Design Matters: Social Media & Social Change

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October 4, 2013

Asaf Bar-Tura leads a workshop on engagement strategy.

Technologies are not innocent. They embody human values. And the way we design them determines winners and losers among us.

Remember when YouTube was only a year old, Facebook was two, and Twitter was just rolling out? Yeah, that was the prehistoric year 2006. That year Time magazine chose a surprising figure as its Person of the Year: You: “Yes, you, You control the information age. Welcome to your world.” The feeling at the time was one of widespread hope that the Web in general, and social networking sites in particular, would lead to more intercultural understanding and a more flourishing and vibrant democracy. The Internet seemed to promise a more equitable world, with a narrowing of the gap between the powerful and the marginalized. Social justice 2.0 seemed a click away.

Hat tip: Allyson Kapin @WomenWhoTech

Looking further back, over the past two centuries, we see that technology has also produced a perplexing dynamic. As comedian CK Louis describes our technological progress: “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.” That’s close, but there’s more to it.

Technology harbors so much potential, yet so many people are miserable. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve seen that the more wealth we produce, the more poverty comes with it. We live in a world in which multitudes are overworked, while far too many are under-worked (whether unemployed or under-employed). With the incredible technologies at our disposal, why must so many work so much and so hard for so little?

So, before we utilize technologies for social change, let’s be clear: Technological design itself raises social justice issues. Media and technology theorist Andrew Feenberg uses 19th-centruy steamboat boilers to illustrate how design choices reflect values. Early steamboat boilers were designed without safety considerations. Thousands of workers died attending to them. Over time, safety gained weight in public opinion, and safety mechanisms were introduced into the design. In other words, even boiler design embodies specific values: safety versus cost, in this case.

With a more modern focus, MIT technology theorist Sherry Turkle points to the important consequences of software design. She’s zeroed in on an important phenomenon: since the 1980s, users of computer software have become less and less interested in understanding how their software works and instead focus on how effectively it fulfills its function. In a sense, users are players, focused on winning, not questioning the rules of the game.

But what are the consequences of fostering this type of attitude? To be sure, there’s a political impact. In Turkle’s words, it can compromise our sense that “understanding is accessible and action is possible.” The design of these technologies may affect our political imagination.

There is no single way to design our energy sources, our transportation methods, or our food production. It’s not a simple matter of efficiency or getting it right. It’s about how we decide to live together. The ways that we design and engage with the Internet itself are no exception.

There’s plenty of discussion about Internet regulation. But we spend less time as a society, generally, looking at the structural design choices of the Internet’s super-structure, and how it shapes our experiences and understandings.

Consider the online flow of information, designed through links, and according to the HTTP protocol. In practice, this means that the way we search and find results — based on links — creates winner-take-all patterns and that all online sources do not receive equal attention.

Digital Media and Democratic Participation

Many people think digital media help create a democratic space where anyone can make a difference. Millions blog, millions more share every aspect of their lives — politics, causes, campaigns and commentary, not to mention photos, videos, memes, and a whole lot of cute cats.

But anyone seriously seeking to harness the Internet toward social change knows there’s a big difference between expressing yourself and being heard. Not all websites are created equal. Political theorist Jodi Dean explains that as in any network (cyber or “real”), hierarchies and hubs emerge out of growth and preferential attachment. Smaller, newer, or lesser-known sites that seek publicity and attention attach themselves through various links to sites that have established themselves as central hubs. In the process, clusters of networked power inevitably form.

What does this look like on the ground or online? As Internet scholar Matthew Hindman put it, the Internet provides anyone a potential audience of millions, in the same way that potentially anyone can win the lottery. But being heard online isn’t really a matter of luck. While data about Internet dynamics shift from year to year, the trends have been pretty consistent over the last few years:

*Though millions of Americans blog, only a very small percentage of political bloggers get as many readers as a typical college newspaper.

*The owners of the vast majority of widely read blogs are white, male, and have advanced degrees, typically from Ivy League colleges and universities.

*These bloggers tend to be professionals in fields where individuals have control over their time, training in writing and publication, and access to significant social and monetary (journalism, law, business, academe).

*Finally, there’s much talk about the “digital divide” (the concern that many still don’t have access to the Internet). Yet what stands out, perhaps even more than socioeconomic differences in Internet access, is the skills gap, especially when we look at who has the skills needed to use the Internet effectively.

Digital Media: A Tool for Social Change

So far, we’ve been looking at a gloomy picture. But I wouldn’t be in the business of social change if I weren’t an optimist. How should we think about digital media when creating social justice campaigns? The first thing to remember is that there is no such thing as a “social media campaign.” As activists, we have campaigns. Period. Social media is always one tool in achieving concrete goals on the ground., To realize our goals, these steps are a must:

Identify SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound.

Conduct a SWOT analysis: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats.

