What gets people to use social media for social change?

One of the best sessions I attended at the recent Diversifying Participation conference focused on this fascinating question:  What motivates people to start using social media for social change?

Consider the significance of this question in light of the recent news that Facebook has overtaken Google as the top driver of traffic to Yahoo, MSN and other portals.  That means that the links shared through status updates, fan pages, groups and other Facebook tools are becoming a primary channel through which people find useful information online.   This is a major shift from the previous models for finding information that involved using a search engine or going directly to a particular site.

Another way to think about this phenomenon is that there are 300 million people on Facebook with the ability to use their personal social networks for some larger cause, if inspired to do so.

A group of University of Southern California students, under the guidance of respected participatory culture scholar Henry Jenkins, presented a dozen examples of participation-turned-activism using the rapid-fire pecha kucha format.  The students pushed “start” on a Powerpoint presentation that was timed to advance slides automatically and allot exactly four minutes to each student to present a case study.  My head was spinning at the end of this lineup:

  • Rang de Basanti:  This is a Bollywood film that means “Color Me Saffron” in Indian.  Rang de Basanti depicts five college friends, who go from being happy-go-lucky pals to anti-government activists.   The popularity of the film led to social activism that mimicked a key scene in the film.  After the accused murderer of a famous Indian model was set free after a trial, people staged a mass protest similar to one depicted in the movie, and continued activism led to a retrial and conviction of the murderer.  This was described as “flash activism:” a sudden temporary spontaneous mobilization  based on a shared exposure to a previous event such as this movie.
  • Racebending: This case study examined protests against Looking at The Last Airbender, a popular animated TV program on Nickelodeon that is being made into movie.  The program embodies Asian themes and characters, but four white actors were cast for the movie.   In protest, artists from the show created letter writing campaign and racebending.com to highlight “whitewashing,” the replacing of Asian characters with white actors.   The campaign has led to protests at conferences and expanded address the broader role of race in casting practices, although there was no change in the casting of Airbender, scheduled to be released this summer.
  • Harry Potter Alliance: Andrew Slack wondered how Harry Potter book themes could be leveraged to deal with social issues in the world and set up the Harry Potter Alliance to do just that.  He  staged campaigns based on Harry Potter characters, such as equating Valdemort with global warming.  Slack tapped into the Harry Potter fan community using social media sites to spread his messages.   Among the issues addressed have been global warming, poverty, genocide and Haiti earthquake relief.  “We are creating the blueprint for a new kind of civic engagement that combines pop culture, social change, and new media that amplifies each voice hundreds of thousands of times,” the Harry Potter Alliance web site says.
  • World of Warcraft: There are more than 10 million users playing World of Warcraft, and politics have become part of the game culture.  More than 107 avatars are named Barack Obama in WoW.  Groups of players band into guilds to share gaming skills and experience.  The last presidential election saw the emergence of the Ron Paul Revolution Guild, aimed at raising awareness of his candidacy.  It was a grassroots movement that started with one player’s post. The goal was to start a rally within WoW on 12/1/08.  More than 300 members signed up and ended up overloading the server.  This attracted media attention that led the group to grow exponentially.
  • Verb Noire: In 2009, white science fiction writer Elizabeth Bear wrote a blog post about how to write about diverse characters without tokenizing them.   Bear’s post became quite controversial and led to more than 300 blog posts written in response and the creation of a new online community called RaceFail 09, focused on race and racism in science fiction books, culture and fandom.   This community gave rise to Verb Noire, an independent publishing house focused on sci-fi featuring people of color and LGBT characters.  Verb Noire recently published its first book, River’s Daughter, by Tasha Campbell.
  • Living Room Rock Gods: The Living Room Rock Gods are obsessive hard care rock fans and You Tube users.   They make recording of themselves playing guitars and other instruments along with CDs, and upload those videos to You Tube.  They began tagging their videos with the LRRG keyword.  These tags allowed them to find each others’ videos, allowing them to form virtual bands. This led to many copyright-related takedowns on You Tube due to fair use violations.   LRRG  started campaign called “tribute is not theft.” They started a blog, which led lawyers and others across the country to offer advice about how to fight the YouTube takedowns.  A number of the challenges have succeeded and some LRRG videos have been restored on YouTube.
  • Pricescope.com: This site started as a database of diamonds available from small jewelers who were trying to compete against mall stores and luxury brands.  Pricescope catered to “diamond geeks,”  with message boards that gave people a way to mentor each other as they learned about diamond purchases, many of which were tied to major life event like an engagement.  Message boards also included an “around the world” board to talk about politics. In 2008, non diamond geeks flooded the site after hearing about political discussions.   Things began to fall apart and moderators ended up banning political topics.  The community has since worked to repair itself and members have submitted pictures, featuring the diamonds they have purchased, toward publishing a coffee table book with proceeds going to charity.
  • Post Secret: This concept started in 2005 as an art project and evolved into a blog displaying anonymous secrets written on postcards and sent to the site.  The secrets have been published online, featured in art exhibitions and in coffee table books.  The blog has attracted more than 300 million visits.  A number of the secrets dealt with themes of suicide, leading the site’s creator to include contact information for Hopeline, a suicide prevention service.
  • Invisible Children: This is a youth-driven organization using pop culture to engage young people in social issues.  The organization started in 2003 when three young Southern California filmmakers traveled to Uganda and learned about the children who left their homes every night to sleep on city streets to avoid being kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army.  The filmmakers created a documentary about it and started a campaign in which youth from around the world walked to city centers and spent the night in parks to show support for the Ugandan children.  Through Invisible Children’s web site, more than  58,000 people signed up to participate in the event, but over 80,000 attended in total; the event took place in 130 cities in seven countries, according to Wikipedia. In three years the organization was raiding $10 million annually mostly from small donations and merchandise.  Youth are encouraged to produce their own advocacy and fund raising events, with videos later uploaded to YouTube.
  • Peter Packet: Cisco Systems created Peter Packet, a video game that explains how the internet works, as part of the company’s “bring your child to work” day.  Cisco wanted to expand the game to to include social action and went to NetAid, a nonprofit, to build it out.  The narrative of the game was using to explain to children (age 9-11)  how they could take social action by showing Peter and Penny Packet go around the world doing things like fighting AIDS in Zimbabwe. Kids earned points by getting others to play and getting adults to donate to campaigns.  There were 100,000 plays of the game in the first year.
  • Synaptic Crowd Vox Pop Experiments: This experiment involved people online asking questions of people being interviewed on the street.  Some of the questions asked include, “What is the best day of your life?”  and “Do you believe in universal health care?”  This set-up enables the online participants to conduct interview in real time, via an intermediary with a camera and phone.  Other people who are online vote on which questions should be asked, creating a live feedback loop.

