse-clicks. Sometimes that’s all you need – making a donation, sending petitions, affecting website ratings, flooding online polls, etc.

Most change, unfortunately, doesn’t happen at the end of a mouse-click. But in the long run, these tools also do a good job of hoovering up potential participants for offline actions that will make a difference.

Perhaps our jadedness comes from a disconnect between the revolutionary nature of the tool, and its less-than-mindblowing uses? If that’s the case we’ll be managing our own expectations, given enough time.

I thought the author made some good points that “social change techies” would do well to keep in mind. I can see how the author might have gotten the impression that some or all of the folks in Joe’s roundup are simply shiny-tech pushers. I won’t try to speak for them, but I do think they aren’t blindly following the latest tech hype and hoping it will change the world – many of them have clear social change strategies.

My own background is rooted in a) on-the-ground community organizing, including 100+ hours of training and many times that in actual organizing, and b) academic study of how nonviolent social change can be successful (my degree is in peace and conflict studies). I know “social change” can be kind of a squishy term (and even more so the strategy-free “social good,” which Katrin Verclas has amply discussed), so I want to position myself as specifically interested in fundamental social change, at the political, social, economic and cultural levels. I don’t see the challenges as being easily fixed, or short-term, or things that can be addressed with a few pieces of legislation or a few institutional reforms.

With that in mind, I think social media and social networking hasn’t entirely matured as part of long-term social change. Where it has been getting integrated into social justice organizing, it’s largely been outside the United States, in places like Colombia and Egypt. And even there, while we can see important strategic concessions, not enough time has really passed to see the extent to which social media helped advance social justice campaigns.

I entirely share the author’s frustration with “tech for social change” discussions that fawn over the technology and don’t engage on the level of strategic change. I saw this happening in particular during the Moldovan “Twitter revolution” discussion (which Joe linked to in his post). This “revolution” seemed to captivate a lot of armchair activists on Twitter, mostly because it involved Twitter. They seemed to miss the fact that a) Twitter wasn’t actually a big part of the organizing strategy, and b) the campaign itself didn’t end up seriously threatening the regime; at best it was a mild skirmish and it certainly wasn’t a “revolution” of any kind. (Which is not to diminish the hard work of social justice organizers in Moldova. Mad props to them.)

The author’s point about social media providing an outlet for people’s activism that sucks away people’s time for real social change is an excellent one. (A similar dynamic happens every two to four years in the US, when community organizers see their ranks cannibalized by electoral organizing.) Charles Lenchner has written brilliantly about this, using the principle “mission over membership.”

Too many nonprofits orchestrate “petition drives” that aren’t about advocating for anything other than larger membership rolls. Too many groups ask constituents to make calls to an elected official without even feigning an attempt at explaining how those calls will help achieve a goal or contribute to a longer-term campaign. The author is absolutely right that too many nonprofits have no social change theory at all; indeed they’re more interested in self-perpetuation than winning (often referred to as the nonprofit industrial complex). And when those groups get their hands on social media, they do incredibly un-strategic things with them.

The fact that social media can be used unstrategically, however, doesn’t mean it has to be. To pull a line from my earlier post on Twitter, political pamphlets, phone trees and jam-the-faxes must have seemed like strategies in and of themselves when each technology first came out. But smart social justice organizers recognized them as tactics, and such tactics were only effective when deployed as part of an overall strategy for social change.

Social media doesn’t mean you do less organizing – it means you (can) do it better, or at least differently. You still have to use all the old skills of coalition-building, strategic planning, creative social action, managing relationships and preventing burnout. None of that goes away just because you’re engaging with people on Facebook instead of in town halls.

So to get ‘round to the original question – the reason I don’t feel jaded when I look at all the unstrategic uses of social media is because I’m focused on the end goal, the social change. Social justice organizers are a pretty creative bunch. Throughout history, they’ve taken a wide variety of technologies and used them strategically to move their campaigns forward. I have no doubt social media has and will become one tool in many organizers’ toolbelts.

Update, July 5, 2009: This post has now been cross posted to Beth Kanter’s blog. Thanks for the invitation, Beth!

View more posts about:
activismsocial media social change