From online community to real-world connection

It seems like forever, but has really only been several months, since my husband came home from a business trip to find me with two computers running, toggling back and forth between Twitter and Facebook and wikipedia and and YouTube and Second Life and Flickr…and completely blown away by the organizing and advocacy that activists, social service providers, and all sorts of nonprofit folks were doing in these media.

Since then, as I’ve talked with organizers and advocates about their use (or potential use) of social networking and other technologies for their work, I’ve encountered quite a bit of skepticism.

“How does this augment the real-life organizing we’re doing? How do we build authentic relationships without the face-to-face connection? How do we move people from clicking a mouse to taking real action?”

In part, these questions reflect how far we have to go in understanding that much of the organizing and advocacy landscape has changed; that, in some cases, clicking a mouse can be real action, and that, in fact, the relationships that people form in virtual communities can be every bit as real as those they build with their neighbors or colleagues in the brick and mortar world.

But there’s also some validity in these concerns. We can never confuse a means with the end, and we can never allow ourselves to forget about the tools that have helped to bring about social change throughout history. Ideally, we’ll find a way to use technology to build new communities and expand on existing ones, and then figure out how to complement that organizing with work in ‘real life’, too.

There was a post about this on Beth’s Blog, and, while they are all really exciting ideas for bridging this real world v. online world gap, I’m especially excited about the 350Actions model. While it’s focused around climate change, I think there are tons of other applications for social justice work–I brainstormed some ideas to get your creativity going and listed them below. The idea is that you use social media tools, email, and other technology applications to bring people together in ‘old-fashioned’ ways–working and communing and fighting together. But check out this entire post (linked above), because many of the ideas here are pretty inspiring, very successful, and a lot of fun. Let me know what you’re doing, or considering, to link your online activism and your “offline” constituents. Getting this right, I think, is going to be the critical test of whether these emerging technologies will be yet another failed experiment to short-cut our way to organizing or, worse still, another division between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in our society…or whether we can use these tools to re-envision our relationships, recharge our organizations, and regenerate leadership for the struggles to come.

  • Use a discussion forum (which often focus more narrowly around symptomology) for people suffering from mental illness to discuss Kansas’ constitutional limits on voter registration by the “mentally ill”, and then use an online platform to organize a day when, across the state, people with mental illness and their allies will descend on election offices to attempt to register to vote, at the same time, raising awareness about this cruel and unjust provision.
  • Use an online petition site to collect signatures for a petition around health care reform, and then use an email distribution list or blog (sent to those email addresses) to organize a date to deliver the signed petitions (accompanied by some of the online signers) to the offices of your members of Congress.
  • Search Flickr for social justice-related images from your region/community (there are tons, seriously–search ‘homelessness’, for example, and look at the tragic and profound images that come up) and then organize a social justice photography gallery at a local social service organization/community center to show some of the work. You could recruit other artists through more traditional measures, too, but this would be a way of bringing together like-minded individuals who otherwise would never have met. Use Facebook to promote the event, asking each photographer to invite his/her friends.
  • Working with your neighborhood leaders, create a Google Map of areas that need to be cleaned up. Link to it on your blog and/or Facebook page, and use this as part of your turnout efforts for a neighborhood clean up day. Or, alternatively, organize a series of clean-up dates, and update the map as each area is cleaned as you thank your volunteers and encourage others to come out.
  • In preparation for a rally against state budget cuts for social services, use Twitter to provide updates and challenges on turnout, in real-time, as new commitments come in. Each lead organizer gives new goals and commitment totals, and, at the rally, they’re recognized within their network of relationships and identified by their Twitter ‘handle’, too.
  • 24 responses to “From online community to real-world connection

    1. I’m enthused by the re-envisioning of advocacy itself just in the simple fact that online advocacy creates an easier avenue to gain multiple voices on an issue. Sure, sometimes seeing those Facebook posts of “click like or you don’t believe in/dislike/aren’t a friend of [insert any random difficult topic here]” can get tiresome, but even posts like those get people thinking in a way that they might not have before. Online petitions make it more accessible for people to have their voices heard.

