Activism, Clicktivism and the limits of social media in achieving social change

Last month, Malcolm Gladwell published a piece in The New Yorker arguing that social media was preventing real social change taking place by encouraging what he termed 'clicktivism' – a form of engagement and action based on weak social ties, rather than real-life activism based on strong ties.

Of course, Gladwell’s piece was mostly a straw-man argument concocted to earn him some column inches and boost his profile between book launches. And of course it generated a number of impassioned rebuttals from the social movement and NGO communities.

However, while Gladwell was wrong on most counts, the past week has started to reveal the faultlines within social media and activism.

Drawing on the fall-out from the student demonstrations in central London last week (for those wanting a back-story, see the LRB’s fantasic essay on why the government's cuts are driven by ideology rather than economic necessity) we can argubly see clear limitations to the power of social networking and social change.

First of all, there was zero mobile phone signal for many students during the march which meant people were unable to live-tweet, live-blog or upload images and video in real-time. I’m not sure if there was an explanation for the outage, but it had the same effect regardless: people were unable to live-report and co-ordinate actions online from the heart of the demonstration.

And I didn’t see the Home Office intervening and encouraging mobile networks to fix any problems to cope with increased demand as with the 'Iranian Twitter revolution'.

Secondly, the pitfalls of being a digital native became all to clear to students involved in potentially criminal activity whose actions were uplaoded to social networking sites and shared with the world – especially the media who had a field day harvesting and publishing photography and video of students engaged in direct action.The BBC reports in lurid – and somewhat pointless – detail about this while the Telegraph set up a distasteful 'shop-a-student' section [No link, sorry. Refuse to]. As this was the first action for a lot of students, many failed to ‘mask up’ or conceal their identity.

Thirdly, once the media witch-hunt began and the police started rounding up suspects support and solidarity networks sprang to life via blogs and Twitter offering advice for people involved in the demo as well as  campaigning to raise funds for those facing charges.

However it would seem that the police are pretty good at spotting these websites – largely hosted on corporate blogging platforms or hosting providers – and pressuring the provider to pull the entire site. The most high profile example to date has been Fitwatch, a blog dedicated to reporting on the police Forward Intelligence Teams who take photos of people suspected of being linked to all manner of lawful protests and adding their profiles to a huge database.

Fitwatch (re)posted advice (widely available on the web) providing guidance on how to deal with the fall-out of the demo which resulted in the entire site being removed by its host, Just Host – purely on the say so of an acting detective inspector, Will Hodgeson, from the Met Police's CO11 section.

As of tonight Fitwatch is still offline, despite the Guardian taking up their case.

So, while Gladwell argued that the "revolution won't be tweeted", he sadly might be closer to the truth then he intended – and definitely more than social change campaigners hope he is.

Review: Social Media Insight 2009

An interesting report from a firm called Social Media Library came my way a few weeks back but I’ve only got around to blogging it today. First up my overall thoughts and then a break-down of some of the specific results.

The report, Social Media Insight 2009, offers a detailed analysis of the UK blogosphere, Twittersphere and …er …. Forums broken down by ‘influencers’, sectors – and perhaps most interestingly, geographical location.

I put the term ‘influencer’ in inverted commas because I have long-standing concerns about the idea of online influence and especially from the perspective with which the PR, advertising and marketing likes to conceive the concept (IMHO we primarily perceive ‘influence’ as power, i.e. the ability to persuade people to do or buy things. But the concept of power in networks is still being worked out and is vastly different to traditional conceptions – anyway I digress).

My theoretical worries aside, Social Media Library CEO, Graham Lee, tells me that the report uses a proprietary methodology they call BlogScore (Twitterscore, etc) which uses two main metrics: “a blog's incoming links, but also, importantly, the number of incoming links that those links have” as well as “the performance of a blog on relevant keywords in search returns”.

