April 13, 2009

Twitter as a tool for activism

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Beth KanterThere is an inherent tension between strategy and tactical implementation of using social media to support a campaign’s objectives or nonprofit’s mission, whether the goal is fundraising, marketing, or taking action. Those who are just beginning to incorporate social media into their strategic thinking struggle with: “How do we get to know and understand how a particular tool can help us meet our goals, but not let the tool drive our decisions?”

twitter-activismAnd seasoned practitioners are debating whether a particular social media tool is in and of itself a strategy.   And, while it may be an argument about semantics, it further illustrates this tension.

The “is Twitter a strategy or tool debate” was fueled as Twitter got lots of attention (and  hype) as part of the coverage of last week’s protests in Moldova. Ivan Boothe points out in his post “The Fire and Food: Why There’s No Such Thing As A Twitter Revolution,” the real-time use of Twitter as an organizing tool is a not revolution.  Twitter has been used during the G20 protests and crowd-sourcing the location of a torch when it was passing through San Francisco.   And while quite, different from the “mainstream” use of Twitter by nonprofits, Ivan warns against tool-driven decisions for activism campaigns:

It’s certainly exciting to see technology being used in ways that amplify and extend the impact of movement organizing. I think it’s easy, however, to misread the technology as the cause of the movement rather than as simply a tool of it.

Fire, for instance, was a society-changing tool. Its revolutionary potential, however — cooking food and thus making it more digestible, nutritious, and lasting — was only realized through its strategic use.

Some people, awed by the fire, seem to confuse it with the food.

Stretching his metaphor of fire and food, Ivan says:

There’s a tendency to collapse the strategy and the tool — to attempt to feast on the fire itself. To say, “This is what we want to accomplish, and, hey! there’s a tool that does that!” — and then equate the tool with the strategy. But they’re still separate thought processes and separate stages in developing a campaign.

If organizers limit themselves to seeing Twitter as a strategy in and of itself — without considering the strategy apart from the tool — they risk overlooking ways to run a more effective campaign on other platforms, or augmenting a campaign using multiple platforms.

Worse, organizers risk giving supporters feel-good activism that quenches their desire for social change without actually moving the movement closer to a concrete goal, or putting any pressure on powerholders.

The strategy always comes first, and then you figure out which tool fits. The alternative? A forest fire.

Ivan ends with this advice:

Begin with your campaign’s strategy — the food you want to eat. Then determine which technologies will best cultivate the fire within your supporters to achieve the social change you seek.

Colin Delaney puts it another way:

Again, I ain’t hatin’ on Twitter, but professional communicators ought to know why they’re using it and what they’re trying to get out of it. Otherwise, they’re just jumping on a crowded bandwagon without even knowing where it’s headed. And our public discourse is shallow enough as it is.

Once this is in place, it is important to understand how the tool can or can’t be use to reach that goal, what the limitations are, and how to take a “multi-channel” approach. This requires getting your hands on the tools and doing some experiments. But not wild experiments – having a objective, metrics to monitor, and a reflection process.

DigiActive Guide to Twitter

The recently published The DigiActive Guide to Twitter for Activism (click here to download the PDF version) offers some mini-case studies organized by objective.  The objectives:

1.  Spread the Word
2.  Campaigns
3.  Coordinating Collective Action
4.  Crowdsourcing
5.  Personal Security

There is a useful section that explains the getting started steps.  What’s missing is a Step 0 – which is asking the question – “Is Twitter the best tool to reach your campaign strategy outcomes?”  The rest of the guide is a great basic primer on getting started with Twitter.

What are some of the best examples of digital activism that use Twitter?


Colin Delaney: Strategy or Tool, On the Metaphysics of Twitter
Alan Rosenblatt: Is Twitter a Strategy? Like, Come On
Ivan Boothe: The Fire and the Food: Why There’s No Such Thing As A Twitter Revolution
Lina Srivastava: Telling Your Across Media Platforms To Effect Social Change
Jon Pincus: Twitter Is A Strategy
Seminal: Activism At the Speed of Skittles
BL Ochman: Ten Reasons Your Company Shouldn’t Be on Twitter
Digiactive: Using Twitter To Coordinate Protests in London

This entry originally appeared on Beth’s Blog.Beth Kanter is CEO of Zoetica, a consultancy for nonprofits. See her profile, visit her blog, contact Beth or leave a comment.

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