(Image: Fighting at the Hotel de Ville, 28th July 1830, 1833 (oil on canvas), Schnetz, Jean Victor)
It’s mid-term election season in the U.S. and there’s been a lot of talk lately about whether or not social media can lead to offline social change. Malcolm Gladwell began when he stirred things up claiming online connections were not a substitute for real life relationships and that significant social change could never be an outcome from online social interaction. He pointed to the mass influx of Tweets about the Iranian election protests and the relatively minimal impact they had in changing the situation. Taking a contrarian view, this generated an onslaught of rebuttals here, here, here and here. Suffice it to say, the issue isn’t cut and dry. However, when you step back and think about what gets people interested online but take the next step to take action, there are three main elements of social media that when combined in the right proportions, can lead to a groundswell of real action.
Social media helps keep the barrier to action low. Back in the day, it took a pretty concerted effort to make something happen — research, finding phone numbers, filling out forms, etc. Today, you can convey a powerful message and get constituents involved and recognized with a matter of clicks. With a single click at The Hunger Site, you can donate a cup of food to the hungry or donate a free mamogram or save part of the rainforest. Sure beats digging around for your checkbook or credit card.
It leads to public accountability. When you broadcast that you’re raising money for charity, volunteering time or taking time to vote, you are more inclined to hold up your end of the bargain. It’s a very simple mechanism that can lead to pretty impressive results. It also forces you to keep it on the straight and narrow; blog about something that isn’t right and you will get called out. From Facebook news feeds to re-Tweets and old-fashioned linking, the effect of accountability is real and tangible.
Focus on the interaction, not the technology. A lot of people seem to get hung up on the technical factor of social media and search for a silver bullet that will save the day. If you hear the phrase, “we need a viral Facebook campaign” take caution because that’s like visiting the hospital for surgery without even knowing what you need help with. The most successful efforts are those that have a genuine empathy for what the user outcomes are and build connectors to others. De-emphasize the campaign jargon (which never means anything to consumers) and focus on a quality experience so the users will spread the word for you. Obama’s Commit to Vote Challenge is a very simple 3-step process that is all about enabling action. There’s no campaign messaging, there’s no political slant. The results still need to be tallied, but it’s a perfect example of keeping things simple, decluttering the message and using simple tools to get people to vote. Brilliant.
Update 2/21/2011: The recent uprisings in Egypt and Yemen and now Morroco are a direct result of using the social web to marshall forces in a way that was previously unachievable using traditional means. Without a doubt, the speed and pervasiveness of simple tools as Twitter, Facebook and texting made organizing and mass messaging far more effective than the governments realized. The results speak for themselves.