the evolution of social action networks

social action networks

I get a real sense that we're due for a step-change in the evolution of social networks, and I think the momentum is towards networks that enable action.

causes - so what?

What an odd experience it is to be recruited to so many causes on Facebook. I've joined with hundreds of others on what feels like dozens of causes. And i'm left with the feeling - so what? What does it mean to have joined a Facebook group for issue X? What level of active participation comes from 'friending' an issue on MySpace? I'm not dismissing the real world impact that social networks are already having (see my earlier post on 'social networks for social change') but they're acting as networks of communication rather than as engines of active collaboration.


At least Project Agape's Causes application for Facebook is adding a network-effect to fundraising by encouraging (and tracking) virality. But it's still about donations, not about enabling people to directly contribute to the activity of their chosen cause. Nothing wrong with that, except the risk that it could eclipse the potential for more active participation (see also my post 'chuggers in cyberspace' ). Surely one of the most exciting potentials of the social web is the way it could enable new forms of collaborative organisation and action - possibilities that are more disruptive and creative than simply using social networks for social marketing.

purposeful groups

The difference of social mode I'm talking about is described in Beth Simone Noveck's paper 'A democracy of groups' as the shift from 'virtual communities' to purposeful groups:

"Virtual communities, according to Howard Rheingold, are defined by conversations among people who meet in cyberspace. But a group in the sense that I use the word is unlike two people talking or ten people on a street corner or even unlike ten thousand people on Craig's List. It is not defined or determined by the size of its membership or the level of sociability. It is not defined by the rights it has or does not have ... A group is an agglomeration of people with the affirmative purpose of bringing about change. The group moves beyond the 'illusion of companionship without the demand of friendship' that characterizes virtual community."

aggregated action

How could social networks support change by becoming enterprise and action networks? Maybe we need to look at business models for web-enabled collective action. When Allan Benamer emailed me about his startup 'socialmarkets' he described how they embedded an action model in the site that goes beyond connectivity:

'I'd say the only way you can make Web 2.0 really interesting is using it to harness certain behaviors either on the part of nonprofits or on the part of donors. You have to choose the behavior you want and then break down those behaviors into their constituent parts. That's how Wikipedia works. The granular and atomized tasks that together form an emergent pattern of content contributions that is Wikipedia is pretty much how the Web works. So it's not really connectivity, but the emergent properties of mass activity that need to be looked at.'

I think the same logic can be applied to evolve social networks - iterate functionality that aggregates useful behaviours in to some kind of concrete change.

network-centric widgets

What would this look like for social networks, and how would it come about? Certainly that 'how' is not going to be in the mainstream functionality of the social network platforms but via their application APIs - the actionability of social networking will emerge via widgets like Pledgebank's Pledges app . My first guess at the 'what' is apps that distribute a major task in a way that can be directly actioned, and then aggregate the results. For example, the MediaVolunteer project described on the Network-Centric Advocacy blog . Each volunteer was assigned two reporters to call, out of which the project aimed to assemble a national media list of media contact details:

"To influence media coverage our groups need a good press list. The communications people for these groups need to be able to jump online and find all the reporters that cover health in Georgia or who covers veteran issues across Pennsylvania. The groups need to be able to work the media as with the same tools as Madison Ave. P.R teams hired by Halliburton. To update and develop lists of tens of thousands of reporters would eat up staff time. However, a few thousand volunteers could update the list in a week with just a few calls each."

collaborate at scale

Imagine the MediaVolunteer example as a Facebook app, using Skype to make the calls directly from the computer. This could have the same virality as the Causes app and give the same kind of visible feedback (e.g. calls made, friends recruited). As Charlie Leadbeater says in 'Social software for social change' :

"The rubric of the social web is: contribute, connect, collaborate, create...Under the right circumstances, people can collaborate and coordinate their activities at scale, without requiring much of the top down hierarchy of large organisations...As a result, large scale collaborations can create quite reliable, robust and complex products ranging from open source computer programmes such as Linux to compendiums of knowledge such as Wikipedia."

