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Social Media 101 for Activists

June 30, 2010

On Congress.org Ambreen Ali takes a look at Progressive Women's Voices alumna Deanna Zandt's new book "Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking", which faults organizations for treating Twitter and Facebook like broadcasting venues instead of places to have a conversation.  Have you read Deanna's book yet?  What did you think of it?

Social Media 101 for Activists

by Ambreen Ali

Imagine the reaction if someone stood on a chair at a cocktail party and began shouting opinions and asking for money.

That's precisely what many activist groups do on social networks, Deanna Zandt argues.

The author of "Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking" faults organizations for treating Twitter and Facebook like broadcasting venues instead of places to have a conversation.

"You're sharing and participating and working with each other," she said.

Facebook is full of groups for one cause or another, but few of their followers actually do something. How can activists move people beyond so-called slacktivism?

Zandt offers seven tips on using social media to make a real difference.

1. Share your story. Perhaps the biggest benefit of using social networks is that they allow you to share personal stories with others, Zandt said. Compelling narratives have always been an important way to pull people into a cause. Twitter and Facebook just enhance how that works.

"Any kind of organizing, whether it be door knocking or phone banking, starts with stories," she said. "Stories create empathy, and empathy is a building block of any kind of social change movement regardless of whether someone's politics are left or right."

2. Cultivate relationships. Zandt put her theories to test while writing the book by asking friends and family to donate to the "Feed Deanna" fund. The money went to pay for the author's living expenses while she penned the social media guide.

She sent e-mails to 500 people that yielded $6,000 in cash and a handful of unique offers like $100 a month in pizza from the local restaurant and a free eye exam. What she learned applies to activist groups that often find themselves pinched for funds.

"The biggest takeaway is that fundraising is all about relationships," Zandt said, noting that she knew almost every donor personally. "You need to build your community before you need them. I couldn't have just made 500 friends in a day and then asked them for money."

3. Be personable. Robotic tweets that read like a press release won't get you anywhere. Casual prose and a human touch are the expectations on these social sites.

"You should be using the tone of voice that you would with a coworker you don't know well. Think about having a conversation with someone rather than broadcasting something," Zandt said.

4. Meet people where they are. Not all the people who would be drawn to your cause are on Twitter. Even those that are may not use it in the way you think.

Zandt gave the example of a student-led immigration protest several years ago that used MySpace to build its base. The social networking site is popular with teenagers, so it made sense for organizers to start there.

The protest was planned on a school day, and students were going to walk out of their classrooms in protest. Knowing that the students wouldn't have access to MySpace in school, activists collected their phone numbers ahead of time and texted them.

The concept, called last-mile organizing, means "understanding the community you're trying to reach and figuring out what the appropriate technology is for them," Zandt said. Many people don't use the internet regularly at all, she added, emphasizing the importance of continuing traditional activism.

5. Treat social media like a tool. No technology can take the place of traditional organizing tactics like knocking on a door, holding a protest, or meeting with a lawmaker.

"Those are still tools in the toolbox. This is an additional tool that people can use," Zandt said.

It's important to use the tool when it's best fit. Social media may not be the place to negotiate with a fellow activist group, for example, but it can help bring people together in a crisis.

When books about feminism and gay rights mysteriously disappeared from Amazon.com's search results last year, authors turned to Twitter to share what they were seeing. Pretty soon, the subject "Amazon Fail" was one of the most popular trending topics on the site, and mainstream media sites took notice.

Amazon had to react in a matter of days. Before social media, Zandt said the publisher could have pushed the issue aside or waited weeks before doing something about it.

"Maybe activists would have written to Amazon. But along the line, a number of gatekeepers would have had to approve that this was a valid story to tell," she said.

6. Don't chase the numbers. Not every cause requires a million followers. It's more important to have a dedicated group of activists who are willing to share your information with others and help out than to have tons of followers who don't really care all that much about what you do.

Parents in Florida demonstrated that when they started voicing their frustrations with the public school system through social media sites. They joined together on Facebook, eventually landed a meeting with school officials and had their concerns addressed.

"Eight thousand people may not be a lot for the Red Cross," Zandt said, "but it's a fantastic number for Palm Beach County parents who are putting pressure on a school system."

7. Reward people who help. Activists often struggle with getting their Facebook fans and Twitter followers to actually do something. One way to address that is by giving people easy-to-accomplish tasks and rewarding them publicly for completing them.

The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that uses technology to make government more accessible, used social networks to collect data on lawmakers who hire family members. They uploaded a tool and instructions asking people to look up one member of Congress and report back what they found.

Within two days, the group had data on every member.

"One of the smart things they did is that after you hit submit, they told you, 'While you were working on your lawmaker, four others were submitted.' It was a very subtle clue that you were part of something," Zandt said.

Ambreen Ali writes for Congress.org.

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