Crucially for me the system gains credibility by involving both automated data mining and then analysis of each site by a real, live, human. This is important for two reasons: firstly Social Media Library should be fairly confident in guaranteeing each site is UK-based.This process is a significant improvement on purely automated tools which filter UK blogs based on domains or UK-based IP address. Secondly it means that their geographical data break-down can again be fairly accurate.

So far, so good. My big question was: what does the data *really* tell us? Putting my cynical hat on I read the main findings of the report and the charts and while it is interesting to note that 38% of influential UK blogs are about consumer issues; or that 32% of UK B2B blogs are about the marketing and PR industries; or Coventry Twitterers have the highest average number of followers (594), what does his really tell us?

Graham’s answer was as follows:

The purpose of the report is to help people get more of a feel of the social media landscape as it currently stands. Social media is immensely complex, and particularly if you are not immersed in it day-to-day, quite confusing. Add to this the fact that our shared English language with the US – making it exceedingly hard to garner actual engagement levels in the UK – and it becomes a difficult beast for people to get their heads around. … One other breakthrough has been the potential to look at the spread of social media regionally, across the UK. Understanding this, I hope, helps people > better determine the scope for social media to help support regional campaigns and initiatives.

While I definitely agree with Graham’s final statement my key take-out from the report is that it gives a real top-level ‘feel’ for the state of social media in the UK. A potentially useful tool for non-digital specialists – so I suppose I'm not necessarily the primary audience for this.

But this isn’t a criticism. Using social media effectively means getting down and dirty with data; finding relevant communities and immersing yourself in them. If the approach to scraping, measuring and analysing social media presented in the report can be tailored and drilled down into further and sliced in different ways then it definitely offers great scope for UK-focussed digital campaigns.

If you want to know more take a peek at their blog.

Tags: Social Media Library, Social Media Insight 2009

Phatic Communciations and other interesting ideas from Grant McCracken

I came across an interesting interview with the advertising anthropologist, Grant McCracken, the other day.

I recommend taking a read, but here are a couple of stand out points for me:

Firstly, Grant (prompted by the interviewer) talks about ‘phatic communications’:

"those little murmurs, exclamations, grunts and sighs with which we communicate our emotional condition."

I like this idea. It is essentially how social tools like Twitter and Facebook capture and share meaning without using explicit information.

Secondly, Grant also points out that:

Consumers are no longer one set of tastes and preferences. They are bundles of tastes and preferences.”

This means that dividing people into one market or demographic doesn’t work; we need to recognize

an individual’s “multiple selves” and appeal to them accordingly.

Grant doesn’t discuss this phenomenon directly in relation to the Internet, but for me the power for people to explore different desires, needs and wants that are all traditionally tied up in conventional marketing terms such as ABC1, 22-34 has been awoken and opened up by the Internet.

I believe this isn’t just the ‘alter-ego’ scenario displayed by tools like Second Life or WoW, but is in fact more basic and everyday. We are all complex characters; the Internet simply allows us to realise this more adequately than the physical environment.

I tried to explore this idea in more depth with a post last year invoking Jean Baurillard and online identity.

Technorati tags:

Grant McCracken, phatic communications, online identity

Bausola, Benkler and understanding the new digital economy

My Edel-colleague, Jason Mical, recently caught up with creative technologist (and former Head of Insight (Strategy) for Digital Communications at Imagination, David Baesola Bausola. It sounded like a great meet and I was pretty gutted I couldn’t attend.

But reading David’s biog really got me thinking again about some ideas from within the digital economy that I’ve been mulling over in recent months.

David argues (from a specifically creative industries perspective) that:

Data and User-Centric design define the poles between technology and communication. Whereas Data Centric models lean towards ‘Manufacturing’ architectures, User-Centric will lean towards ‘Network’ aesthetics. […] Data is possession driven; collectivity occurs within communities with degrees of ‘openness’."

This sparks off some thoughts linked to what Yochai Benkler has to say about the radically new economic models – specifically nonmarket models – being shaped by the Internet.