Will social networks evolve beyond 'connect' to 'collaborate', or will the disruptive potential of network-centric collective action spring from elsewhere?

Netsquared - the European Remix?


I think Europe badly needs a Netsquared conference and online community, or something like it. NetSquared's mission is 'Remixing the Web for Social Change', and it does this though a framework that includes community blogging, case studies, major conferences and local monthly meetings. It has just held its second major conference , where 350 invited participants gathered to accelerate 21 Projects that were selected by the NetSquared community as having the greatest potential to leverage the social web to create social change.


I was lucky enough to be invited to the first Netsquared conference, which was a buzzing mix of geeks, activists and tech philanthropists. For me, some highlights included Howard Rheingold discussing the way hispanic youth in LA used MySpace to organize against anti-immigrant legislation encountering the Genocide Intervention Network, which is such a good example of a web 2.0 enabled NGO start-up seeing Camp Darfur in Sercond Life and, of course, the workshop on Human Rights and New Communication Technologies where i was a presenter :) (MSNBC published a good overview of the first conference called Can Web 2.0 change the world?)


Of course, there are already some great tech & society conferences in Europe. I recently did a workshop at the eCampaigning Forum which covers a lot of the key issues, but is very tightly focused on professional ecampaigners. I was also impressed by the LIFT conference which had a great diversity of content - but although they were kind enough to give us a platform the 2006 conference to talk about human rights & web 2.0 most of the event lacked any kind of activist edge.


Those of us who have been part of the Netsquared experience can see the need for a similar incubator for web-enabled social change in the UK & Europe. The proposal is to establish project like Netsquared that hits the sweet spot at the overlap of technology & social innovation. The goals would be

  • To stimulate web-enabled social innovation
  • To create a an online-offline community for learning skills, sharing experiences and developing expertise
  • To sustain socially progressive activity through alternative business & organisational models



Creativity and innovation are fundamental to the social web, not least because it empowers initiative at the grassroots level through an architecture of participation. This is attracting a lot of interest and engagement from groups and networks with a social mission. A Netsquared Europe would be well-placed to channel this dynamic and support some strategic development of this field. Tapping in to European movements for social change would also bring a more activist strand to the event.


The conference and community could also address 'the organizational question' i.e. the challenge that Web 2.0 raises for traditional NGOs and non-profits. The many dimensions of this challenge have been spelled out recently by Michael Gilbert in The Permeable Organization , Steve Bridger in Whose cause is it anyway? and Katrin Verclas in Online Communities Redux: Why They Matter to You. Perhaps, like the second Netsquared conference, it could aim to incubate a new generation of web-enabled non-profits that use new forms of organising to deliver more directly on their missions.


Like many other radical innovations, Netsquared Europe will have open source embedded in its genes. Not only because much of the innovation would be impossible without open source tools, but because the DIY attitude of open source software communities is the best innovation paradigm for web-enabled social change. As Karim Lakhani says, the open source model is about "the movement of innovative activity to the edges of organizations and into communities". I think a conference & community like the one proposed in this post, that brings together developers and social change activists, would be a prime site for another open source principle described by Lakhani: "the intersection of firms and communities and the emergence of hybrid models of organizations that blend and blur firms and communities".

I'd like to add a tip from the new programme at NESTA who's strapline is Innovation is a Contact Sport. NESTA Connect "will focus on creating new, unexpected or extreme collaborations - blurring the traditional boundaries between disciplines, organisations and places. We believe such collaboration has the potential to generate radical, transformational innovation." At their Uploading Innovation Event I highlighted the reasons why online innovation and human rights are closely intertwined . A conference like Netsquared Europe could be a great opportunity to creare unexpeted collaborations by mashing up the new wave of social entreprenuers with dedicated networks like The Association for Progressive Communications and young upstarts like the Web Activist Collective .


