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.