      On a side note, I was honestly taken aback when you mentioned Second Life. I couldn’t see the connections between MMO’s and advocacy. But then I got to thinking, the gaming world is filled with potential advocates. I haven’t played any of those games in years, but I can definitely see action being taken on a World of Warcraft type of game. Most every elected official anymore has at least a Facebook page, and are more accessible than ever. Why not utilize the group of people who are already “at home” on the internet anyway?

      • That is honestly exactly how I felt when I first saw some of the Second Life advocacy campaigns, but, yeah, it’s about authentic relationship, at its core, which is, after all, what advocacy is about…if people are ‘living’ online, we’re being true to them by giving them opportunities to advocate there, too, rather than distancing ourselves with a judgment about their online spaces. I think another aspect of online advocacy is that it allows people to interact with their ‘real life’ friends in a different way than they might otherwise, by broadcasting those beliefs and, then, sparking dialogue about them.

    2. O absolutely love your idea on creating an online photo gallery. In Topeka, there is an art and photo gala named creations of hope. It is done yearly and showcases artists with mental illness. It is huge, and even allows people the platform to sell their art. I wonder if there is a place for something like this in Lawrence in that new arts district once it gets going.

      Also, I am with Kevin here on the second life stuff. It is actually a great platform for advocacy. The only thing I would worry about is having some type of way to deal with internet trolls, which are inevitably a daily part of internet life.

      • Good point about dealing with ‘trolls’–I was in a training once about how to deal with negative comments on social media, and there are some good strategies for engaging your community in order to effectively respond to that opposition, but, certainly, it’s different if it’s not substantive but just for opposition’s sake. And I think you should DEFINITELY look into art exhibits in Lawrence!

    3. I would ad to that not having facebook or twitter almost alienates the younger generation, as this is a huge part of their lives (good or bad)

    4. I think it is becoming increasingly important to engage online, especially to get the younger generation involved. As someone pointed out facebook and twitter are a huge part of the younger generations’ lives. Utilizing these social medias is a good way to get this generation more involved. I think that putting stuff online makes it accessible for a lot more people. It is a great way to keep people informed!
      I really liked all of the ideas that you listed. I have never thought to look at Flickr for social just images in my area. This would be such a great way to educate a community on what is really going on! I also think that online petitions are such a great idea. I have had so many classmates rally other classmates to sign a petition to make a stand. It is an easy way to be involved and let your voice be heard. And as I mentioned before, using social medias like facebook and twitter is always a great way to get more people involved.
      Technology is offering us more avenues to be utilized to promote change, and it is exciting!

      • It IS exciting, Kelsea! Social media have absolutely changed the way we interact with each other around critical issues, even just during the time that I have been organizing, the blink of an eye in our timeline, really. The one danger, I think, is that we confuse these technologies with strategy, and think, then, that they can substitute for doing the hard work of reaching out and engaging people, which there’s no substitute for. Social media are ways to connect with each other, certainly, but we still have to make the connection!

        On Tue, Feb 18, 2014 at 3:59 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


    5. I completely agree that online advocacy is becoming essential to engage in as an agency, as our world becomes more and more technological. The internet is powerful advocacy tool, and those who don’t use it are missing out on possibilities. This brings a couple of things to mind for me. For example, I have been involved in several petitions on, which honestly probably never would have gotten the number of signatures they have in the amount of time that they have if not for internet advocacy. It changes the whole game when petitions for change can be shared and signed and shared and signed again with just the click of a button. In addition, an advocacy campaign called Not Buying It took an interesting and very successful approach to media advocacy, in which they encouraged Twitter users to challenge sexist advertising by posting the advertisement or company with the #NotBuyingIt hash-tag. These posts went viral and got so much attention that major companies such as Go Daddy were pressured to change their advertising strategies. Whether you or I agree with their advocacy stance or not, It is a very interesting campaign to check out as an approach to advocacy through media that successfully affected major change.

      • There is a lot of activity in the anti-commercial sex arena online, Alysa, and I think it’s honestly an example of where an issue gets more attention than it would have, and maybe even more attention than other, comparable issues, because of the viral nature of the online advocacy. Some issues lend themselves better, both to online campaigns and to the populations/generations comfortable in online worlds, and these issues are gaining significant traction in today’s environment. Great examples!

