Online Social Networks: Can They Power Social Change?

Right this very minute, ONE/Northwest is hosting a “brain trust” event where 60+ people are gathered to talk about online social networks and their potential for powering social change.

Here’s a liveblog of my notes:

Gideon Rosenblatt, ONE/Northwest ( Executive Director

We are a capacity builder that helps environmental groups engage people in environmental protection.

Thanks to Aron Thompson, ONE/Northwest board member, for sponsoring.

Topic for tonight: online social networks, and how they can be used for promoting social change.

This is an experiment in community learning. These are new, unfamiliar tools to all of us. This is how we think we can learn about them together.

We’ll have 8 speakers, each of whom will speak to an aspect of online social networking, then turn it over to you for discussion.

Tremendous corporate interest. News Corp bought MySpace for ~$500 million. Microsoft bought a stake of Facebook at a valuation of $15 billion. Current valuation of Starbucks: $18 billion.

Sometimes, these valuations are hype. Sometimes there’s something profound going on. That’s what we’re here to talk about tonight.

We’re seeing some shifts in behavior among environmental organization constituents. A new generation of people are not joining our traditional single-issue membership organizations. They’re doing something else. These social network services seem to be what they’re joining.

Gideon wrote a paper in 2004, Movement As Network, that tried to think through some of these things. Focus was on how to bring people together into networks that could be mobilized quickly around issues, but not be defined by them. It’s old, but still interesting.

Karen Uffelman: MC

Quick icebreaker. 8 speakers coming up. 3 minutes each. Hold questions, time for discussion at the end.

Jodie Tonita demo of Facebook, an online social networking site

I’m “Jane Average.” Facebook entered my life 6 months ago. One of my roles at ONE/Northwest is to organize a conference called Web of Change. Suddenly I started getting invites from people to join. Didn’t know what I wanted to do, but knew that all of the people I would want to do it to were there.

Turned out to be useful for rekindling occasional relationships, helped me find people to invite to the conference. Initially noticed young, social change technology. Canada has very high adoption rate of Facebook, lots of non-20-somethings.

Why I use Facebook instead of email: when I want to be less intrusive. People get Facebook info when they’re in the mood to catch up with people. More personal, more casual than work or personal email.

More recently, Vancouver progressive community has come online along with social change leaders.

(A quick tour of Jodie’s Facebook profile.)

David McDonald, Assistant Professor at UW Information School

Information Schools are the evolution of library schools. Area of research: computer supported cooperative work. How people collaborate with each other using technology.

Academic perspective on interesting issues social networking raises.

What’s really new here?

  • Profiles – persistent presentation of self. In some cases, they last forever.
  • Explicit articulation of friends. This doesn’t happen offline much.
  • Breaking boundaries of physical relationships. We can interact with distant people. (maybe this isn’t very new)
  • Maybe this is the “hot new place to see and be seen.”

To me: this is just another way of building an online community.

To have an online community, you must have:

  1. Affiliation, a way to join
  2. A way to interact and acknowledge each other.
  3. Accountability, and standards of behavior/practice
  4. Mutual support when members have need.

How does this relate to social networking?

Identity: what are the dimensions of a profile? Sometimes explicitly stated, sometimes implied. Should profiles last forever? What are the implications of that? How will this affect elections 20 years from now? This is gonna get fun! 🙂

What are the opportunities for personal interaction and relevation/disclosure of information? How is that structured, and how do those relate to the ends of groups?

How do you keep “bad” behavior in check, while encouraging “desirable” behavior? Who decides the norms?

Privacy! How do you help members of your community understand the significance of what they’re revealing? What is exposed, and to whom? What are the risks?

Alex Steffen, Editor,

An online blog about sustainability.

A year ago, we had a problem. We were working on a big book. Our publisher wasn’t big enough to have enough clout to get the book noticed. We had a shoestring budget and an obscure topic. What could we do to break through and get noticed?

What assets do we have? Not money. Not fame. Minimal public profile. Not many connections in the publishing world. But, we have a big reader base and a lot of friends. Those friends have blogs, email lists, lots of ways of connecting to each other.

Also, a friend who worked at Amazon, and knew how Amazon’s ranking algorithms worked. Key fact: all preorders count for first-day sales rank. Strategy: get all of our friends to buy the book on the same day, hoping that this would create enough of a buzz to demonstrate interest. Date: 11 November 2006 or before.

The result: we premiered at #11. The next day, Barnes & Noble bought 18,000 copies, and became a book of the month club selection the next week.

Lesson: it is possible to achieve great results with these strategies. With few resources. But we’ve underinvested even so.

Sasha Summer Cousineau, NARAL Pro-Choice Washington

How NARAL is using MySpace as community organizing tool. My target: high school students through 30-somethings.

Ways that people receive information is changing dramatically. Phones and mail aren’t working as well as they used to. Even since the 2004 election, political messages are changing. (e.g. more text messaging).

Problem: how to bring in more 18-35 year old members, how to educate and mobilize.

