Strangers make the best allies

Sometimes the strangest sources prompt my thinking about advocacy and organizing. I guess that’s what happens when you almost always have them on your mind, hunh?

I was reading an excerpt of an interview with the music critic for Rolling Stone (funny, I know, since I don’t listen to music (!), but I subscribe for their political coverage, muddle through missed references to popular culture, and end up having heard of enough bands to impress my husband over dinner conversation). I can’t remember now exactly where I read the interview excerpt, but I think it was on a blog created by the woman who started the fun website Epic Change. He was bemoaning the fact that most people are using social networking applications (he mentioned Twitter, specifically) to keep up with their interests, their friends, their (in his case) favorite music, rather than to connect with disparate interests and new figures beyond our normal networks. Basically, that we’re social networking with the same folks we would normally email and call and talk to, making the technology an interesting way to communicate and a nice addition to our repertoire, but not a revolutionary tool for linking new people and new ideas.

His point in regards to music was that this has the tendency to create a mass effect, where technology drives people to the lowest common denominator of sorts–I think his quote was something like the music that the most people can stand, rather than the music that this person or this person like the most (I’m sorry that I can’t find the link to the actual post anymore; that’s what happens when you scan blogs while building Duplo blimps and keeping twins from crawling under the couch).

And that got me thinking about a conversation that I had with some students last spring about organizing in Second Life. One student raised a pretty vigorous objection, claiming that the ‘kind of people’ who spend a lot of time in a virtual world probably aren’t going to be core activists in this actual reality. And I think that she has a solid point, but, as I argued then, the point of organizing in Second Life is not to convert our current allies into avatars but to engage people, even in a limited or highly unorthodox way, with whom we would never normally have any kind of relationship.

And so, when I read this interview, I started to think about how most nonprofit organizations, and the social workers who work in them, are currently thinking about emerging technologies. From my conversations and the reading I’ve been doing, I’d venture that it’s primarily about how to communicate their message through them and how to engage their supporters (and maybe likely but not yet supporters) in a new, ‘hip’ way, but less about how to reach totally new populations, untouched by their other outreach strategies, and how to engage in a dynamic conversation with those folks, rather than a primarily one-way flow of information.

But, really, if we’re going to change the world, we need more than our current allies, or even our current allies plus their friends. We need to connect with issues that we don’t think we could really care less about, but then find out that we do, and we need to think carefully about how our issues connect to those. We need to talk with, not just at, people we’d usually walk right past on the street, find out what really matters to them, and craft messages about our causes that resonate. We need to engage those who care deeply about life and justice and peace but have never found a home in the nonprofit sector; and we need to engage those who don’t think that their interests align with our causes at all (but, of course, they really do).

And that’s the real power of social networking and other emerging technologies, and, more importantly, the organizing ideologies behind them. While it would be very difficult and very expensive to find and connect with and listen to all of those distant and diverse voices using our traditional methodologies, it really is possible, and not even too technically difficult today. The challenge is really one of will–we have to be willing to open ourselves up, to expand our ideas, to, well, to listen to music we normally wouldn’t. If we do, we just might be able to build a network that’s truly a force for good.

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