Almost 15 years after Moveon.org first started flooding inboxes, online organizers and movement entrepreneurs are aging past their click here, click there, click everywhere adolescence. Organizations aiming to mobilize people to take online action are becoming wise, intentional, and strategic about the limitations of Internet-based interventions in creating deep, long-lasting social change. What is interesting—and perhaps might be intuitive to all those technophobes out there—is this: Many of the online innovators with the biggest megaphones these days are shouting: Social media isn’t the answer. Or at least not the only one.
Here are three key lessons about how not to get caught up in social media hype and instead focus on real change, according to some of the field’s most looked-to leaders:
If anyone was going to be an online evangelist, it would be Jeremy Heimans, the founder of Purpose, an organization that "creates 21st century movements." And yet, Heimans, the guy behind phenomena like Avaaz, the world’s largest online political movement with more than 13 million members operating in 14 languages, attests that many of the smartest social media campaigns today utilize what many would consider old school technology: "Focus on the banal, low tech stuff," he told audiences at a keynote during Social Media Week.
In other words, look away from the shiny, newness of the next, big thing (ahem, Pinterest) and focus on platforms that the widest range of people will actually respond to now. Consider, for example, India—one of the countries where Purpose is developing an anti-poverty initiative; the Internet saturation stands at only about 8%, and yet 75% of citizens have a mobile phone. Any campaign that uses anything but very simple mobile apps is potentially alienating 92% of the country’s billion citizens.
This doesn’t mean that online organizers shouldn’t pay attention to the various platforms coming down the pipeline, but they should restrain themselves from jumping on any digital bandwagons before they become ubiquitous among the community they hope to mobilize.
The best movement-building online strategies think deeply about how they correspond with offline work.
What does it take to train citizens to resist repressive regimes in Burma, heal suffering during the after-effects of disaster in Haiti, or facilitate post-conflict resilience in Iraq? Emily Jacobi, co-founder of Digital Democracy, has undertaken all of these challenges and more, and she believes it takes digital literacy and mobile phones, but also a deep respect for the wisdom of citizens on the ground. Her picture of success, in fact, is obliteration: "I want to become unnecessary … for local leaders to take over the strategy and implementation of organizing, online and off."
Organizing has always been a profoundly local art; tech savvy movement builders have to avoid seeing their success as a science. Catalyzing real change requires the alchemical transformation of the in-person experience and the scaling power of online engagement.
This is something that Hollaback, an international organization that aims to end sexual harassment and transform public space, understands. Though it was founded in 2005 with a largely online strategy—inviting people who had been harassed on the street to write blog posts and upload pictures about their experiences—it’s turned a lot of its focus in recent years to training and empowering organizers in local communities. The online strategy has become the gateway to a dynamic, holistic Hollaback experience in dozens of regions through out the world.
SPARK, an organization that addresses the early sexualization of girls, evolved in reverse. A conference at Hunter College in 2011, put on by a coalition of educators, activists, and girls themselves, has grown into a robust online movement where girls embrace their own authority by blogging about their views on media representation and come up with online actions that organically grow out of their perceptions and expressions. The girls still meet up for in-person training from time-to-time, but their relationships are buoyed in between by online interaction.
The bottom line: It shouldn’t be an either/or proposition. We have great technology at our disposal, and yet, as Heimans says, "You can’t hashtag your way to social change." Those truly committed to paradigmatic shifts have to resist the seduction of something as one-dimensional as an Internet meme. It can be part of a strategy, but certainly can’t constitute the radical whole.
While it’s easy to construct social media campaigns around particularly heinous corporate behavior (like Apple’s corrupt labor practices) or clearly defined political moments (like the recent all-male birth control hearings in Congress) it’s harder to target more amorphous, but no less significant social norms and perceptions that affect lives every day.
This is where cultural entrepreneurship comes into play. How do you use online and offline strategies to change, not just policy or corporate practice, but hearts and minds? A great example of an effort embracing the duality is All Out (which was incubated at Purpose), where leader Andre Banks says the vision of success is both to target the 76 countries that still criminalize homosexuality, but also to "tell the best stories we can about LGBTQ people." This dual approach shifts discriminatory laws and the way people subject to those laws are perceived, protected, and celebrated throughout the world.
A newer organization, Ultraviolet, also aims to straddle the political-cultural divide in its work with women’s issues. Co-founder Nita Chaudhary, formerly of Moveon.org, and Shaunna Thomas, formerly of Progressive Change Campaign Committee, are targeting concrete political goals, like making sure Larry Summers doesn’t run the World Bank, but they’re also aiming for a less discrete shift. "At the most basic level, we want to leverage the will of citizens to convince leaders that there is a cost for sexism in this country," Thomas explains.
Being a movement builder in the modern age requires a facility with the best of what the Internet has to offer, but it also takes the wisdom to recognize the Internet’s limitations. People still crave in-person connection, visceral inspiration, the sense that they are a part of something so worthwhile that it gets even the most dedicated of online gurus out from behind their screens and taking action together.