This conference session was among the first presentations of this concept by Jenkins’ students, and they noted that they have more questions than answers at this point.  Still, it was an excellent and thought-provoking session.  Thank you, Anna van Someren, Clement Chau, Lana Schwartz, Ray Vichot, Benjamin Stokes, Ritesh Mehta, Lori Kido Lopez, M. Flourish Klink, Kevin Driscoll, Ray Vichot, Joshua McVeigh-Schultz and Melissa Broug. I’m glad you are exploring these important questions and look forward to your findings.


A cure for the journalism blues

The antidote for anyone who despairs about the future of journalism is to attend a get-together of community bloggers.

Yesterday, The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships program brought together people from across California who lead community-focused journalism to learn more about what they do and whether our training program could be of assistance.  For some, blogging was a hobby.  For others, it was a profession.  For all, the primary motivation was a public-spirited goal of filling news gaps and keeping people informed.  Here are few of the talented people we met:

  • Erick Huerta, an East Los Angeles College journalism student, writes about the Eastside via several outlets:  his personal blog, Just a Random Hero, on The Eastsider and Taco .  In describing why he blogs, Erick says, “Growing up without a legal status in the United States is a unique experience. I personally never had help from others in dealing with my legal status, what to do about it or how to cope with it. As a result of my experience, I want to help out the next generation of kids growing up like me and help them realize that life goes on no matter what happens. I want to help them realize their full potential before the world takes it away from them.”   Here’s Erick’s post about yesterday’s community blogger session.
  • Devin Browne is the creator of MacArthurParkMedia.com, featuring stories set in and around the Los Angeles immigrant neighborhood of the MacArthur Park.  Devin told us about her latest project called The Entry Way, in which she and another reporter are “living with family from Mexico, now in MacArthur Park, to learn a foreign language so that we may better report on our own native city and country. We are paying rent, they are teaching us Spanish. More, we are living in their America: we are eating tostadas and falling asleep to telenovelas, we are going on Sundays to the Pentecostal church under a tarp with fluorescent lighting and full band, we are navigating a neighborhood in which nearly everything that happens is illegal: the fake IDs, the drugs, the extortion, the prostitutes in the panaderias, even the street vendors who sell tamales on the run.”   You’ll become a fan after seeing this multimedia story about the tamaleros created by Devin and her reporting partner, Kara Mears.
  • Echa Schneider’s day job is with the Oakland Public Library, but after hours she runs  ABetterOakland.com, focused on land use, transportation and other important local issues.  Her 17 local contributors include Mayor Ron Dellums, and her online discussions are hopping, with numerous posts drawing more than 100 comments.  I was entertained by the video titled “Who turns tricks in front of grandma?”  about a local public works committee discussion on funding public restrooms in Oakland.  Who says public policy is boring?

