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Google Plus: Nonprofit and social change implications


How nonprofits and activists might use Google Plus, and the effects its approach to social networking might have on online activism in general.

Tonight at Philly NetSquared I gave a short presentation on Google Plus and its implications for nonprofits and social change work. You can download a PDF of the slides or view the presentation on Slideshare.

(Google insists on referring to its system as “Google+” but that wreaks havoc on search engines, so throughout this post I’ll be referring to it as “Google Plus” instead.)

People only, for now

At the moment, Google Plus is only designed to have profiles for people, similar to core Facebook profiles. Business profiles, like Facebook Pages, are likely coming in the future. In the meantime you could try to circumvent this by creating a “person” with the name of an organization, but just like with Facebook, that risks having your profile deleted. (More on that in a moment.)

One positive aspect of this is that it gets easier to organize among people you know. Until now, social networks have basically had two models: Public profiles that don’t require real names, like MySpace and Twitter, and private profiles that do require real names, like Facebook.

With Google Plus, profiles are both public and under people’s real names, meaning that if you have a list of donors, supporters or volunteers you could conceivably find each one who has a Google Plus profile relatively easily. (LinkedIn has a similar setup, but is largely used for job-seeking and, unlike Google Plus, requires an account in order to see profiles – so at best they are only semi-public.)

If you’re familiar with The Cathedral & the Bazaar you’ll recognize the concepts of formal and informal communication. Unlike communication among friends, Google Plus is designed to formalize communications.

In the same way you might segment or target an email to a particular list of supporters…

An example of email list segmentation

…you can make the same sort of targeted post through Google Plus:

Targeting a post on Google Plus

While this is helpful for one-to-one communications, it means organizing in a group or collective voice – common in spaces like Facebook Groups, Twitter hashtags, and blogging circles – is more difficult.

Organizing becomes harder

Organic groups simply don’t have a mode to interact or connect, with the minor exception of in a post’s comments. That said, if you know who your “network connectors” are, you might have success at creating viral messages. Google Plus is oriented around a “multi-hub small world” concept. (Here’s a PDF of Valdis Krebs and June Holley discussing and illustrating these concepts.)

Google Plus: Multi-Hub Small World

Google Plus, like Facebook before it, has taken the position that all profiles must be linked to a single actual human person. No pseudonyms, no fictional characters, no group identities, no profiles of pets or inanimate objects, no creative or destructive bots. For some online organizers, in contrast to the chaos of Twitter or MySpace this might seem like a welcome shift.

Real names required

Indeed, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said last year,

One of the errors that the Internet made a long time ago is that there was not an accurate and non-revocable identity-management service. … And the best example of an identity-management service today that’s reasonably reliable is Facebook."

However it’s important to remember what gets left behind when we require real names in a social network.

First: It’s dangerous for some people. Survivors of domestic violence, political activists in many societies around the world, marginalized folks such as LGBT people, and anyone who has reason to be anonymous online will simply not be able to participate. Researcher danah boyd has gone so far as to call Google Plus’s “nymwars” policy “an abuse of power”:

The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people.

The Geek Feminism Wiki has an extensive entry on who is harmed by “real names” policies.

Second is the loss of creativity – and creative activism – when we demand that people tie their writings to a legal identity. (Boyd points out that somehow Facebook’s strict policy on real names has never required Lady Gaga to identify as Stefani Germanotta.)

In the context of social movements, we sometimes remember organizers through real names (Martin Luther King, Jr.; Mohandas Gandhi) but often we know them through names other than what might have been their legal identity: Malcolm X, Mother Jones, Sylvia Rivera, or Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross and known throughout her work as “Moses”).

Activists often use “movement names” of one type or another, like the Chinese pro-democracy activist Michael Anti, recently deleted under Facebook’s policy. Jillian C. York points out at the EFF that successful online organizing is often done under a kind of group pseudonym, as with the Egyptian uprising originating in posts on the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page. And of course the use of “handles” online is older than the Web itself – arguably older than the Internet, if you consider communication tools like ham radio.

Some of us would argue that far from being an “error” as Google’s Schmidt would have it, online use of pseudonymous, anonymous, temporary, artistic, or otherwise “unofficial” identities has been a core reason for the Internet’s growth and strength. So if this does represent a broader shift toward identity-focused social networks, activists will need to adapt and, in some cases, circumvent these policies.

Update, Oct. 5, 2015: The EFF has launched an initiative called The Nameless Coalition, calling on all social networks to step back from “real name” policies.

In addition to Google Plus profiles, Google has launched a new video-chatting system called Google+ Hangouts. This could be useful to online organizers both for quick collaboration with colleagues and for impromptu webinars with supporters. Although there are participation limits, for small groups this offers a welcome no-cost alternative to platforms like WebEx or GoToMeeting.

Impromptu webinars with supporters

Whenever I talk about online organizing, I emphasize that it’s important to go where your people are.

Go where your people are

There are aspects of every social network I like and don’t like, as an organizer and as a participant. It’s absolutely true that online social networks are seeking to monetize our friendships, volunteer us to generate content for their platforms, and sell the data they collect on us – the oft-repeated truism that “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” But as an organizer, I go on Facebook the same way that in earlier eras organizers might have gone to churches or pubs: Not because those are places they’d personally hang out but because that’s where the people are.

So don’t be swayed by “shiny object syndrome” – if your supporters, fellow activists, or sympathetic communities aren’t showing up on Google Plus, there’s no reason for you to prioritize it. As with any online platform, your organizing strategy should come first, technology second.

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