Be clear about your theory of change. In the political sphere, power comes in only two forms: money and people. You must determine which levers of power you aim to use to achieve your goals, and how you’ll organize your people and your money.

Integrate and align: Be sure your strategy aligns and integrates online and offline strategies.

Once you’ve covered the basics, the next step is to distinguish between outputs and impact. Activists are often at a loss when it comes to creating effective ways to think about — or quantify — impact, especially with digital media. The number of blog or Facebook posts that link to your campaign may be an impressive output. But the change this makes in the world? That’s the impact.

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Civic Media Lab at MIT, has suggested thinking about online engagement along two axes. (I’ve tweaked his proposal here): The first axis points to “thin” and “thick” forms of participation. Thin participation requires less time and effort, while thick participation requires more. The second axis points to “impact-oriented” and “symbolic” action. While impact-oriented action aims to influence specific levers of power (an elected official, for example), symbolic action aims to influence a broader shift in culture. This creates for us four categories of potential impact:

Thin and symbolic: Let’s say you ask people to share a video on Facebook, write a blog post on a certain issue, or retweet a campaign message. Critics may call this “slacktivism,” but the reality is that this can and may be an effective component of your campaign strategy. A great example of this is the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable’s recent Hineni video, which has gotten more than 40,000 views.

Thin and impact-oriented: Not all forms of thin engagement are merely symbolic. When an organization asks members to email their senators about a specific piece of legislation, supporters are engaging in a thin and impact-oriented way. It doesn’t require much, but it does make a concrete difference. Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice for example, repeatedly asked supporters to contact their representatives in their advocacy for the rights of domestic workers.

Thick and symbolic: There is an important place for action that does not aim at a specific lever of power, yet asks people for thick engagement. Zuckerman suggests the Occupy movement as an example. There was no specific demand on the table, no clear target at which activists aimed. Rather, the goal was to shift the public conversation about economic justice. As Sherry Turkle might have put it: Occupiers weren’t trying to play the game well; they were trying to change its rules.

Thick and impact-oriented: These kinds of actions ask for the time and effort of members, while directing these actions at specific targets. Such actions might include being part of a campaign steering committee, producing a thoughtful and captivating video about an issue, and so on. The thicker the participation, the more you are asking people for their creativity, ideas, and opinions. This is often a successful avenue for local organizations that can tap into the energy of a committed constituency and help build a community around shared values. Jews United for Justice in DC, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in New York and Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago, for example, invite members to serve on specific campaign steering committees.

From a Good Frame to a Good Campaign

Once you start using this framework for thinking about digital media, it will become easier to make your campaigns more effective, and measure how effective they are. First, it can help you articulate and evaluate your expectations from social media. For example, is the desired effect symbolic or more impact-oriented? What scale of mobilization will allow you to achieve your goals?

Second, instead of viewing these forms of engagement as competing with one another, these categories can help you build a holistic ladder of engagement. Some people will only be able to act in a thin-symbolic way. Others might start there, then go on to thicker forms of engagement in your campaign. Being thoughtful about creating such stepping-stones will assist you in cultivating leadership.

Finally, there are many incredible digital tools at our fingertips. Online advocacy tools, infographics, social networks, and interactive maps are but a few examples. To use them effectively, keep your eye on the ball: identify the specific change you want to see in the world, and understand how digital tools help you get there. This may require adapting to new online realities as they emerge. For example, Facebook is becoming less and less popular among people under 25, as more of this demographic moves to Twitter and Instagram (the latter is owned by Facebook). Another example is the change in the layout of these platforms and the media they offer. In recent months Facebook began supporting hashtags, and Instagram began supporting short videos.

Think about your social media capacity, too. Sure, Pinterest can be a powerful tool, but it’s still a comparatively small avenue for engagement. If you can only effectively engage your audience in a few platforms, don’t spread yourself too thin. But this doesn’t mean that you should never use additional platforms. For example, last year at JCUA I led a campaign called Not In My Chicago to counter anti-Muslim ads that appeared on Chicago city buses. Though we don’t have the staff capacity to make Tumblr a part of our everyday efforts, this time we used it as a central piece of our strategy. We did not have a large Tumblr following, but we didn’t need one: mainstream media picked up our campaign, giving us wide exposure that led to increased engagement on platforms we use regularly, like Facebook and Twitter.

So, Time may have overstated it when saying that “you” control the Information Age. But as an advocate or activist, you do control how you use digital media. If used thoughtfully, online tools and integrated strategies can help you create change.

Finally, to give us all a bit of social media inspiration, I hope you’ll share in the comments below a short video or data visualization/infographic that promotes a cause, one you think was done well. Here’s one of my top video choices. What’s yours?

Asaf Bar-Tura is the director of programs at the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago, and a PhD candidate focusing on digital media and democratic participation.

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