The success of a project like Netsquared Europe will depend on the collaboration of organisations and networks that already reflect facets of its goals. Take the original Californian tech-visionaries of Netsquared and remix with the professsionalism of the eCampaigning Forum, the European activist focus of Total Tactics, the open source know-how of the Tactical Technology Collective and the enterprise of The School for Social Entrepreneurs and what do you get....?

We need a Freedom of Expression League Table for Web 2.0


This is a call for a Freedom of Expression league table for Myspace, Youtube and other Web 2.0 spaces. Privacy International has shown the way with their Privacy Ranking of Internet Service Companies, which lists the best and the worst privacy practices across the full spectrum of social networking, email & search sites. But with the emergence of web 2.0 sites as spaces for civic dialogue there's a critical need to test their commitment to free expression and the exchange of ideas.


The problem lies in the radical difference between the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the realities of the Terms of Service agreements we sign up to when using online services. Article 19 of the UDHR says "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers", whereas a service like YouTube will assert the right for the company to remove content that it considers to be 'inappropriate'.


Despite the way that MySpace and YouTube are marketed as communities they are actually corporate spaces. As I pointed out in my post on social networking and social change: "Like shopping malls, they are pseudo-public spaces where our presence is tolerated as long as we are not interfering with the creation of (advertising) value for the owners". Of course, the role of commerical companies is to make a profit, and they also have legal liabilities to content with around issues like copyright. But the debate around the role of internet companies in China has shown that it's not OK for these powerful corporates to ignore the human rights consequences of their commercial decisions.


In my opinion, the Privacy International report gives us a great model for how to tackle these issues. Their analysis employs a methodology comprising around twenty core parameters and was compiled using data derived from public sources (newspaper articles, blog entries, submissions to government inquiries, privacy policies etc), information provided by present and former company staff, technical analysis and interviews with company representatives. Although they say that "we have been surprised by the number of social networking sites which are taking some of these issues quite seriously" it's notable that "not one of the ranked organizations achieved a 'green' status" (where green means privacy-friendly and privacy enhancing).

privacy rankings


Although it's fascinating to read the detail of the differences between, say, Bebo and Hi5, i think the most worrying aspect of their report is the overall trend of a 'race to the bottom' in corporate surveillance of customers. In their Key Findings they report The current frenzy to capture ad space revenue through the exploitation of new technologies and tools will result in one of the greatest privacy challenges in recent decades. The Internet appears to be shifting as a whole toward this aim, and the opportunity to create market differentiators based on responsible privacy may diminish unless those avenues are explored immediately.


I fear that the same threats exist to legitimate free expression in the Web 2.0 spaces, where commercial imperatives could drive companies to summarily remove 'objectionable' content, especially if they are pressured to do so by governments or other powerful corporations. This could also throttle the use of these spaces for any campaigning, which is a trend led by the users themselves (see for example the innovative uses of YouTube & MySpace for human rights work and social organising ). The recent Open Net Initiative conference on global internet filtering highlighted the growing privatisation of censorship; as the BBC's Bill Thompson says "Perhaps it's time for the Open Net Initiative to have a look at filtering policies at Facebook, Bebo and MySpace as well as Burma, Iran and Saudi Arabia".


In the longer run, the anwer may come from angry users who expect to be able to freely express themselves in the social spaces that they helped to create. After all, it's the users who add the valaue and revenue potential to these sites via their content and participation, yet no user has ever received a dividend from the hundreds of millions of dollars that are paid for YouTube or MySpace. But for there to be mass pressure in favour of internet rights, we need to raise the free expression issues in the way that Privacy International is doing for privacy and data protection. As P.I. also point out, the critical issue is not what's on paper but what the company's actual (privacy) practices. Who's going to lead the way on this for Freedom of Expression?


In my opinion, it's no coincidence that the title of the Privacy International report ('A Race to the Bottom') is the same term used by Human Rights Watch in their report on Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship. The overt political censorship of the Chinese authorities and the invisible loss of privacy and fair expression in the commerical enviromnent of the West are two sides of the same coin. Defending the internet against one implies defending against the other, especially as the same corporations are often the critical actors in both.