As inspiring as it was to hear about this work, I also was concerned about burnout, especially among the “one man band” operations.  Jose Arballo Jr., editor of Southwest Riverside News Network, said he has had three days off since August.  Jake Bayless, founder of the Empire Report, is publicly asking for others to take over the site so he can spend more time with his family.

I wish more traditional media outlets would be open to the opportunity of partnering with these new voices instead of regarding them as competitors.  Regardless of where and how they work, journalists tell stories so they can be heard.  Traditional media still have a huge megaphone, but fewer things to say these days given staff cutbacks.  Partnering with promising local sites seems like a smarter, and probably cheaper, strategy than waiting for the day when there is more advertising revenue to hire back more full-time reporters.

Doctors and nurses as community storytellers

I’m always encouraged to hear of new collaborations in journalism, including this week’s news that the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal has joined forces with MedPage to produce to produce at least 10 articles on medical news “with an emphasis on the interface of science, industry, and public policy.”

While this partnership will make for interesting new content, I’m sure, I have another idea for local news organizations can work with medical professionals:  Why not enlist doctors and nurses as community storytellers?  Like police officers and teachers, medical professionals are on the front lines of community life every day.  They encounter stories that are heartbreaking and stories that are inspirational.  They have a rare vantage point on the community, but reporters typically only contact them when they want to know more about a disease or perhaps a public health emergency like swine flu.  I think they have much more to offer than that.

I was awakened to this possibility last fall, during the  “Health and the Blogosphere” get-together organized by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.   These medical professionals were smart, insightful and excellent writers.  They had an interesting range of stories to tell. They embraced the online world and were hip to social media.   They sounded like  good local reporters to me!

Here’s an idea for community foundations:  The Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge offers matching funds to community foundations who propose projects that that inform and engage residents about pressing local issues. Why not approach your local newspaper or TV station with the possibility of recruiting local health professionals to serve as correspondents?   Local news outlets are in need of fresh perspectives, and the financial crisis in traditional media has opened the door to new possibilities that previously would have been dismissed.  Why not pursue them?

Community Health and Collaborative Journalism on HealthyCal.org

When you ask people the most important factors in determining health, most would say health insurance or whether you have access to a doctor.

But when you look at the research, the most important factor in your health turns out to be your address.  Where you live, work and play are the most reliable predictors of your life expectancy and whether you’ll contract a serious disease.  It’s for that reason that The California Endowment, the state’s largest health-focused foundation and my employer, has placed a new focus on community health, the everyday environment that determines how easy it is to get access to fresh foods, the availability of nearby parks for exercise, safe streets, clean air, toxin-free buildings and more.

We were fortunate to find a kindred spirit in Daniel Weintraub, who has covered the state Capitol and public policy issues for many years as a columnist and reporter for The Sacramento Bee, The Orange County Register and The Los Angeles Times.   In search of a new challenge, last year Dan proposed an independent journalism startup that would blend health policy reporting from the Capitol with community reporting that shows how decisions made by lawmakers have a real impact on community health.  As Dan said, he wanted to create a web site where the policy world met the real world.  For more background, see this Q&A with Dan on reportingonhealth.org.

HealthyCal.org launched last week, and it features an interesting range of content based on the community health lens, such as:  

  • A video report about how the city of Richmond is close to adopting a new way of planning for the city’s future, adding a “health and wellness” element to its general plan that will force developers to address new concerns when they design neighborhoods or other projects.
  • A comparison of Marin and Lake counties, ranked as among the best and worst California counties when it comes to health.
  • A story explaining California’s strawberry farmers have become overly reliant on pesticides.

In addition to conceptualizing health journalism  in a new way, Dan is also going about the reporting in a different way.

Dan is pretty much a one-man band, so he has to be resourceful, especially when it comes to community coverage.  For example, from his office in Sacramento, Dan happened to see a press release about $10 million in federal home foreclosure aid going to the Orange County city of Santa Ana, which came after $6 million in aid the previous year.  This seemed like a lot of money, and piqued Dan’s interest. So he called Norberto Santana, a former colleague who is now leading the forthcoming startup VoiceofOC.org, and Norberto asked reporter Adam Elmahrek to take on the story.  The result was this article, which highlighted that after all this money and time, only five foreclosed homes have new owners and only two borrowers have been assisted.  As a local professor noted, “They could have taken that money, dropped it from an airplane over Santa Ana and it would have helped more people.”  It was a good story borne of a collaborative approach that is becoming the norm among journalism startups.

California is fortunate to be home to a number of ambitious foundation-supported journalism efforts.  Nearly all these startups are collaborative in nature, relying on networks of publishing and content-gathering partners to develop and distribute the good journalism they are creating.   In the new world of journalism, the “not invented here” way of thinking is going by the wayside, and that’s a good thing.

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