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=== Optional ===
=== Optional ===
==== Theory/Context ====

* ''A Review of Cyberactivism: Online Activism in Theory and Practice,'' edited by Martha McCaughey and Michael D. Ayers. (This book is difficult to get hold of, but good supplementary reading if you're interested and can procure a copy.)
* ''A Review of Cyberactivism: Online Activism in Theory and Practice,'' edited by Martha McCaughey and Michael D. Ayers. (This book is difficult to get hold of, but good supplementary reading if you're interested and can procure a copy.)
* [ Rebooting America: Ideas for Redesigning American Democracy for the Internet Age]
* [ Rebooting America: Ideas for Redesigning American Democracy for the Internet Age]
==== Case studies ====
* [ The New Organizers: What's Really Behind Obama's Ground Game] from
* [ The New Organizers: What's Really Behind Obama's Ground Game] from
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*[ "Rioters of the World Unite: They have nothing to lose but their web cameras"] from the Economist. See Patrick Meier's critique of the piece [ here.]
*[ "Rioters of the World Unite: They have nothing to lose but their web cameras"] from the Economist. See Patrick Meier's critique of the piece [ here.]
* [ "Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in NGO Mobile Use"]
* [ "Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in NGO Mobile Use"]
==== Techniques ====
* [ DigiActive Introduction to Facebook Activism]

== Tools and Examples ==
== Tools and Examples ==

Revision as of 21:56, 26 February 2009

Topic Owners: Rainer + Elana + Mel - it's worth noting that we have a KSG student, an MBA student, and an engineer in our group, and no lawyers or law students, so expect this session to come from a slightly different perspective.

back to syllabus

Before class

To prepare before class, please do the following.

  1. Read the #Precis, which will introduce you to the main topics of the session.
  2. Read and consider the #Core questions we will be discussing during the session.
  3. Read and complete the #Workshop prep exercise. This should take you no more than 20 minutes.
  4. Read the #Mandatory readings; there are 4 total; 2 are short, and 1 can be skimmed.


Activism is "intentional action to bring about social or political change" ([1]). In this sense, activist have used the web for mobilizing people for all kinds of social causes, ranging from the tremendous success of the Obama campaign's online efforts to post-election citizen journalism and crisis mapping mash-ups in Kenya to your basic online petition or full-scale and often illegal hacktivist activities. New tools are emerging for coordinating concrete action and volunteering (Pledgebank, The Point, Zoosa) as well as fundraising and matching donors and social entrepreneurs (Facebook Causes, DonorsChoose, Socialvibe), and other tools not explicitly designed for social action in particular (Twitter, collaborative document editing, IMs and text messages) are being pressed into service by tech-savvy grassroots organizers, sometimes to great effect.

While online tools are being used by activists whose causes and organizations may have had long histories pre-internet, we also must consider internet activism in terms of new fields of action taken around issues of new issues of concern that the internet has given rise to -- see, for instance, Grey Tuesday, a day of coordinated electronic civil disobedience to distribute DJ Dangermouse's mashup, "Grey Album," or Berkman's own OpenNet Initiative which monitors and reports on internet filtering and surveillance practices by governments around the world.

Sandor Vegh, in his chapter of Cyberactivism edited by Martha McCaughey and Michael D. Ayershas suggests three categories of "Cyberacticism":

Category Uses Examples Tools
awareness/advocacy Blogging, petitions PETA Websites, mass mailings, podcasts, RSS
organization/mobilization Campaigning, fundraising, volunteering, community building Moveon, Pledgebank, Al Qaeda, Myanmar uprising Websites, mass mailings, mobile applications, online/offline hybrids
direct online action/reaction Electronic civil disobedience, hacktivism Cyberattacks during the 2008 South Ossetia war DDoS, website vandalizing, trojans, mass mailings

While these categories may offer a useful initial framework, many activists leverage all of these categories of activism in their work.

Core questions

Needless to say, there are any of a number of ways to tackle a topic of this breadth but here are just a few structural and tactical questions to consider while doing the readings for class:

1. An issue of tactics: What are the success factors of online activism tools? (And how much of the success of any given campaign can be attributed to the internet tools used as opposed to a superior ground operation or a more compelling issue/candidate?) Is there a generalizable model here? What are the parallels and differences with the way for-profit firms have tried to harness these tools? Further, as Ethan Zuckerman notes, "any sufficiently advanced read/write technology will get used for two purposes: pornography and activism. Porn is a weak test for the success of participatory media - it’s like tapping a mike and asking, “Is it on?” If you’re not getting porn in your system, it doesn’t work. Activism is a stronger test - if activists are using your tools, it’s a pretty good indication that your tools are useful and usable." What online technologies have yet to be fully exploited by activists and why?

2. How do we define and measure success of online activism? Do online tools for activists allow for one to feel simply satisfied with a lazier, shallow degree of involvement (the median earned by many Facebook causes prominently displayed on so many users' pages is under $50) or does it create new ladders of engagement? What is the meaning of your number of viewers, of addresses on your mailing list, or of Facebook friends for your cause? What is the fundamental difference between a computer mediated act of civil disobedience versus one offline?