Next steps for the Number 10 e-petitions

In a pub after the 2007 eCampaigning Forum, Tom Steinberg of mySociety laid down a challenge. Though out of the media headlines, the Number 10 e-petitions engineered by mySociety are still getting tens of thousands of visits a day. Tom's challenge was "what's next?" - how do the people visiting and signing petitions get connected to something actionable? What about all the charities and non-profits that are campaigning and working on the same issues that people are petitioning about - how do people get connected to them?

Tom repeated the challenge a couple of weeks later at The Social Impact of the Web event at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce) - "we built, as a independent contractor, the Number 10 petition site... 25,000 people a day are coming... what I'd like to do is be able to point people to a debate about what happens next... petitions, a very low form of political engagement, can help get people more engaged..." Tom also triggered a conference debate about the relative primacy of tools versus people. He's an advocate for the disruptive effect of new tools - the things that the toolsmiths create challenge the way we do things. Several speakers from the audience challenged that, arguing that it's not the tools which are transformational but the people.

So here's my tool-centric attempts at an answer to Tom's challenge.

Option 1: Ask people to tag their petitions with relevant keywords (in the same way as for Flickr photos or other user-generated content). Link this to a Google Custom Search Engine which indexes a range of charity and NGO websites with relevant campaigns, and display the search results as action links. A proof of concept Advocacy Search was set up by Fairsay a few months ago. One catch here is the effort required to build the site list for the search, especially if refinements are used to provide targeted search (e.g. for 'Campaigns' or 'Advice'). On the plus side the Google CSE is set up to enable collaboration.

[disclaimer: proposing the use of Google tools in no way overwrites my opinion of their actions over China: see also Open Letters Shame Corporates For Their Complicity In China & Real-Time Revisionism]

Option 2: Use petition-tagging tied to an NGO 'action registry' which aggregates all the current advocacy and campaigning actions from the non-profit & NGO sector. Such an Action Registry is proposed as part of Fairsay's eCampaigning Tool (currently in Beta release). Another route to aggregating actions would be to develop a microformat for web actions (see also my proposal for a Prisoner of Conscience Microformat).

The broader debate about whether it's tools or people who are transformational segued in to another of the presentations at the RSA, when Bronwyn Kunhardt quoted Heidegger: "The social character of man is determined by his use of technology". An old pal of mine called Jeremy Weate wrote an excellent paper on this subject called Imaginalysis - or the Technologies of Place. Pointing out that "Heidegger claims τεκνε (techne) most fundamentally refers to ‘disclosure’ or ‘unconcealment’" he asserts that this understanding of technology implies that its meaning is forever contested. Since "the imagination is the conduit or schema by means of which what shows up in the world acquires meaning and significance" we are able to re-imagine the meaning of technologies, rather than seeing them only as the devices of the dominant order. Seems to me this is a tendency at work in all socially-conscious hacktivism (see also eCampaigning for Internet Freedom).

Urgent Action IM Bots and Twitter for Darfur

I'm a long-time admirer of and I'm wondering how their experiments with IM bots could be applied to human rights. (IM bots are programs that use IM as an interface to send information & respond to commands. IM users can add the name of the IM bot to their buddy list the same way they add friends). Bots could be used for campaign updates in the manner of the BBC news flashes or as a way to push messages that need urgent action, such as faxing / emailing an embassy about a prisoner of conscience.

Another fascinating possibility is the use of bots to evade censorship in those situation where IM protocols are unfiltered. An example is this IM Persian news bot from the crew. And perhaps they could be used like IRC bots to deliver vital chunks of information, such as online privacy tips or the updated list of open proxy servers accessible from China.

Things become even more interesting when Twitter is introduced. Of course, already started twittering.

