Is there a new recipe for social change?

“The old model for coordination group action required convincing people who care a little to care more, so they would be roused to adt. What Hanni and Streeting did instead was to lower the hurdles to doing something in the first place, so that people who cared a little could participate a little, while being effective in the aggregate.” —Clay Shirky

picture of recipe card

How does the Internet change the way we cook up social change?

In Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Clay Shirky describes the new recipe for community organizing.

Here’s an embellished version of the old recipe:

1. Take 1 organizer
2. Add to community of people who care a little
3. Agitate to make a few of the people care more
4. Get the people who care more to take a major action
5. Repeat as needed

And here’s an embellished version of the new recipe for social change, according to Shiky:

1. Take disaffected citizen
2. Create a social media platform to air grievence and identify other disaffected citizens who care a little
3. Get many of the people who care a little to take a little action
4. Repeat as needed

Okay, obviously these are both oversimplifications, but let’s run with them.

Strengths of the “old recipe”

  • Process of education and agitation to “make people care more” builds political awareness and social conscience;
  • Person-to-person contact builds community;
  • Actively builds leadership;
  • Big actions that require a major commitment can be transformational (e.g. the Selma to Montgomery marches).

Weaknesses of the “old recipe”

  • reliance on highly-committed people leave out many people;
  • requires a lot of work to pull off, so only a few people can initiate

Strengths of the “new recipe”

  • includes people who have limited commitment or other factors that limit participation
  • lowers barriers to initiate so more people can cook up the new recipe

Weaknesses of the “new recipe”

  • How much to a million emails really mean?
  • Do the low expectations limit political education?
  • Forwarding to a friend is not leadership development

Toward an integration of the old and the new recipes for community organizing

As I’ve already said, both the “old” and the “new” recipes are over-simplifications. Both old-school and Internet-era community organizing educate participants and include people along a spectrum of involvement levels. Here are ways to make the most of both:

  • Remember the “ladder of engagement“: This old-school concept applies as well in the Internet-age. Basically, you need people who will give a lot of time, talent, and treasure to your cause, and you find them by inviting them in with low-effort activities. The people who are really excited about your petition are people who are good candidates to help circulate that petition. (just be sure to identify easy-to-do first steps and make sure you follow through).
  • Build political consciousness: This concept is out-of-favor with in the current “it’s the action that counts” focus in community organizing, but I believe that we plant the seed of opposing the next was in giving a sound anti-war analysis of the current war. Help people put their current actions in a context that will help set them up for a lifetime of positive social engagement.
  • Identify meaningful actions: I talk to a lot of people who are burned out on emailing and writing their member of Congress because they feel they do not make a difference. I think these are worthwhile, but they are not sufficient. Whether your ask is big or small, make sure it is meaningful, and mix it up a bit to get the most out of it.

Leave a Reply