Community Websites: a new space for activism?

While much has been written about the power of Facebook, and the impact of other social media tools in campaigning, another growing phenomena, that I’ve seen much less written about is the growth (or perhaps resurgence) of community websites, one of the most high-profile of which is Mumsnet, which seems to be in the news almost every week at the moment.
I don’t have any reason to spend any time on Mumsnet, but a quick visit to the site reveal that its a community of thousands of parents, not just talking about parenting but increasingly discussing a whole range of other issues (it has a very active election section). It’s not the only site like it, some of them are super-local, others national, but they all draw together people who share something in common but often seem to flourish into broader discussions.
Ben Furber has an excellent blog on LabourList about what this might mean for the political parties in the upcoming general election, but campaigning organisations should be considering the implications for them.
The traditional way of organising campaigning is changing to a space where people share the same interests, views and outlook in a virtual space. For campaigners, here are a few exciting challenges and opportunities that I think they presents.
  • To reach more (and new) activists, by dramatically reducing the barriers to entry, suddenly you don’t need to come along to a meeting, you can just log on and get involved. Equally you can spend as long as you like observing the discussions before you get involved.
  • To allow people to share their campaigning experiences with each other in real time, what they’ve found works, what doesn’t work, encouraging those involved to provide advice to newcomers.
  • To communicate rapid changes in strategy, no longer do organisations need to wait for the next mailing slot to update campaigners, the next campaign action or message can be communicated in real time.
  • To engaging people in the development of the journey campaign, suddenly individuals are sharing ideas about targets and tactics, trying them out and reporting back what works. It provide a good platform to crowd source of ideas, and then encourage others to adopt the most effective.
  • To let go of the message, instead of the traditional campaigning method which sees the centre control the communications and asks, those involved will want to shape, change and interpret the message, suggest their own tactics, which might not always be seen as the most effective by the ‘professionals’.
  • To move beyond communities beyond a single issue focus – the strength of these sites is that people who join them have something in common, and go to them for community with those like them. The challenge for organisations working on other issues outside of this will be to get these communities to adopt their campaigns.
    For example the Mumsnet website,already has an active campaign page, most on issues of direct relevance to parents (like breastfeeding, miscarridge, and the ‘Million Mums’ campaign on maternal health).

One thought on “Community Websites: a new space for activism?”

  1. Interesting piece, Tom… I think you’re spot-on with the ‘let go of the message’ challenge, but I think it goes a step further than this: ‘The message’ may not have actually come from the organisation at all, and then how does the organisation respond?
    These online spaces (and I see community websites being 1 piece of the equation, along with the FB groups, the Twitter hashtags and blogs like this one) allow people to ‘organise’ (thus far in a fairly directionless way) on their own – without an organisation to pull things together. Sometimes (and I think we’ll see more of this), this self-organised ‘mob’, can be enough to affect change, in and of it’s own right (Trafigura/Carter-Ruck, as well as Jan Moir/Daily Mail as 2 significant examples), but usually these mobs get bored quite quickly, without a focussed ‘next step’ provided for them…
    Organisations need to think about how to step into the ‘eye of the storm’, when it comes up, and subtly provide a way of maintaining the energy and frustration that creates the initial groundswell of support around an issue. This is one place where community websites may be able to play a more distinct role, as conversations can be led, actions and events can be promoted, and an organisation can maintain relevance in a world increasingly less in need of organisations…

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