But to me the critical thing about Twitter is the way it can be updated (and read) via mobile, and how that can reach in to urgent areas or situations in a way the internet can't (yet). In his post The Potential of Twitter in Africa Soyapi Mumba says

"In Malawi for example, there are about 50,000 Internet users against about 700,000 mobile phone users out of a population of about 12 million. Twitter allows users to post a small update via SMS, instant messaging client and the web. Anyone who chooses to follow you will get that update on the Twitter home page, or their mobile phone of they choose to. Unlike most mobile phone web services, you can update via SMS from anywhere in the world and from virtually any handset".

I heard UN emergency relief coordinator John Holmes in a radio interview describe how he was blocked by a Sudanese army checkpoint from visiting a camp for the displaced in war-torn Darfur during his first visit to the country. For an NGO wanting to convey the immediacy of it's mission in the field, Twitter could provide compelling live updates in 140 characters or less; imagine a Twitter that says 'Blocked at checkpoint - arguing with army colonel'. This is a great way of engaging people and giving them a sense of what's happening on the ground.


The unanswered question is whether we can come up with forms of (cyber)activism that are just as immediate, so people can do someting meaningful in response to the Twitter. On a similar subject, Andy Carvin explores the humanitarian relief potential of Twitter in his post Can Twitter Save Lives?

Cyberpunk meets UNDP

"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts...A graphical representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding..." --William Gibson, Neuromancer
Wouldn't that be an amazing way to experience the data from the UNDP; the statistics of life and mortality, the tangents of development and disarray marked out as peaks and fjords that our avatars could fly through? The data, in fact, that Gapminder has visualised so vividly in 2D. So why not an engine that imports stats like those into Second Life, where they can be experienced in the way that William Gibson originally imagined? It seems like one step towards this is on the cards, judging by blog posts like 3D import tools for Second Life , although this still focuses on importing static 3D objects like buildings, cars and so on. Where are the pure data import tools?

And this begs the bigger question; why is Second Life a 3D representation of real-world objects at all? I know there are lots of reasons why this makes SL an interesting place with a lot of social potential. And it's actually the not-quite-real aspect that gives SL a lot of its buzz. But still, it's a virtual re-creation of our world, not the Gibsonian data-space.


Second Life is more like Neal Stephenson's Metaverse; an immersive virtual world populated by avatars. Which is cool, but it's not the Net. It doesn't help us visualise the data-space, the nodes and trails of information, including the trails that we leave and the giant repositories that bureaucracies build. Only today I was discussing with freedom of expression and privacy colleagues the urgent need to visualise these threats to online freedoms. I suspect that only when we can fly through an old skool Cyberspace will we get a keen insight in to the enroachment of censorship and corporate data-mining. Let's hope that, by then, it's not too late...

UPDATE: Mass Digging as Virtual Activism

I see from the Avaaz blog that they're calling on people to digg their Stop the Clash petition. Looks like the digging is going to have to increase by a factor of 10 to make much of an impact - but as shown by the 'gaming' articles linked to in my earlier post on Mass Digging as Virtual Activism , the best tactic may be to target the key diggers for some help.

p.s. Human Rights Watch have also added a 'digg this' link to their news articles.

Tunisian Prison mashup

Sami Ben Gharbia has created a Google maps mashup of Tunisian prisons which really sets the standard for human rights mashups. When you click on a marker of one of the semi-secret locations, details about prisoners' cases pop up, along with video from the dissidents and their families. tunisian prison maptunisian prison map Sami says the data is pulled data from Human Rights NGOs report as well as from a temporary list of Tunisian prisons on the TUNeZINE website; he made the Flash animations himself, and the mashup also draws on video/audio files hosted on YouTube related to Tunisian political prisoners. The locations of many of the prisons are only approximate (e.g. to the nearest town), such is the level of paranoid security imposed by the Tunisian state. As Sami explains

In front of this omerta by the governing authorities and its determination to muzzle the press and the organisations of defence of human rights as soon as they approach this “forbidden zone”, it becomes impossible to have an idea about the exact number of prisons and penitentiary institutions, to know the criminality rate in the country or the number of the prison population.

The mashup achieves its impact by breaking this veil of secrecy and by giving some of the 'lost' prisoners a human face.


