The Cute Cat Theory is a challenge worth of contemplation

In March this year Ethan Zuckerman gave a talk at ETech called The Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism.

The summary of his theory is that web sites that successfully enable people to post nonsense like pics of their cats are the same systems that get used for activism.

The line that has motivated me to post, reflects something I’ve been noting for a while:

… She became an activist because she was forced to and she reached out for the tools she had access to – which hapened to be MSN spaces. MSN is heavily censored in China – it’s certainly not what we would have chosen for her. But you don’t get to choose the tools – activists use what’s at hand. It’s fine to build tools for activists, but even better to build tools for folks who don’t know they’re activists yet.

Then, as a sort of apology Ethan adds:

(In making this point, I should be very, very careful to point out that I have deep respect for tools that have been developed successfully for activist uses, tools like Martus or FrontlineSMS. My point is simply that there are huge numbers of web users who don’t yet think of themselves as activists who are likely to reach for the tools they have at hand, not to look specifically for tools designed for activists.)

I’m posting because I don’t think Ethan should be apologising, I think that those of us who run civic, democratic and activism websites should be thanking him for expressing a perhaps uncomfortable truth plainly. What Ethan’s pointing out is that for most people doing grass roots activism online means is using one of the megasites like Facebook, Blogger, MySpace, MSN or Hotmail to express your views to you friends and (hopefully) to more people. It’s bigger campaigns with higher starting capital that tend to use their own plaforms successfully, like Obama or Avaaz.

A few months ago it really struck me when reading Clay Shirky’s much praised Here Comes Everybody that even as he told the stories of a number of different bits of online activism, not a single one used a dedicated campaigning platform. It was Blogger, Twitter and email all the way.

Just to make things clear, I’m not posting this to moan that people don’t use the right platforms: after all mySociety doesn’t build anything that competes directly with Twitter, say. However, I would like to encourage some discussion about what role there is for smaller dedicated activist-coder groups like mySociety in a world where the first step on a just-born activist’s fight will almost always be their own IM, email, blogging or social networking tools.

Right now I’m trying to work out what sorts of path we should pursue in a universe where most users will behave like this. I don’t think the answer is as simple as ‘build widgets and plugins for all these sites’ either, none of our widgets has ever been as well used as simply providing permalinks to bits of debate in TheyWorkForYou which people link to in volumes. I hope this post can provoke some thoughts about how we can best strike a symbiotic relationship with the big beasts, especially seeking analogies from other sectors.


  1. Hi, I don’t know if this is relevant to your post. I have a Google Alert set to find any story mentioning “Clay Shirky” because I read his Here Comes Everybody book and I think he is a phenomenal thinker. Your blog post mentions his name so I read your article.

    I don’t remember ever reading about Google Alerts in his book. I have read half way through Groundswell by Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li and it has not been mentioned.

    I think Google Alerts are playing a key role in connecting people in this new world of social networking. I just thought you might be interested. Thanks for listening.

  2. Interesting post, and interesting that you picked up on what Ethan said some months ago.

    I totally agree that most people don’t see themselves as activists. In fact, the word has very negative connotations for many people (stirring up images of violent demonstrators at G8 summits, for example). I don’t know, however, if people need to see themselves as activists, unless it’s stopping them being more effective in their mission, for some reason.

    FrontlineSMS (, a messaging platform I developed three years ago (we’ve just released a new version), has been picked up and used by a large number of non-profits around the world, and many of the early users were activists (depending on how you define the term). Most hear about the software through word of mouth, and then – if they need or want to communicate messages via SMS – start to use it. If this word of mouth is exclusive to the activist community, then clearly non-activists (or people who don’t consider themselves activists) won’t get to hear about it, and if they’re not looking for a communications solution beyond Twitter, Facebook etc. then they’re not going to find it.

    Interestingly, since I reported on the use of FrontlineSMS in Afghanistan a number of NGOs working in the country have also started using it. Some have even met up with others for demonstrations. Maybe this is an extreme example, since Afghanistan is a particularly unique and challenging place to work, but to me this shows that if communities are willing to work together, and news can hit the right spot, that organisations seeking solutions will get to hear about them.

    Getting the message out is the biggest challenge. A number of NGOs have been doing incredible work with FrontlineSMS, but there’s a real lack of communication and sharing which we need to somehow fix if everyone is to be aware of, and make use of, the wider tools available to them.