Technological advances radically alter dynamics of social change. The election of President Obama is a watershed moment that represents an evolution over a decade in the making. For the first time, social networks were mobilized on a scale that silenced critics of the technology’s limited utility to society or the “realness” of online social connections. Social networks redefine the whole concept of grass roots. Grass roots are no longer limited by time or location as long as there is a broad cause that can bring people together.
The biggest obstacle of utilizing web technology for social change is probably mobilization. Although this is changing, people are averse to making physical or monetary commitments to online activities. The bulk of web sites and services are designed to cater to niche markets that satisfy a specific need and most services are naturally supported by advertising that targets those markets. Social change requires a commitment on the part of participants, a dedication of resources whether it be time and/or money. It is something that can’t be done without passion.
With something like the presidential election, the whole nation’s destiny is at stake so naturally it is much more easier to build momentum and engage participants in the cause. There are definite goals (getting someone elected) and a solid deadline (election day) and numerous milestones (state primaries). In addition, the movement is happening on both the national and local level. People can get engaged with fund-raising or volunteering. Having said that, no other cause can bring so many of the elements needed to succeed at that level. What are the elements that make campaigns of social change successful online?
The internet is still a place driven by ideals, at times utopian and unrealistic. For example, despite many users being averse to spending money online for services they are just as much turned off by ads that support so-called “free” sites. The opposite side of ideals is outrage. Perceived social wrongs drive a lot of traffic, whether it’s evidence of misconduct or someone flaunting ill-gotten gains. Controversy drives people to chip in with their 2 cents and throwing links around the internet. The Obama campaign was driven not only by the ideals encapsulated in the Obama team but the collective anger at the Bush administration of the country’s economy that virtually wiped away years of solid economic growth. Underdogs are also likely to gain more support on the internet than giants (just look at Apple and Microsoft).
Novelty is a strong driver for building interest on the internet. Obama’s status as one of the first, strong black presidents no doubt contributed to a lot of initial interest in the man and what he stands for even before people became acquainted with Obama the politician. A lot of the high-traffic generating content on the web is both weird and good. Obama fulfills this brilliantly, on first look novel but the more you get to know him, you realize that he is also brilliant and more than the hype.
With information technology it’s hard to tie people down to any one place and force feed them information. You need a variety of content to entice people whether it’s status updates via twitter or video messages on YouTube or even memes created by passionate supporters, you need to constantly be at the forefront giving people bite-sized chunks of content they can chew on between bigger events.
Although there are limits to the number of people one person can interact with, utilizing public accounts and a variety of official channels on social networks is one of the best ways to make the most of this new technology. Causes give like-minded people an excuse to interact with each other in an engaging way. It also creates a powerful motivator for bringing people into the fold through the social network’s version of peer pressure. It’s amazing how many times Obama came up in a variety of ways on places like Facebook and Twitter.
But Can You Bottle It?
I suppose the single biggest question is with all the hints and case studies offered by Obama’s presidential campaign is whether you can bottle it? Packaging something like this into a coherent application would surely be a great startup idea and would also be a driver of social change (which is good for society) but could you?