It's interesting to reflect in how the map could be used directly for campaigning. Staring at the map immediately reminds me (by contrast) of all the tourist maps on the web that are supposed to help you "find the seaside villa of your choice". Perhaps there's a form of Google bombing which could be used to link holiday sites with mashups like the Tunisian prison map. I've always had a problem with the way that travel brochures ignore any of the more difficult facts about holiday destinations. History suggests that the countries the tourists come from (such as Britain) have frequently been complicit in the human rights abuses in the destination countries (see, for example, 'Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses' by Mark Curtis).

Another example from a popular holiday destination that's ripe for a mashup is the excavation of mass graves in Spain where many victims of Franco's terror are buried. For 60 years after the Spanish Civil war ended in 1939 the families were too scared to break the silence, but now a group called the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory has been working to identify and excavate mass graves which they say are dotted all over Spain. The association uses the testimonies and memories of relatives and survivors to pinpoint the unmarked graves. According to a BBC report from 2002 about the Piedrafita massacre "a relative, Asuncion Alvarez, 87, whose brothers were shot that night, became so worried over the years that their fate would be forgotten that she drew a map of the spot where they lay and gave it to her children. Last week's excavations confirmed the map's accuracy."


Gapminder and net censorship


I've just had a lesson in the power of visualisation. I was playing around with the Gapminder graph of life expectancy versus income per capita, and randomly picked South Africa from the country list. Playing the animation from 1980 - 2004, life expectancy rises steadily until about 1994, after which it drops like a stone! Dramatic stuff - all sorts of questions and vaguely remembered news reports flooded in to my mind - "what the hell is going on over there?!".

 I think it would be really great to make such powerful visualisations about internet censorship, and an ideal opportunity would be to feed the data from the OpenNet Initiative's forthcoming global survey of internet censorship. My main interest is to drive awareness and campaigning against the growing encroachment of online filtering, and the risk that the internet will fracture in to an archipeligo of censored national enclosures. However, there's a direct link to the primary concerns of Gapminder's founder Hans Rosling i.e. global health and human development. Many organisations now see unrestricted access to the internet as a key aspect of development. (This really came home to me at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis where the best workshops on internet censorship & freedom of expression were organised by HiVOS). The irony in using Gapminder to campaign against net censorhsip is that the version of the tool i was playing with is the live online Gapminder provided by Google, who's other claim to fame at the moment is their participation in the Chinese authorities' censorship of the internet. The live version I'd like to see would feature net censorship by country, with a drop-down for corporate involvement, and maybe an overlay of number of arrested cyberdissidents. I wonder if Google would host it?


p.s. you can watch a webcast of Hans Rosling's Gapminder talk at the TED p.p.s I hunted through the Gapminder site for the download of their core software, Trendalyzer, but i could only find the pre-prepared Flash presentations. If anyone has any experience of using Trendalyzer, leave a comment or contact me.

an open source Second Life?

Are we on the way to an open source version of Second Life? A press release by the Free Software Foundation just announced support for the Free Ryzom campaign (, which plans to purchase the online game and universe known as Ryzom from the bankrupt Nevrax company and release the entire game as free software.
"A fully free MMORPG (massively multiplayer online roleplaying game) engine and client/server architecture would allow the development of a myriad of universes, each one evolving its own philosophy and unique content - but sharing in general technical improvements. If successful, this campaign would allow any user to create their own universe and produce their own content based on the Ryzom/Nevrax architecture".
ryzomryzom Maybe I'm getting the wrong end of the stick, but this sounds like it could be a move on the way to an open version of Second Life, which I think would be great. I'm pretty uncomfortable with a virtual world who's founding principle is property development, and I sometimes find it disturbing to read the SL blogs where people discuss their relationship to the SL 'gods' (i.e. the owners, Linden Labs). Nonetheless I'm pretty keen on Second Life because I reckon it has that quality that Jonathan Zittrain calls 'generativity' . So the sooner we get truly open virtual worlds, the better.
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