Tech activism 101

By Mark Turrell on May 17th, 2012

Many of us would consider ourselves technology mavens, at the cutting edge of new trends; key influencers in our communities in foreshadowing what will come next.

Yet how many of us take time to think about applying our brainpower to something other than tech, about doing something good in the world? And, for those who do spend time on this other “path”, how many of us achieve the kind of scale needed to really change the world, at a scale of thousands or millions of people?

Fortunately, individuals have acquired extreme power in the world of mass social media. Armed merely with a laptop and internet connection, a headset to make Skype calls, Google Translate, and a smart phone for those times when you are on the go, you have all the tools you need to be a full-on, change-the-world activist.

Activism is about spread. Spreading information and awareness. Spreading behavioural change and spreading action. This, of course, can happen by accident. A tweet gets picked up by a celebrity hairstylist, and before you know it, the tweet goes viral. A video can attract 100,000 views on YouTube and quickly accelerate beyond.

Some things, though, should spread but do not. A start-up’s wonderful launch goes with a pfftt rather than a bang. Great PR coverage yields little or no additional traffic. And a social media campaign struggles to hit 100 “Likes”, let alone the 10,000 optimistically forecast initially.

Fortunately, we know a lot more about spread than we used to. We are rapidly gaining experience and insights into what makes things spread and what sometimes stops them.

There is a “science of spread”, a combination of disciplines ranging from complex systems to behavioral science. At its core is network science, understanding how things (and in our specific interest area, people) connect together in network structures, and how we can use the network to get spread messages and actions.

Networks are handy things. One of the top tactics to designing spread programmes is to tap into pre-existing networks. The notion is that people like to connect together with those they have an affinity with. Some of these networks have a formal organizing structure, such as a trade union or political party.

As networks tend to spread across society, one of the handiest and fastest ways of propagating a message is to find a network that already exists, and find a way of co-opting the network to help you with your activity. Ideally you find a way of linking your goal with the organisation’s goal, so you are piggy-backing off one another, as opposed to being a parasite on the network.

Another tip is to think of networks as being massively multi-dimensional. Most times, we think of networks as being flat, a set of points and a set of links. We therefore plan our communication plans around flat networks: “Please Ms X, can you do this for us?”

However, people, including Ms X, exist in many networks at the same time. Ms X is a college alumni, she may belong to a professional association, she has her current and former work colleagues, and she has her own personal networks on Facebook and LinkedIn. A much better way of connecting with Ms X is to ask: “Please, can you do this, and would you mind sharing with your other networks, even if you do not find this perfect for yourself?”. In that way, the messaging can rapidly jump from network to network, and reach massive scale extremely quickly.

So, from tactics to a case study. In one of my first “social good” projects, I was given a challenge to help a group of Zimbabweans ensure a fairer election in 2008.

Despite having no sleep, and not having done even a cursory Wikipedia guide to the country, I was able to take these methods, and others that form part of the “science of spread”, and come up with a plan; a plan that worked (mostly).

Zimbabwe has over 22 million inhabitants. The elections were held in 4,000 polling stations around the country. There were few international election monitors, and the elections were held in a tense, hostile, dangerous atmosphere.

A thousand people had volunteered to use their camera phones on election day for “something good”. No one was told what they were going to do, to protect their own safety and to reduce the risk of leaks.

At the end of election day, a thousand people got a text message at the end of election day, saying: “Please take a photo of your local results sheet, pinned to the polling station.”

A thousand photos were taken and uploaded to a website out of the country. A team of ten people turned the photos into a spreadsheet. A few hours later, a press release informed the global press that a group of anonymous activists had physical evidence of over 35 per cent of the total possible vote in Zimbabwe, and the ruling party could not mathematically “win” the elections.

It was the Zimbabwe Election Monitoring Project 2008, a first-of-a-kind project, an experiment, which worked enough to usher in the Transitional MDC Government that exists in Zimbabwe today. All of this with around ten hours of planning, and practically zero budget.

So, the next time you’re sitting at a laptop, staring at pixels and cyberspace, wondering if you can do something with a little more impact than a tweet, remember that you can make a difference. At scale. We now have the tools to change the world for better. It is up to individuals to take up the challenge and go do it.