3. Compared to traditional modes of activist engagement, digital tools change both the meaning and tactics of democratic participation. Still, we have to examine, who is in now and who is out now? Who has access and who still may not have it? How do old digital divides play out or new ones emerge? To what extent do these tools allow us to subvert hierarchies of power or to what extent do they create new hierarchies and gatekeepers? (i.e. Who participated by submitting questions to the YouTube Presidential debates in 2008? Given certain barriers to access, what voices or issues might not have been heard?)

4. Online activism often creates decentralized organizations, which act and react very differently than the centralized organizations most of us are used to, so both leveraging and counteracting distributed activist communities can be counterintuitive. What things can decentralized online movements do more easily than centralized (online or offline) ones, and what strategies might activists and/or their opponents do to take advantage of these tendencies to either promote or counteract a cause?


  • Ethan Zuckerman, Berkman Center Fellow, Co-Founder of, providing both practical and theoretical expertise with focus on applications in the developing world.
  • Nicco Mele, IOP Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, founder of EchoDitto, former Internet Operations Director of Gov. Dean's presidential primary campaign in 2003

Session design

Workshop prep

To be done before class.

During class, we will be splitting into 6 randomly assigned teams for a rocket pitch workshop session. Teams will be competing to create and pitch ideas for internet-based projects for various hypothetical clients, played (and judged) by the session team (Mel, Rainer, and Elana), the course professors, and our guests.

Assignment: Examine online tools (software programs and platforms) that have been or could be used for online activism. Come to class with a list of 5 tools or interesting causes/campaigns that you examined. (We suggest posting these lists ath bottom of this page (#Tools). Each entry on the list should contain the following parts:

  • Name of tool - - 1-2 sentence description of what types of projects/demographics/causes this tool would be particularly suited to AND/OR a link to an example of this tool being used for a specific activism project.

Requirements: The #Tools section below has some ideas for starters, but please make at least one of your examples a resource that is not on that list. Tools must be internet-based in some way, but do not necessarily need to be limited to personal computers; cellphone/SMS apps, location-based tags and artifacts that somehow link or point to online spaces, etc. are also valid. Custom-developed applications that were developed and deployed for a specific project are ok, even if they cannot be reused for future projects - they're great examples.

Non-mandatory but probably helpful: you can read about the #Workshop format for the exact times and materials you'll have available, as well as the #Judging criteria.

Activity intro (10 minutes)

We will first explain the ground rules of the rocket pitch workshop which will be held later in the session and introduce the 3 scenarios involved.

Guests present case studies (30 minutes)

Next, our guests will give short case study examples of projects they've worked on and tactics they've used. During this part of the session, students are encouraged to write down (on pieces of paper) questions they'd like to bring up, and to save those papers for the discussion after the workshop.


(50 minutes)

You will be divided into 6 teams. Teams will roleplay the parts of teams assigned to create internet-based projects for various activism scenarios. Teams will compete to create the best 1-minute rocket pitch of their project idea. The 1-minute timing will be strict; we'll cut you off at 60 seconds.

  • You get 30 seconds to set up and 1 minute to present.
  • Each group gets 3 big sheets of paper ("slides") and a marker for each round. You do not have to use the paper. However, projector setup will count against your time...
  • Groups can use any resources (including computers) and work anywhere they want.
  • Your presentation can be and use any things or people you want.
  • 20 minutes: First scenario prep
  • 10 minutes: First scenario presentations and #Judging
  • 10 minutes: Second scenario prep
  • 10 minutes: Second scenario presentations and #Judging


Judging is interspersed with the #Workshop.

Presentations will be judged on the following criteria, evenly weighted.

Criteria are still subject to change, and final judging criteria will be announced at the beginning of the session, but this is the current draft.

  • Tactics: Is your strategy well-articulated? Can we envison how you will carry out your game plan, and do we believe it's probable that you will reach your goals with the resources and timeframe you've been allotted?
  • Measurement: What is your goal? Have you defined what it would mean for your project to be successful, and how you will measure and determine your success?
  • Analysis of competition: Did you articulate why your approach is better than others that might exist?
  • Utilization of the Internet: Are you taking full advantage of the online medium? (Why would your project be more difficult/impossible offline?)
  • Leveraging your audience: Did you articulate who you are trying to engage, and in what manner? Will your community be (or be working against one that is) centralized, decentralized, or hybrid - and why? If you are trying to build a community, how will you most effectively leverage the type of community you have chosen to build? If you are not trying to build a community, why not?
  • Creativity: Are you using tools or processes in an unique way that nobody has tried before? Are you advocating a cause or reaching an audience not commonly addressed through this medium? Are you in some way doing something crazy and new?

Note that we are not judging you on how well you pitch the cause, only the project. The judges are assuming the roles of supporters of the cause who want to fund your project, so you can safely assume that the judges (1) know all about your cause and (2) are already completely convinced that it is the best thing in the world.

Discussion (30 minutes)

Students are now encouraged to bring out the questions they had earlier; we'll use these as the basis for a followup discussion.




Tools and Examples