    6. Michelle Seufert

      Embracing social media is such a great way to reach individuals and communities that we previously would have never had the chance to interact with!! The possibilities of organizing through social media are endless and extremely exciting – building bonds and relations with people down the street and across the ocean! The above mentioned ideas are so fantastic!

      I understand the reluctance from some to engage in social media and using it to organize, but as someone who grew up with technology and was a teen in the heyday of myspace, I can attest to power of the internet – it allows us to connect with others who may have the same mission and goals as we do, to plan and organize with them in ways that we couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago. If we look at some of the larger social movements taking place today many of them gained popularity and footholds online – whether on facebook, tumblr, or twitter. Rallies such as SlutWalks were able to spread widely and quickly because of the use of technology – this is huge!!

      Of course, we should still be mindful of the use of technology – the platform can also be corrupted and used for cyber-bullying and anonymous mud-slinging. But I believe if we are mindful of our on-line actions and interactions we can be comforted that the positives of these new developments in technology definitely outweigh the negatives.

      We are living in such an exciting time – when we can connect with people who share our convictions but live thousands of miles away, in a way that is meaningful and can lead directly to real actions!

      • Great point, Michelle, about how technology is neither inherently good or bad, but a utility…and it’s up to us to use it for good, and to influence others to do so as well! Excellent comment.

    7. I really enjoy looking at how technology will become a tool of empowerment in the future. I am a member of many mailing lists for different websites and groups, and I find that right after I’ve signed up for them I’m excited to sign whatever petition or share whatever post, but the longer I’m a part of it, and the more groups I sign up for, every day is a call for action and I feel that it floods my inbox in such a way that nothing gets addressed. I think most of these lists, though well meaning, do a disservice to themselves by flooding in-boxes every day (Obama, I’m looking at you!). I think they would be better served to pick and choose their mailings so that when I received a couple a day I would be more likely to actually address that issue.
      Twitter can be particularly useful in it’s ability to gather groups and have immediate responses to current events. Down to the second reactions, if that is what is necessary, is possible. It is also possible to plan for events in the future with many people following the same hash tag. It is really revolutionizing the way people gather and disseminate information.
      Online petitions are also particularly effective because with everyone’s feeds constantly being filled with nonsense intermixed with real, important posts about society at large, it allows people to act on their beliefs. It also, however, acts as a means for the white house to be required to investigate the possibility of building a Death Star, so there’s that downside. More regularly, however, is the ability for anyone to throw their opinion out there and have it be heard by the powers that be.
      I also recognize the vast possibilities between each of the media outlets you mentioned. Each does a very particular function and can, joined with the others, be used to spread vast amounts of information and calls to action with the simple click of a mouse or press of a key.

    8. It’s an ongoing debate, Michael, this tension between too-frequent appeals, which can absolutely burn people out, and too-infrequent, which can mean that people lose their attraction to you, and you fall of their radar. I think the calculus there is different for every cause/group, which is probably what you experience; you’re sort of like one big experiment, in a way, as different organizations try to figure out what it will take to regularly get you to do what they want! Not exactly the ideal of the mutual, reciprocal relationship, right?

    9. I think that online advocacy is great tool to spark passion, disseminate information, and encourage individuals to participate in face to face advocacy. I do not think it can be a replacement, nor would I want it to be. I have signed many online petitions, participated in letter writing campaigns, and learned a great deal about many social justice issues from the comfort of home using social media. I don’t feel the connection to others the way I do when I step out of my house, go to a rally, and sign hand written letters or petitions and hear someone’s personal story.

      • If online advocacy is going to play an increasingly central role in social movements in the future, Kristi, what do you think could make it a more satisfying experience for you? If there were ways to connect with people and hear their stories, would that make you feel like more of a ‘part’ of the process? What if there was integration of online and offline activities?