We’re still learning. Here’s what we’ve found.

We have a MySpace page. Very intentional about how we’ve built their friends list. Started with people who were already invested: staff, interns, close allies, local celebrity supporters. Asked close friends to feature us to their friends. This led to organic growth.

From there, began searching for people who we could identify as pro-choice. Once we had a critical mass, we used our existing email alert system to invite people to “check it out.” Great response from there.

We don’t allow people to make comments on our stuff without approval. We are very “message oriented” concerned about control of message. We check out people who try to join us without us inviting them first. (We still know that our enemies are probably on there, though.)

People aren’t going there for long conversations, more for quick hits of info and to socialize. Not about building intellectual capital. Be edgy, catchy, and brief! The truth won’t set you free. Be brief, and let people ask you for more.

Organizational website is still the big repository for information. All places are tightly connected to each other: blog, website, YouTube, MySpace, email, etc. People can choose how to receive information.

Organizing success! Summer young professionals event. Event invites, blogs, bulletin posts on MySpace. Good response. Youth Leadership Summit, 70 students, about 10 of whom found us through our social networking tools.

Jeff Reifman,

I’m here to talk about the dangers of volunteering for ONE/Northwest. 😉

Themes I’ve been finding in my work developing web applications for social change. Current main project: a collaborative social news bookmarking site. For progressives, built with open-source. A different approach to building a media platform.

Built four Facebook applications. Most recent for a BC energy organization: giving green gifts. A Daily Show video clips application.

Have watched ups and downs of Facebook platform over the past few months.

Concerned that groups are trying to use Facebook, but am skeptical about the potential of corporate-controlled tools to ultimately empower this kind of action. Closed systems that we can’t get out of, and can only do the things they let us do.

Big idea: building networks for individuals to participate and collaborate. Collaboration tools for working together are thin in these social networks.

Theory: building a network, not an island. Groups want to bring people to them, to do what they want them to do. This is challenge, resource intensive, may prevent collaboration. How to do it different: build services, not destinations.


  • Let people come to your site as they are. Use existing accounts, OpenID
  • Promote others’ content, not just yours.
  • Inverting. Build tools that allow others to place your content on their sites.

Brian Gershon, Web Collective

A social-mission software developer. ONE/Northwest’s next door neighbor.

What is Google’s OpenSocial? Brand-new. You haven’t missed the boat. 😉

Not a new social network. A platform for building applications that can be run on multiple social networking sites at the same time. May help other sites compete with Facebook. Doesn’t require developers to learn (many) new tricks.


  • MySpace is adopting OpenSocial as their primary API (application programming interface), how other programs can access their data.
  • Flixster: movie rating application that runs on both MySpace and
  • iLike: music rating and promotion application that runs on multiple platforms. Allows artists to publish once, and have content go across multiple networks.
  • LinkedIn: business networking.

Alex Tischenko, Oregon Bus Project

A youth political organizing project. Have been using social networking (primarily Facebook) as part of core programs: bus trips to support progressive candidates and “building votes”, targeted voter registration.

Facebook Group is a core communications tool to get information out to their network.

Also building a Facebook application, launching in January, to support “Days for Democracy” project. Will provide personal webpage for tracking and recognizing people’s volunteer organizing efforts. Facebook badge to go on profile and display that information in Facebook.

Kevin Moore


Sheep vs. cats. Lots of sheep, not very mindful of the big picture. Cats are more intelligent, but hard to herd. Our challenge, how do we herd cats?

Transition from broadcast focus to something else. People want to browse, explore, not be broadcasted at. Not organizational focus. What are your interests? Who do I know that shares that interest?

How to do this? Facebook? Proprietary, they don’t share our social change goals. Something shared, open, not centrally controlled is a good thing, I think.

What does common infrastructure look like? Impractical. Merged organizations? Probably won’t work.

Common technology standards, applications? Shared protocols.

Blogs — shared protocol (RSS). Useful without needing to understand it. How do we develop more powerful, more useful shared protcols.

Whew! That’s it. Time for small group discussion! Here are the questions Karen offered:

  1. What questions do you have now after these presentations?

You can discuss in the comments.

6 thoughts on “Online Social Networks: Can They Power Social Change?”

  1. Jon,
    wish I could be there… sounds really amazing. We are busy working round the clock to launch our new product called Sprout. It is really going to make a huge impact on how groups and individuals can use social networking for change. We don’t assume to have all the answers, just providing a powerful tool. We are going into Beta next month with a Jan launch. I’ll make sure to get you in on the testing fun!

  2. Thanks for live blogging this! I saw the announcement and would have loved to have been a fly on the wall, but this is almost just as good.

  3. ditto what Beth said, lots of food for thought here. Don’t suppose anyone recorded this and/or there are other blogs about the event to hear other perspectives/what struck other participants?

  4. We took some video; if it comes out, we’ll be posting it next week. Cross your fingers. 🙂

  5. SO very sorry I missed this. I could have really benefited from this given my current project. Any luck with the video? I couldn’t find it anywhere.

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