In The Wealth of Networks, Benkler discusses rival and nonrival goods:

When economists speak of information, they usually say that it is “nonrival.” We consider a good to be nonrival when its consumption by one person does not make it any less available for consumption by another. Once such a good is produced, no more social resources need be invested in creating more of it to satisfy the next consumer.

Benkler’s perspective is important because it maps nicely to David’s idea of a manufacturing focussed ‘data centric’ model and a network focused ‘user centric’ one.

Rival goods are predominently manufactured commodities that rely on scarcity and – in accordance with David’s observation – possession to drive commercial value. Nonrival goods (in Benkler’s example, information) rely on sharing via open networks as a commercial model.

I suppose what I am doing here is little more than articulating my own understanding of Benkler’s hard economic theory through the prism of David’s perspectives on the emerging business and economic model of the creative industries, and trying to catalyse thoughts about the spaces where we can bring traditionallt data centric industries mroe towards networked production and equally how we can help encourage user centric industries to look to the digitally connected networks arpiund their organisation, its brand and products to improve their offering in contemporary nd future society.

Perhaps, these thoughts and ideas illuminate the (perhaps obvious?) notion that there is no one-size fits all model to help busiensses adapt to a digital market (or nonmarket) place. It definitely helps us begin to chart the routes down which we – as digital strategists – can help take our clients.

For what it’s worth, these ideas – the changes taking place in the contemporary business and organizational landscape and how we deal with them – seem to be occupying more and more time in my thoughts at the moment.

I suppose it makes sense. The logical next step from understanding how organizations communicate in a digitally empowered environment is seeking to understand how businesses need to think and what they need to do in a digital world.

Technorati tags: David Bausola; Yochai Benkler, digital strategy; creative industries; manufacturing

PresidentialWatch08 – visualing the US political blogosphere


PresidentialWatch08 is a really nifty website that represents all the US political blogs visually and organised by political persuasion.

I’ve not had a real play with it yet but you can zoom into the network and see which blogs link to others, get an idea of blog size/popularity (based on links) and see screenshots of the each site. Pretty damn cool.

I recall Antony Mayfield had something similar around the this time last year, but this would be a great tool come the next UK general election. Any offers?

[via my Edelman/Spook colleague, Marcus Dyer.]

Technorati tags: PresidentialWatch08, Politics, US Presidential Elections,

What anarchism can teach us about organisations in the internet age


I’m reading one of those great Very Short Introductions to… from Oxford University Press at the moment about Anarchism. I cannot recommend it highly enough as a thought-provoking bridge between political theory and changes the internet is creating for business and society.

For example, it’s fascinating to learn that at the core of anarchist thinking about healthcare, education, business etc is the notion of small, self-organising communities with little or no central control. Compare this to how the internet operates and a number of parallels become clear.

Tellingly, the author – noted British anarchist Colin Ward – writes:

anarchist concepts will be continually reinvented or rediscovered, in fields never envisaged by the propagandists of the past, as people in so many areas of human activity search for alternatives to the crudities and injustices of both free-market capitalism and bureaucratic managerial socialism.

Building on this drive for an alternative perspective for organisational theory, Ward outlines what he believes would be the four defining pillers for an anarchist theory of organizations:

  1. Voluntary
  2. Functional
  3. Temporary
  4. Small

I find this mind blowing. Every single one of these fits almost perfectly the different types of organising taking place on the internet.

