February 28, 2011

The networked activist: How ‘The Story of Stuff’ went viral

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The Story of Stuff from JD Lasica on Vimeo.


Filmmaker Annie Leonard offers advice on becoming a network-centric organization

JD LasicaAt the TechSoup Global Contributors Summit in San Jose on March 15, Annie Leonard, an independent filmmaker in Berkeley, Calif., gave one of the standout talks, discussing how The Story of Stuff — the film and the project — came to be.

Annie recounted that she had once worked for a traditional environmental organization that was typical of many mission-driven nonprofits: hierarchical, top down, holding its expertise close to the chest, wanting to “own” its cause. A remarkable thing happened that transformed the way she now creates and distributes projects: “The Story of Stuff,” which has received more than 12 million views in all its incarnations on YouTube.

Because her message resonated so deeply with me and the packed audience, I took her aside a few minutes later and recorded this 7-minute video interview that provides the backstory of how “The Story of Stuff” went viral and lessons that nonprofits, businesses and other organizations can take away.

Watch, embed or download the video on Vimeo

The networked approach to getting stuff done

Over time, Annie says, she became “obsessed with all the environmental, social and health costs” of the way in which consumer goods are produced, and so she developed an hourlong presentation that she gave at schools, churches and community groups for four years. She took her passion and decided to turn her slide show into a film (an approach that reminded me of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”). With the help of Free Range Studios, a creative services firm, and backing from the Tides Foundation, they created a 21-minute documentary short that put it online for free in December 2007.

“(The film) has just exploded the conversation on how we make, use and throw away stuff and, most importantly, how we could do it a lot better.”
— Annie Leonard

“Our goal was to have 50,000 people see this film,” she says. “And to our total amazement we got that in one day. It’s now been over three years and we have over 12 million views in over 200 countries and territories around the world. It’s just exploded the conversation on how we make, use and throw away stuff and, most importantly, how we could do it a lot better.”

The film shows the damaging consequences of consumerism on the environment, developing nation, personal well-being and happiness. The Story of Stuff Project was created to extend the film’s impact by creating a network of people who are discussing the issue in the hope of creating a more sustainable world. The film has inspired ballets, puppet shows, entries in parades, high school and religious curricula and sustainability programs. It has been shown on several national television programs and translated into dozens of languages. One tactic they used that paid off handsomely: a Creative Commons NonCommercial No Derivatives license that allowed almost anyone to reuse it. “We wanted this to be a community-held resource,” she says.

“If you really want to make long-lasting change in the world, you’ve got to utilize the network-centric model because the problems are too big for any one person or organization to address.”

After years of going it alone, Annie came to a realization: “I need to turn the volume up on this work. I need to inspire and engage millions of people so that the issues I care about are not just my personal pet project. So I turned to a more network-centered model and it has been so valuable. A network-centered model has been very different from an organization-centric model. Networks focus on collaborations and connections, on being inviting and engaging so that we’ll take anyone who wants to help on any terms they want.

“With the previous environmental organization I worked with, really the only way people could help was to write a check, and that’s really not [effective]. With a network-centered model, people have a lot more skills and talents and energies to contribute. Network-centered models are more about building those connections than building a big infrastructure. They’re more resilient, they’re more flexible, powerful and long-lasting.”

It’s a lesson many organizations and activists would do well to internalize. Adds Annie: “The real lesson is that if you want to get something done, you really have to work in networks rather than trying to go it alone.”

6 advantages networks bring to cause organizations

At the TechSoup summit, Beth Kanter also interviewed Annie and was given access to her notes for a case study, which I’ll share here:

While Annie isn’t suggesting that we bury the old-school, centralized, command and control model of organizing, she feels that different times demand evolving models. Annie says that working as a network offers these advantages:

(1) Networks are more resilient and flexible and can bigger risks because they don’t have to worry about the longevity of a big institution.

(2) Networks are participatory. They can get millions of people to help, not just paid staff.

(3) Networks offer many different ways to get involved. It’s a buffet of ways to engage people that fits them. Networks value people on whatever terms they want to participate.

(4) Networks are a reflection of where the world is going. There’s a big paradigm shift in everything from our relationship to material goods to organizational models. We’re moving from a “mine” to “ours” environment.

(5) Networks make us all smarter. By sharing information freely and welcoming input and feedback, learning is accelerated. Networks evolve faster because of this.

(6) Networks are more fun. Annie said that she had spent many years trying to get people to talk about the issues that she cared about, thinking her experience and expertise were enough. It wasn’t until she learned to let go of control and shift from lecturing people to inviting them in that conversation exploded.

While I don’t agree that there’s a shift underway toward an “ours” culture with regard to material goods, I think there’s no question that collaborative methodologies — seen in everything from wikis to Socialbrite to the business examples cited in The Starfish and the Spider — are on the rise as a way of getting work done and goals accomplished.

Next for The Story of Stuff: ‘Citizens United’

The Story of Stuff” was just released as a paperback book last week — on the same day that she appeared on The Colbert Report (check it out, pretty funny).

And, tomorrow, The Story of Stuff Project is scheduled to release a new documentary short on Citizens United, the infamous January 2010 Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate monies pouring into U.S. elections, “selling our democracy to the highest bidder,” in Annie’s words.

Do you agree or disagree with Annie’s conclusions about the benefits of using a networked approach on behalf of a cause? Please share your thoughts in the comments. JD Lasica, founder and former editor of Socialbrite, is co-founder of Cruiseable. Contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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