on-line activism

I met David Babbs of 38 Degrees to discuss participation on-line, how it works and its impacts. 38 degrees was set up in May 2009 to enable people to be engaged in change using social software and email. 38 degrees is the angle of slope which naturally causes an avalanche; the analogy being that enough people weighing in on an issue will cause a similar effect on public opinion.

Since the launch it has built its membership to 120,000 people and has a target of 1% of the UK population by 2012. I’m not sure how percentages relate to degrees, but I imagine 600,000 plus people campaigning on a regular basis will have considerable impact. Some trade unions have similar sized memberships, but their democratic structures are vastly different to 38 degrees – as they are based on an elected representative structure. 38 degrees uses a range of participatory methods to continually engage its members in decisions.

On a monthly basis one in twelve members are asked to fill in a survey using Survey Monkey. This poll informs which campaigns get initially promoted on the 38 degrees website. Suggestions for campaigns also flow in through Facebook, Twitter and email. Specific polls are carried out with a 10% sample of membership to see what catches the enthusiasm of members and an on-line deliberative tool has been used with 3,000 people to delve deeper and work more deliberatively.

David admits that 38 degrees aims to attract more left of centre people, but acknowledges that the on-line spaces have attracted people from a wider spectrum of opinion. As he says, traditional organising was dependent on physical community (the workplace or the community you live in), whereas now, people also interact in global and distributed communities on-line. Social software has enabled us to extend our friendships as well as our networks of co-activists. Clearly the quality of these friendships is different from ones where there is regular physical meeting, but 38 degrees isn’t promoting on-line activism as better, it’s just recognising that it exists and is using it to enhance campaigning.

We also talked about how power is distributed in an organisation like 38 degrees. Whilst some campaigns originate in the office, they only persist if the membership is attracted to them. Just as a physical crowd responses to speeches, by shuffling, smiling, sighing, groaning and so on; so a campaign that has support is accompanied by flutters of ‘likes’ or ‘comments’ on Facebook, flurries of ‘tweets’ and the a few more complaints than for other issues. As in a face to face facilitated session, the feedback you get impacts on the direction you take next. The ‘leader’ can only lead by consent – as consent is demonstrated day to day in real time by the memberships’ reaction to campaigns on-line. 38 degrees is distributing decision making on a daily basis – a fact reflected on a wider scale in David’s observation that whereas in previous general elections the media stories where highly controlled by spin doctors, this election sees ‘messages’ unravelled and repackaged within minutes on-line, by the various users of blogs, You Tube, Facebook et al.

As to impacts…well at the time of writing 38 degrees had just had a huge number of people involved in raising the issue of the recall of MPs. A couple of weeks later and all three of the main party leaders are advocating the recall of MPs in the leadership debate. Cause and effect? Who knows, but certainly a high degree of influence.

But, I’ll leave David to sum up why on-line activism is a powerful tool…