    10. madelinegiesler

      I think that online advocacy is a tool in our kit as social workers to work towards social change and spread awareness of issues. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter can help us to share messages with individuals in our circles and in our friends’ circles. The tool is not useful, however, in spreading awareness to groups outside of our normal connections. Online advocacy can only go so far, and it leaves many out of the conversation who might not have access to computers or the internet. It is also time consuming for audiences to sift through messages from the massive amount of information available.
      Advocacy online should be initiated on the computer, but translated into real life connections and movements offline. Successful ways of incorporating online advocacy can be with short, sweet, to the point graphics with statistics or main messages. They deliver quick, meaningful information to the world of instant access.

    11. Good insights, Madeline. I like your description of online advocacy as a ‘tool’; I think one of the dangers is when we consider it a panacea, or, somehow, a substitute for other types of engagement, but it can absolutely be part of the toolkit we bring to our social change efforts.

    12. Danny Barrera

      As mentioned above by others, I believe that online advocacy can be a way to spark passion, but it has to be in-person at some point. However, I think there are many new ways within social media to bring a bit of a ‘real-life’ factor to online advocacy. One of them is facebook live, where we can now share events that are happening in real-time in order to build up even more hype and possibly increase awareness and attendance. Other ways could also incorporate snap chat, which could take this same concept of bringing real-time events to people in the area. A facebook event could spark interest, but perhaps a video of it happening live could give it an extra spark to build awareness and attendance.

    13. Good point, Danny, that the line between ‘online’ and ‘in-person’ isn’t hard and fast and, likely, not the same as it used to be either. I don’t know if I think that organizing HAS to include in-person connection, but I do certainly agree that exclusively online mobilization has its challenges. The key is to build not just ‘hype’ but relationship…the key to any effective organizing effort, regardless of the conduit!

    14. When considering many advocacy efforts, I believe that many are most successfully began, or even entirely involved with, the spread of information and education. In these instances, I think that online forums would be a great avenue for widespread dissemination. With many social media users, their media account is the first thing they check when they wake up, what they check periodically throughout the day or when on break, and commonly when they are winding down for the evening. Like mentioned with the ice bucket challenge or Kony situation, it was proven that these posts were seen by many and shared across continents. While sharing a post asking for prayers or declaring your support may not change the world, suggestions for change or invitations to advocacy events could spark a step in the right direction.

    15. What I wonder, Cali, is when such a sharing is the first step toward deeper advocacy commitment, and when it may lead people to equate posting a video with actually doing something to induce social change. It’s not at all clear to me when a given ask can spark greater activism…or when we can confuse clicking ‘like’ with taking real action. What do you think? In your own life, what kinds of online engagement efforts translate into larger actions? What are the elements of those campaigns, which draw you in?

    16. Advocacy online can be a great way to get people involved in a conversation – as long as people are respectful. In the past few months I posted a question on my FB page asking whether or not LGBTQ communities were included in grade school/high school sex education for individuals in the past or their kids now. It started an excellent conversation! I was surprised that people I had not contacted me in years were contributing to the post. People from other states and other countries were interacting right there on my page. I was messaged by individuals who wanted to continue the conversation and ask more pointed questions. It was one of the first times that I saw I could create a productive online conversation. I used the platform to include some information for people who might be seeking information and promoted some good organizations in KC. This experience really motivated me to find other ways to use my social media platforms to get people involved and thinking. In general, I think social media is an extremely powerful tool.

      • Terrific story, Ashley! Do you think the fact that you opened with a question, rather than a pronouncement, helped to set the stage for more of a dialogue? Or was it more about the dynamic of people with whom you’re connected online? I think it’s really fascinating to consider what conditions have to be present–online or offline–for real connection to happen. Thank you for sharing this.

    17. I like the idea of using Google Maps. I was at an internship in KCK, that before I left, there were discussions of creating a citywide google map and map out each neighborhood groups boundary, location, and you would be able to click on it to access photos, events, historic landmarks, and stories about the neighborhood. I thought that interactive approach would be so neat for people to be informed about what is going on in their city and neighborhood. It would also be a one-stop resource for neighborhood group information. A downside is the importance and dedication of others knowing how to utilize and upload in order to keep their neighborhood events and activities current. So there would definitely be a learning curve to making it successful. But I think it would be such a neat idea and it would highlight mini celebrations of community empowerment going on.

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