Feednet 10: Technology Moves Fast: How Do Social Movements Keep Up?

Over the last month (since I left my full time role with a Chicago organizing group) — I’ve done a lot of thinking about social change, technology, and communications.

I didn’t come up with any major answers, but I’m excited to talk more with others about a member based models, documentation for organizing successes + new technology, and what mediums are best for learning.

A Month of Data Collection

I started working with groups way outside my Chicago specific local projects in the last few years, and pushed myself to build 30 decent explainers across channels to get better at iteration, training/teaching, and some new mediums (mostly video + IG stories/design). I also kept working on 5 Minute Speech Coach, an audio course I hoped could fill the void of decent, consistent media spokesperson trainings that were also affordable.

I also did 25 interviews with organizers + activists on how 5MSC could best serve their needs. Since the problem here seems to be that there aren’t many scaled resources (priced affordably), I wanted 5MSC to help solve that problem.

At the end of the day, I found that while the people I talked to were excited about 5MSC, the barriers to them using it or buying it were… familiar.

In fact, they were so familiar that I started coding these interviews and found basically exact same 3 problems I have encountered in social movement communications over and over again.

(Just to be clear, these interviews were informal — not IRB approved.)

(Also it wasn’t all work, I went camping, took my dog camping, and joined a band.)

The Problems: Capacity, Training, Buy In


Anyone who is alive in capitalism intuitively understands this problem: there are not enough hours in the day to do everything, and there are never enough resources to make everything you do scale to its maximum potential. Most organizers and activists are or are building with (or, most commonly, are both) people dealing with structural oppression, generational and personal trauma, and economic instability.

Zooming out a little bit, organizers and activists are often also working on too many projects, have limited institutional or financial support, or are tackling issues that require potentially generations of organizing to address.

Haha those paragraphs were fun.

Here’s the thing: all of those things are true, but people are still organizing + mobilizing + building social change in spite of those things (go CTU!). So the question is, “What are those groups doing that should be replicated?”)

Unexpectedly, there is an article about Lil Nas tweetdecking addresses this resource issue really well. It’s okay that Lil Nas was tweetdecking.

Training — Scale and Documentation

The problem of “training” is very similar to issues of capacity but with a few key differences. I believe that anyone with the time, financial and emotional resources, and a curricula that fits their learning style could essentially do what this guy did, complete MIT’s entire curriculum online for free, if they wanted to.

But we all aren’t amateur astrophysicists. Some of this is again about capacity, but a lot of this is about the lack of meaningful scaled curricula that paints an authentic picture of what resources someone needs.

This is particularly bad for marketing/communications/storytelling (whatever you want to call it — getting people aware of what you do). It is very hard to tell what is possible, what resources or background a particular person needs to learn something, how much different tactics, tools, and projects cost (in terms of time and money) to do well. Worse, all of these tools/tactics are constantly evolving, going behind paywalls, or being deactivated — which then makes the training/documentation created to help people use it relatively useless.

(This is from 5MSC, but it turns out there is also no consistent, SMART, evaluative practice tool for… most communications technology).

I think this is also why the Right is so good at narrative shift — people who do this for businesses and companies are able to rapidly deploy the same marketing tools for their ideology, and if something doesn’t work, they can throw money at the problem.

For us, I see groups do best when they figure out 2–3 good tactics that work well at their scale (based on hours/campaign length, the technologies the people involved are most comfortable with, and their goals).

The problem is, scalable training is hard to access for most organizing groups. As one person in a group I‘ve worked with said “I can Google ‘how to make a website’ but everything that comes up is either made for people with $15,000 to throw around or garbage.’ ”

Buy In

The last problem is the one that gets me. As I got deeper into my conversations, I noticed that a lot of the people I was talking to almost instanteously understood the need for experimentation around social change and technology. Most of them had done some really incredible things in this vein, or had experimented with these tools then got caught up in other work. The thing that kept them from moving forward with those results or even just writing up their results was the same, whether they were a communications associate at a national nonprofit or a social justice adjacent Influencer: a lack of buy in on these experiments from the people around them.

This problem hit me hard, because it resonated so much with my experiences in social justice communications overall. I heard this problem over and over again: either a general discomfort with technology at their organizations, or outright dismissal of these tools from others because of preconceived notions about how technology works. Even at organizations where there was lots of support for new technology, challenges around funding made even small projects like Facebook Ads really risky, and thus difficult for teams to execute effectively.

Though the success of leftist groups through New Power over the last few years has definitely made experiments with technology more appealing, there are still major challenges that make these kind of experiments, so fundamental to learning how to use the right tools + tactics for your work, almost impossible.

Why Consulting Doesn’t Solve these Problems

When I quit my job, many people told me to become a “communications consultant”. As I’ve taken on contracts and work, I’ve been surprised how much I have steered away from communications consulting work — especially facilitating messaging/narrative conversations, PR/media work, and digital channel building.

This is because a communications consultant doesn’t neccessarily have the tools to address these 3 problems at the root: if a group doesn’t believe it’s possible to create a meaningful communications strategy + that everyone has to be part of establishing that strategy (or able to riff on the fundamentals of that strategy) then there’s not a lot of meaningful communications they can do in 2019 (I mean, unless they’re Nike.)

I did market research for 5MSC, people said over and over again that the only way to fund a project like this sustainably was through highly priced coaching, selling the product to funders or targeting it to Executive Directors, or doing trainings with much larger groups (with more money) than the ones I work with currently. Kind of like communications consulting.

Though some of the 25 people I spoke with were funders and Executive Directors, the majority of them were organizers, volunteers, ‘junior’ staff, or ran small media brands on their own, so making 5 Minute Speech Coach something that would actually make it easier for them to do incredible work requires scaling this project in a very different way.

Introducing Repeater — An Experiment With Social Change Media Experiments

So where does this leave us? I’m working on a project that I’m hoping can be a more collaborative version of Feednet, 5 Minute Speech Coach, and my relentless obsession with testing mediums + how people do cool shit on the internet with no money.

It’s called Repeater, based on all the amateur Ham Radio kids sending the Navy on fake missions in 1910 through stations maintained by volunteers — they amplified weak signals from other channels in order to share information.

Designed for activists, organizers, and social change agents from a variety of spheres, Repeater is a membership group where members commission + create case studies about different tools and tactics, a way to share specific, replicable, actionable social change successes with others.

Here’s more on Repeater.

In true ‘New Power’ fashion, right now it’s a PowerPoint: but it’s growing.

Now What?

For me: I’m chugging along with new types of information sharing, training, and education tools, including a bunch of civics explainers for City Bureau + membership engagement for Means TV.

5MSC is still in the horizon, but part of a bigger plan for Repeater’s communications tools.

I’m also planning some future general communications training dates.

For Repeater: If you’re interested in being part of Repeater, either as a monthly member or in a more active role, please reach out.

Over the next several months I’m hoping to talk with even more people re: their social change communications needs, and to start building a member committee that can prioritize commissioning the contents of the library, build community agreements, and fundraise. This group will also work to establish the first 5–6 commissioned case studies — from which groups, how much we pay, and how we scale.

If you’re interested, let me know here.

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