I don’t think it is too controversial to make the following – rather boring – assertions: Greenpeace is part of the environmental movement. Oxfam is an international development charity. Human Rights Watch is part of the human rights movement. Obama for America is a political campaign. Facebook dominates the social networking sector. I hope none of these simple, descriptive statements has caused you to turn purple with semantic rage.
But what primary movement or sector is mySociety part of? Or Avaaz? Or Kiva? Or Wikileaks? When I ask myself these questions, no obvious words or names race quickly or clearly to mind. There is a gap – or at best quite a bit of fuzziness – where the labels should go.
This lack of good labels should surprise us because these groups definitely have aims and goals, normally explicit. Also, it is unusual because social and political movements tend to be quite good at developing names and sticking to them. If you were given a time machine you could tell a Victorian that you were ‘pro-democracy’ or ‘anti-slavery’ and the locals would have no trouble understanding you. Terms like ‘gender equality’, ‘small government’, ‘cancer research’, ‘anti-smoking’, even ‘anti-capitalist’, can comfortably be used by news media companies without fear of baffling the audience. The public can also easily understand terms that referred to methods of achieving change, rather than goals, terms like ‘political TV advertising’, ‘protests’, ‘petitions‘ and ‘telethons’.
But now let’s look at some of the common terms that are used to talk about the (very) wide field of digital social change projects. These include ‘digital transparency’, ‘hacktivism’, ‘peer production’, ‘edemocracy’, ‘clicktivism‘ and ‘open data’. But if you tried to slip one into a newspaper headline, the terms would definitely fall beneath the sub-editor’s axe before they could make it to print. They are too niche, and too likely to confuse readers.
The first thing to note about most of these terms is the way that they refer to methods, rather than goals of social change. But this isn’t completely unprecedented, and isn’t a reason to dismiss these terms out of hand. The name ‘Chartists‘ does indeed refer to people who used the publication of a charter as a political tool, but the name signified a huge bundle of values, methods and goals which went way beyond the deployment of that document.
Nevertheless, to me it still just doesn’t feel like the broad, loosely coupled fields of human endeavour which stretch from Anonymous to JustGiving have decent labels yet – especially not labels that signify the ways in which two things can be both similar and different (e.g. ‘rail station’ and ‘bus station’). And this worries me because consistent names help causes to persist over time. If the field of AIDS research had been renamed every 6 months, could it have lasted as it did? Flighty, narrowly used language confuses supporters, prevents focus and is generally the enemy of long term success.
So, why does this dearth of decent sector labels exist, and can we do anything about it? The short version is, I don’t know. But I do know that the easy answer, ‘It’s all too new to have names’ cannot be right any more, not now that millions have signed petitions, joined Avaaz, donated to Obama online and so on.
I don’t know why the category terms in these sectors are so weak and changeable, but I am posting today because I would love to hear the thoughts of other people who might have some ideas as to the causes, and possible solutions. Here are some theories about the lack of good labels, off the top of my head:
I think some of the terms currently in circulation were coined in anticipation of the development of possible projects, not after retrospectively reviewing them. So the category terms sometimes seem to define what a field might look like, rather than what it ends up looking like (think ‘edemocracy‘, from a decade ago). This means the terms often feel like they don’t describe real projects very well.
In the traditional (for-profit) internet industry a certain amount of money can be made from coining or becoming associated with new terms (think of IBM and ‘smarter cities’). Because there is a profit motive, there may be a structural incentive to rapidly create new terms which displace older ones which haven’t been widely adopted yet. There are probably similar incentives in some academic fields too – career rewards for coining a key term.
Terms in these fields we work in are usually minted one at a time – ‘only children’ as opposed to born as whole families of interconnected terms. This is unlike the sciences which, since Linnaeus came up with his elegant way of naming living things, have been good at developing naming systems, not just one-off names. Organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry are related, but different in important ways – the names helpfully show that. To explain how 38 Degrees and mySociety are similar in some ways but different in other very significant ways needs a way of naming things that can signal both commonality and difference.
The knowledge-sharing disconnect between the academic and activist/practitioner communities is really, truly terrible, everywhere except data-driven voter-targeting. People who run services or campaigns normally never hear about what the brightest academics are saying about their own work. And if they do try to pay attention to the ideas coming out of academia then the signal to noise ratio is too bad and the filters are too few and too busy having day jobs.
And, of course, I should namecheck the sceptic’s probable theory: this would argue that good, clear terms don’t exist because all these widely differing organisations are nothing more than meaningless feel-good bunk, so language slides off them like an egg off Teflon. I don’t subscribe to this theory, of course, but it’s worth noting because I’m sure some people would provide this answer to my question.
I am planning to write a follow-up blog post to this containing some suggested terms we might use to reflect what the many digital projects out there have in common, and how they are different.
But before I do, I would like to hear people’s thoughts on whether this is a real problem at all, and if so why that might be, and what we might do about it. Who knows, maybe someone will even write a blog post about it, like we’re back in 2003 or something…