  1. Voluntary – read Benkler’s Wealth of Networks: the idea of people giving their time and expertise for free or on a voluntary basis is revolutionisng production – both of knowledge and physical goods.
  2. Functional – slightly more vague, but suffice to say that while design is important to an extent, good functionality and usability are key to the success of internet tools. Take for example the basic simplicity of sites like of Wikipedia and – they might not be pretty but they do the job successfully.
  3. Temporary – While this may seem an odd choice of criteria at first fi you clarify what Ward means then it makes perfect sense. Rather than meaning short-lived, Ward uses the term to indicate a willingness to change; to be shaped by the ends of the user or community. This is a key proponent of web 2.0 tools. All ‘social’ websites by their definition are open to the requirements of the community.
  4. Small – again this criteria needs further clarification. As Ward suggests in the quotation about, the ideas of anarchists are perpetually being re-shaped to meet current social, political and economical conditions. Ward specifies small as a key criteria as he talks only of the offline world where anarchist initaitves need to remain small in order to be sustainable. The internet reduces all barriers to scalability and supports many small-scale communities or one large one.

So what does this all mean for us as digital strategists…? I haven’t yet worked that out (and would welcome any suggestions) but ultimately I think this starts to offer us ways of applying established political (anarchist) theories to the online world.

Perhaps we can even use this information to guide our clients more successfully through the social and  business changes they are experiencing. Maybe not mention that it is based on anarchist theory, eh?

Technorati tags: anarchism, political theory, internet, organisational change

Living in a two platform world

Today’s great quotation:

"there are only two platforms  – the individual user and the web"

Via Adriana Lukas: Content is for container business

Technorati tags: Adriana Lukas, platforms, media, content

Shopping centres as social network nodes


In the run up to Christmas, as my wife and I spent endless hours shopping, I noticed – perhaps unsurprisingly –  that a lot of young people seemed to just ‘hang out’ in shopping centres.

I suppose this has been an anecdotal trend in the US for a while, but I hadn’t ever really noticed it in the UK before, although I’m sure like the US this isn’t anything new.

But more than that I noticed ever vigilant security guards patrolling the shopping centres and young people clearly trying to evade them.

So it dawned on me that shopping centres had become the new parks. When I was younger (not that long ago) we met in the park and played/mucked around there. We had to watch out for the park attendents though – much in the same way that kids today have to watch out the for the security guards.

I raise these thoughts for two reasons:

  1. Today I saw a sales assistant in John Lewis shout at two young people to "Get out!" because his furniture department wasn’t "a play centre.". Nice tables though…
  2. In a prescient fashion, last week Danah Boyd publish some field-notes from the Digital Youth Project about technology and young people’s consumption. She has this insightful observation which dovetails nicely with the thoughts outlined above:

"When it comes to teen culture, consumerism is still rampant, although
shopping is primarily about socialization. Aside from how the mobile
phone allows groups to coordinate, technology is not really altering
the tradition of hanging out in consumer places. What it is altering is
the ways in which teens research and purchase things that they know
they want.

Technorati tags: shopping, consumerism, parkies

Cambridge tutors admits using Facebook during admissions process

Story in today’s Guardian about a Cambridge admissions tutor using Facebook to "check" on students applying to his college.

Dr Richard Barnes tells Emmanuel college:

"This has been the year in which I joined Facebook … I have
to confess that I actually joined to see what I was missing and also to
check up (discreetly) on applicants for a college position.

Cambridge University and the NUS say that Facebook shouldn’t be used as part of the offical admissions process (and there’s nothing to suggest it was).

Part of me thinks that’s the right move, but then part of me likes the idea of throwing something less formalised and beaureacratic into the mix. For the sake of equality lets make sure they check MySpace too.

Technorati tags: Cambridge University, Facebook, MySpace

Another web 2.0 coup for the ad industry

I’ve just seen Colin Byrne’s post on the main UK political parties plans for online campaigning.

Derpessingly, it seems that Labour and the Tories will be turning to ad agencies for their digital work. No digital PR work on the cards… for yet, at least.

Authenticity and trust are set to be major themes for online political campaigns which is interesting as it is starting to look as if the ad and marekting industries are turning their reputations around through their "authentic" online work. Meanwhile many in the UK’s PR industry still struggle to shake their reputation as ‘spinners’.

Technorati tags: politics, advertising, public relations