Activists, Rejoice! We're All Connected Now

In 1999 the ruler of Kuwait, Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir as-Sabah, issued a decree granting women full political rights. Advocates for women's suffrage in this small Arab country were hopeful that legislation would soon follow to codify the decree. Six years passed in vain while legislation stalled. Suddenly in May 2005, the Kuwaiti legislature voted by a surprisingly large margin of thirty-five to twenty-three, with one abstention, to remove the word men from Article One of the election laws, thereby guaranteeing women the right to vote and the opportunity to run for elected office. Who voted for the legislation was clear. Why they voted for it was something of a mystery. So what happened? Privately, often beneath their burkas, women used their Blackberries and cell phones to send text and e-mail messages urging legislators to vote in favor of full women's suffrage. Kuwaiti legislators learned that e-mails don't wear skirts or burkas.

In the click of a mouse we have traveled from an old century to a new one, from the Information Age to the Connected Age, from silent majorities to connected activism.

Our passion for participation and social change is colliding with the reality that we are increasingly connected to one another. The digital tools that promote interactivity and connectedness, including e-mail and the World Wide Web, as well as cell phones, handheld computers (or personal digital assistants), and even iPods that play music and videos, are called social media. Combine the intimacy of the telephone with the reach of broadcast media and you have social media, the collection of tools used to connect people to one another and share information. In addition, and perhaps more important, these tools enhance the ability of many people to connect to many other people instantly. And they are becoming smaller, increasingly wireless, and more ubiquitous every day.

Broad participation is the wellspring of community power. Wide, deep, meaningful participation is more than a theoretical possibility today; it is a cornerstone of the Connected Age. Understanding, improving, and broadening participation is critically important to moving us closer to solutions to social problems. Through connected activism, we have the ability to make participation possible for a breathtakingly large number of people.

Connected activism has two component parts: the array of digital tools that are widely and inexpensively available, and an open and inclusive worldview that invites meaningful participation by a wide network of people.

Social media, which offer simultaneous connections between, among, and by many people at the time of their choosing, facilitate connected activism. The tools can be divided into four main categories (with examples of specific tools in parenthesis): communication (email, instant messaging), collaboration (wikis), developing new content (blogs), and organizing collective action (smart mobs.)

Social media promote many-to-many connections, but they are not intended to be online direct mail, a message from one entity to many docile consumers. In the early days of the Internet, many organizations posted static copies of their existing written materials (such postings were derisively dubbed brochureware). An online document archive is helpful, but it misses the point of interaction. Social media offer a simultaneous, interactive connection between, among, and by many people, at the time of their choosing. This type of connection is the heart and soul of the Internet.

Just as important as the fact that the Internet can allow many people to talk with one another is the fact that more and more people can talk with one another at no additional cost. This point is critical for understanding the potential that the Internet has for facilitating large-scale social change. Unlike broadcast media, the Internet involves almost no marginal cost increase for geometrically increasing the number of people connected to you, your cause, or your organization.

The tools are important not for their wizardry but because they are inexpensive and accessible and can make interactions, and therefore social change, massively scalable. Connectedness does not come from technology but is facilitated and strengthened by it. Being successful in the Connected Age means using technology to achieve an end.

Do you remember the Nike commercials with Spike Lee watching Michael Jordan dunk a basketball and exclaiming, "It's gotta be the shoes!" The joke was, of course, that Michael Jordan could have been wearing cowboy boots and still been the best basketball player ever. A lot of people mistakenly think that it's "gotta be the tools" that make the difference in connected activism.

Cool gadgets are a big part of the Connected Age; they make up the physical part of the connection. But there is also an emotional part. People are encouraged to participate in decisions and actions regardless of their position inside or outside the organization. Resources within social networks, connecting webs of people who are voluntarily associated with one another, are put to work creatively. There are no prescriptions, no right or wrong answers, simply enormous opportunities for participation and change if we engage in the process of connecting with one another.

Clearly people yearn for two-way communications and satisfying relationships that have been missing from the one-way passive push of broadcasting and commercial marketing.

Connected activism has a set of core ingredients go beyond social media. These ingredients include self-determination--the willingness and ability of activists to chart their own course. Other ingredients are broadened access to information and strategies, continuous learning, the leveraging of existing social networks, and, perhaps more than anything else, a shift in control from a few leaders at the center out toward the many people at the edges who want to contribute meaningfully but who are, for the most part, now locked out of the process. We need to understand these ingredients separately and together and to harness the resulting energy so that we can use them to create significant and lasting social change.

These components can feel counterintuitive to newcomers to the Connected Age. For instance, decentralizing decision-making increases rather than decreases power for community activists. Progress is made when organizations facilitate rather than dominate. We must learn to leverage more and lift less, to listen better and act smarter, to share and participate, not dictate. We must create and build power where there is none now.

I believe that being open and connected is a more natural state than being proprietary. It reflects our best selves. Many younger people are more adept at connecting with large numbers of people than many of us who have been taught to think and act in closed ways. But there is hope for those of us who did not grow up wired; being proprietary is not a fatal condition, it is reversible.

New online tools mirror the traditional ways that we learn, meet each other, and work together. However, tools alone don't solve problems. Nothing substitutes for face-to-face meetings; social media can enhance and strengthen these connections, but they are best used in collaboration with other ways to build strong relationships between and among people.

Connected activism requires a new mind-set, a shucking of the layers of mistrust, closed doors, and secretiveness. All people, in every aspect of their work, will have to know how and when to use various tools to inform and unite people and to fuel collective action. In order to succeed in this new world, we will have to leave behind our old, commodified, proprietary ways.

Participating in open, growing social networks is the pathway to success now. I connect with people and share information not only because it helps others but also because it helps me. My work should reflect what I most value in life, and that is developing trusting relationships.

The Connected Quiz

Take the Connected Quiz below to begin to think about how well you and your organization are connecting with other people and organizations. The purpose of the quiz is not to grade or judge you, but rather to help you think about your connectedness and how it can be increased.

1. Do other people and organizations trust you and your organization? How do you know? How can you increase and strengthen that trust?

2. Are you reaching out to new people and organizations to learn with and from them? Do you approach networking as an opportunity to push out your "brand" or to strengthen a connection with others?

3. Do you support and celebrate your volunteers and ambassadors to other groups and communities?

4. What information are you sharing? Are there other kinds of information that you could share?

5. Are your website and other communication vehicles inviting to strangers? Can people looking at your information figure out who you are? Which of these individuals are key?

6. Do your materials (website, brochures, plans, proposals, reports) use words that people understand?

7. Do you think of questions from outsiders as time suckers that need to be answered or as the beginning of a conversation?

8. Do you ever introduce people for no other reason than the fact that they should know one another? Do you introduce collegial organizations to potential funders? What are you expecting in return for these introductions?

9. Do your participants ever talk to one another about your endeavor without your prompting?

10. Can you help your volunteers start their own conversations, have their own meetings, develop strategies to support your efforts?

11. Do you celebrate achievements by other organizations in your network?

12. Do your participants (board members, volunteers, clients, collegial organizations) watch you make plans or help you make them?

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