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Moving beyond Slacktivism: Lessons from SXSW

Craig Zelizer

March 11, 2016

I was fortunate to attend an annual SXSW conference and explore how to go beyond slacktivism. For those who may not know SXSW, the event takes place in Austin, Texas each year and convenes over 100,000 people from around the world. During the event, I mostly attended SXSW interactive events, the part of the conference  on the many applications of tech for social change, startup culture, media and much more.

One key event I attended was Shifting the Power for Social Change. Two leading experts, Mike Jones from Change.org and Katie Nelson from the Huffington Post discussed how to effectively use tech to generate large scale social action.

Mike explained  how change.org initially started with a strong focus on blogging years ago. Through observing how people interacted on the platform, however over time, it became cleaer that  people wanted not only content, but to take action and form community to work for change. Change.org saw creating editorial content and blogs wasn't sufficient. They expanded the platfrom to one where users could tell their stories and catalyze collective action.

Since its launch change.org has had over 1,000,000 petitions, with hundreds of additional ones being created every day. The site now operates in over 18 languages and most impressively of all the campaigns started on the site they see 1-3 success stories per hour. There are a variety of changes that result including legislative policy at the local and national levels, changes to the behavior of corporate actors, etc.

He did acknowledge that are many criticism  slacktivism and that not all petitions are about important issues, in fact some may be quite trivial.  But there is tremendous benefit when the community comes together for change.   This often starts with a powerful personal story that begins to motivate others and change.org provides the tools and platform to scale change.

Nelson discussed her career how she worked in print journalism for various outlets. She discussed how one of her jobs was at the NY Daily News as a runner. The job largely entailed running to and reporting on the worst events every day in the city such as kidnappings, murders, etc.  She discussed doing coverage of the horrific shootings at the Sandy Hook elementary school was completely draining and hard to go back to her family and normal life everyday. This led her to a choice to work for a more positive company, the Huffington Post which is focused on much more solutions journalism. The company  "Aims to be the ladder in news, wellness and what's working." They strive to reimagine public interest journalism for the digital age.

The Huffington post seeks to combat apathy by cultivating empathy. They explore not only what are the problems in society, but who is solving what and if solutions are scaleable, They focus on creating smart and shareable content.

The Huffington Post post has 15 editions around the world (more are coming), over 900 staff and 100,000 bloggers. They have over 190 million unique visitors per month. The Post seeks to do relentless reporting with the ability to take action on key issues. This could be writing a blog, donating to an organization, or coalition building with a community to affect change.

In terms of success stories, Jones talked about the campaign by a woman who was a lesbian and was kicked  her son's Boy Scout troop leadership.  She started a petition that got significant traction.

Her sharing of her experience catalyzed people who had similar experiences, people who didn't want to participate in the Boy Scouts due to the policy. Many people approached her with their own stories and she was able to setup a series of distributed campaigns. This included: to get the board to change their policy, to get companies supporting the Boy Scouts to change their policy,

This became a lightning rod starting with one woman and distributed campaigning and eventually led the Boy Scouts to change their policies.

Jones told a second story for the hotel industry to change their policies to allow people to call emergency services by just dialing 911. The organizer of this petition lost his daughter in a horrific murder in a hotel. His granddaughter was in the room at the time of the crime and tried to call 911 but wasn't able to as she didn't know she had to dial a 9 to access an outside line. In exploring the challenge, he found that very few hotels had policies to make it easy for their phone lines to reach 911. As as result of the campaign and extensive advocacy, many states have passed laws to require businesses to ensure people can easily call for emergency support.

Jones explained what makes for a powerful change and community is the following.

  • A personal connection
  • A threshold of dissatisfaction, something needs to change (this one is one of the most challenging points)
  • Confidence that things can be changed by adding your voice

He emphasized the biggest piece of any successful campaign is how authentic is the petition starters story.  Nelson explained creating a powerful story, visuals and figuring out how to zig when everyone else is zagging (creating a differentiated focus) and creative framing of a story and relentless advocacy is key.

Nelson explained a few of their efforts, including one in which Susan Sarandon, the actress went to  Greece to raise awareness  of the refugee crisis. They worked in partnership with a virtual reality company and interviewed refugees, NGOS and others to raise awareness and need for change.

Another initiative the Huffington Post is working on isH combatting Islamophobia. They are tracking incidents of across the US as well as having people write about their experiences, documenting people working for positive change and increased understanding, rather than inflaming others.

In terms of the future growth and scaling the impact of change.org Jones explained how one key initiative they are moving towards is crowd campaigning. The change.org staff can only support and coach a limited number of campaigns started on the platform.  They are creating some new programs to support this effort, such as having 25 coaches who have done successful campaigns on change.org who will support new campaigns.

Jones asked some key questions including:

What does it mean to turn over a campaign to users?

What drives community?

How to push power down to users?

Some challenges that were discussed in the session include how to bridge the digital divide.  Jones said for example in India one of the challenges is currently users cannot sign petitions via SMS messaging and he emphasized this needs to change.

Another challenge is petition fatigue. It isn't only about getting people to sign, but generating a more compelling story, engaging users and going beyond web only action. Jones stressed he hopes Change.org will become the Wikipedia of petitions.

I asked two questions of the panelists, regarding the revenue models of each company  and if there is a potential conflict between their funding and the issues each institution addresses in their work.  Nelson empahiszed how the Huffington Post is owned by AOL which is owned by Verizon. But they have a strong firewall between ad revenue and the editorial/content side.

She also discussed how important it is to meet readers where they are. Increasingly the home page is not where most users will come and Huffington Post is increasingly using Sapchat, Facebook and other platforms to reach their readership.

Jones discussed how for change.org they still receive a substantial amount of revenue from sponsored campaigns for NGOs, foundations and others. They also did receive t significant investment last year from a number of people/institutions including Blll Gates and Ariana Huffington, but there is a strong firewall between investors and content (investors cannot have their issues receive any special treament).

Jones also talked about a new experiment to allow crowdfunding to support specific campaign efforts. The first successful effortconcluded this week and is for the aunt of Tamar Rice (who was killed by police in Clevland, Ohio) to put a billboard to push that the prosecutor is held accountable for failing to prosecute the police responsible.



For more interesting stories see the huffingtonpost.com and Change.org as well as follow the hashtag #techforchange

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