People from netroots activists to science fiction heavy hitters are very concerned about how big data may be infiltrating our daily lives, compromising our privacy, and creating new kinds of risks for individuals, especially at the hands of government or corporate entities. These worries are very important: as more organizing happens online, and as more communities get online, we need to make sure that security for them continues to be a core part of the web.
However, what about those who aren’t contributing to the set of big data? Imagine if you don’t live life on the grid, the way many middle and upper class people do. Imagine you are undocumented: you get paid under the table, you pay your bus fare in cash. Maybe you don’t even own a phone: you access the internet occasionally via public terminals at the library. Your data—data that is used to make policy and business decisions—isn’t being included in the massive set of data that informs decisionmakers. And the reasons that data is excluded is not individual. It’s structural.
How do we make sure our data is actually representative of all the communities we want to serve? How do we ensure that there is a balance between access and security? Is big data really enough to solve our biggest problems?
Here, I’m also tempted to think about big listening. As a technologist who works as, and with, campaigners, tracking conversations online is crucial to our understanding of what might make a good campaign and when that campaign might go live to maximize its reach and impact. I would like to argue that while big listening is crucial to online communications strategies and running successful online campaigns, what online organizers actually need to do to affect real change is small listening.
The distinction between campaigning and organizing is key here. I think many groups who say they’re organizing are, in fact, campaigning. Joseph Phelan breaks the distinction down well in his blog post about why online organizing is a myth—and in fact points to my organization, 18MR, as a disruptive force in thinking about what is necessary to run a successful campaign. But Phelan rightly points out that Gap Does More isn’t organizing: it’s a bit to shift culture online.
We aren’t building a power base specifically around holding the Gap accountable to labor abuses in Bangladesh: we were forcing the Gap’s hand to get them to talk to the media about their lack of accountability around factory conditions overseas. We’re getting likely advocates to start talking about this issue before anyone dies—an accomplishment I can’t say I’m not proud of. However, this means that victory is also still framed in terms of an air war—what Taren Stinebrickner-Kaufmann calls “vanity metrics”—of public image and rhetoric.
It seems to me that big listening is about is figuring out how to do this kind of work: capture a media cycle, pressure decision-makers into change, and claiming victory in public. This is an effective tactic in many cases, but what it doesn’t do—and what it isn’t—is build an empowered membership of an organization. At least, not by itself.
So is there a way we can build power online? I don’t think it’s impossible. I want to look at a handful of case studies in small listening to understand what might be possible—and how we might be able to do it. I think that there are cases that can be framed in terms of small listening regarding the life-cycle of an activist hashtag, a unique and powerful futuristic roleplaying game, and the enthusiastic (and intellectually engaged) fandom of a mainstream sitcom that deserve to be teased out. They might point a way forward in our thinking about online strategy.
This is timely for me, because we’re in the process of systematizing the way we do listening on our social media platforms at 18MR. One of the difficult things about systematizing this kind of work is it is highly dependent on factors that are not systematizable, like the way our staff leverages platforms to become reliable messengers on them and to our particular audience. In order to replicate our results, you’d need to replicate the conditions we’ve created. But there might be ways to systematize creating those conditions, as well.
This is the first post in a series about small listening and, if not building power, at least building something that isn’t petitions and email lists, on the internet. It is not meant to be definitive, but rather an exploration of an idea that I have germinating about what it means to be an organizer in the age of big data. Stay tuned.