Allison is a successful social entrepreneur and writer dedicated to helping grassroots organizations and activists implement and sustain social change efforts. Fine is a senior fellow at Demos, a network of action and ideas based in New York City. She is the founder of Innovation Network, Inc. (InnoNet) and the former CEO of the E-Volve Foundation. Currently she serves on the board of directors of Just Vision. She lives on the banks of the Hudson River with her husband, Scott, and three sons, Jack, Zack, and Max.
James O'Malley: How does social media help bring about change?
Allison Fine: They unleash enormous vitality and creativity that leads to all sorts of innovation. The true power of the Connected Age is the ability of many people to participate in conversations. The face of social change is changing as well. We are used to seeing movements spearheaded by one or a few public faces. Now, as with the immigration marches last spring, people are becoming engaged from friend-to-friend communications, such as email or text messages. As a result they are able to participate in large numbers when and how they choose. To succeed, we need not be bigger, just smarter, more agile, more open and connected. Somehow, a while back, we slipped from solving social problems to treating social ills. The concepts of openness and connectedness that fuel the spread of social media helps us get back on track.
JO: What have you found to be the biggest barriers to nonprofits using social media tools?
AF: For social change activists, it is realizing that institutions are no longer the center of power. The role of institutions is changing, they need to lift less and leverage more, stop dictating and start listening in order to stay relevant. It’s not our ignorance of tools, but our fear of the unknown that hold most of us back. Plus, in our society, it’s tough to collaborate. We reward winners, not team players. But I’m here to tell you that mastering interactive calendars or sending photos on cell phones isn’t rocket science. It doesn’t take an advanced degrees or specialized skill to succeed in the Connected Age, just lots of old-fashioned confidence, some time and faith. All of us born before personal computers have already made the biggest leap, when we went online. The rest is a piece of cake.
JO: What are some characteristics of an organization that has embraced these tools? Who does it well?
AF: When I’m talking to people in an organization to see how they’re doing with social media I don’t look just at the technology. More important to me is how they talk about the way that they work. For instance, are they having a two-way conversation with people outside of the organization, or are they just broadcasting messages. Is their website a place for real, open, side-to-side conversations between people inside the organization and outside, or is it just brochureware. And even blogs, which allow for comments, can be brochureware, just pretty words that are meant to tell the world how great and invincible the group is, not letting people inside to help figure out strategy and even struggle with the hard questions all organizations face. There are a lot of groups that are using a variety of social media now to connect people to what they’re doing. Level Playing Field Institute is one, students they advocate for are creating podcasts and blogging. The Sunlight Foundation is a new group that is doing an amazing job of using blogs, databases and a really fun new application called Congresspedia to monitor the relationships between Congress, money and legislation.
JO: Lots of people are concerned the impersonal nature of technology actually makes it harder bring people together to solve problems - it's harder to reject a face than an e-mail. How do you respond to that?
AF: You mean after I laugh at them? No, seriously, I wouldn’t laugh at them, I would wait until later. Technology is not a panacea for the hard work of developing relationships face-to-face. Social media, interactive digital tools, are very inexpensive, and when used well are great ways to enhance, deepen and strengthen those relationships. Imagine that a group meets locally to discuss a clean water strategy. They can then go online and create a wiki to share documents and lists together, they can also create a listserve and a blog to keep everyone informed of progress and discuss strategy. All of these tools are cheap and easy to use. Now remember the pre-social media days when everything had to be done by snail mail. Which way do you think connects people more to one another and the cause? Some folks make the assumption that using social media is a zero sum game, that it replaces face-to-face relationship building. That’s absolutely not true. But again, leaders have to want real, meaningful participation to involve people in solving problems regardless of whether it is happening mainly on land or online.
JO: In Momentum, you claim that online organizing will never take the place of offline organizing. But recent immigration rallies and voter surge in 2004 show the power of new technologies. How can offline and online approaches coexist?
AF: I think that they have to do more than coexist, they have to be inseparable and build on one another. Offline organizing builds strong relationships and online connections extend and augment them. The immigration rallies were a perfect example of this. For instance, in L.A. the Liberty Hill Foundation has been supporting efforts to train high school students in organizing. When the immigration marches came along, these students were aware of the power of on-the-ground organizing and used the tools they know best, MySpace, text messaging, cell phones and email, to self-organize and come out and march. The combination is enormously powerful and it is the future of social change.
JO: So we've read the book, loved it, and want to keep the conversation going. What's next?
AF: I’m so glad you asked. Rather than remain a message in a bottle, I hope Momentum becomes a compass, like George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of An Elephant or Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. I want to interact with my readers from the start. I want to hear—and share—your stories about harnessing social media to spark social change. So don’t just read Momentum. Please come to my website and jump right into the mix. Make publishing history; post your contribution to our interactive epilogue. Then, get into a heated exchange with some passionate activist who sees things differently—so you both learn something new, maybe even work together.
JO: What’s your best advice for the aspiring connected activist?
AF: After you enjoy Momentum? Start by thinking of what you are, instead of defining yourself by what you’re not. Play with new tools until you’re comfortable using them, so you won’t try them once, then abandon them. Learn to listen more than you talk, and by that I don’t just mean wait quietly for your turn to speak. Unlock those golden handcuffs to traditional funding sources and unleash enormous creativity, vitality and get to all sorts of great places.