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eDemocacyCamp Session 2: Social Networking Systems, Message Control

5 March 2008

The second session I attended was hosted by Alan Rosenblatt, the founder of the Internet Advocacy Center, which offers “digital political strategies for Advocacy and Electoral Campaigns”
By this, he doesn’t mean the government’s message, but that of activists. He argues a common sense line: Form e-mail campaigns can no longer work. Elected officials are less likely to pay attention when they don’t know whether the e-mails they’re getting are spam or a real person, much less the level of interest that person holds.

Advocates need to argue a cause in their own words. And if they are going to do that, they need to own the cause (as corny as it sounds), but for an effective message distribution, they have to be members of a team, not minions. He calls this forming “strategic communities,” which is just a buzzword for bringing people who are really passionate about something together.

What was particularly interesting was his theory of network scaling. Alan promotes the use of online social networks (in particular, Facebook) for advocacy, though warns against over-committing to too many networks. Current examples of this would be the, now defunct, Edwards campaign and the Obama campaign. Edwards tried to be on all the major social network, and it turned out to be too much to keep up with. Obama’s campaign focuses on the two major ones – Facebook and Twitter, which is much easier to keep up with.

Network scaling is like a pyramid scheme, but for causes. The message is seeded by people who really care and spread through their connections and their connections’ connections. Ideally the cause networks should merely provide a channel of communication between supporters, not create a narrative for them to follow. Again, this is stressing the point of the activist “owning the cause.” It’s better to have a strong core of supporters than a scattered field of interested persons.

He concluded with the three steps one should focus on when building support for a cause, as originally designed by a white supremacist group for use on Usenet. But they are simple and straightforward. Sometimes the most irrational segments of society have just enough common sense to be scary:

Always make sure your message is visible.
If someone comes out with a countermessage, respond.
If you see a potential recruit, contact them.

To be effective, keep it simple. Common sense.

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