How Can New Technologies Strengthen Social Movements?

September 9, 2013

Dan Shannon, Strategy Director, Purpose

Dan Shannon, Strategy Director, Purpose

As the United States stands on the brink of another military conflict, I am reminded of this observation:

“It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace. If you do not organize the peace, then you lose the fruits of victory.”

Except this quote is not about Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s about the Peloponnesian War, by a guy named Aristotle who knew a thing or two about the nature of our society. It remains eerily relevant nearly 17 centuries later.

The U.S. and Syria are different from Athens and Sparta. But the nature of conflict remains the same. The same is true of social movements: We have new tools at our disposal, but the nature of organizing remains the same. Our challenge is to understand how these new tools connect with the principles that have guided organizers for generations and to craft strategies and tactics that effectively use those tools to support those principles.

Networks have always been central to social movements. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was famously a “network of networks.” From the Highlander Folk School, where Rosa Parks studied nonviolent civil disobedience, to student groups at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Bennett College that organized the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, to the Dallas County Voters League that organized the Selma marches, local networks sparked key moments that propelled the movement into the national consciousness. National networks of organizers from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee helped sustain momentum and build power over time. This intentional strategy of a network of networks was critical to the Civil Rights Movement’s success.

Today’s technology strengthens the powers of networks in three important ways: 

  • It allows for networks that are global in nature. Online or mobile-based organizing is not limited by geography, only by access, which even in developing countries is increasing rapidly.
  • It allows for networks with fewer barriers to entry. Lowering the entry point from attending a meeting to signing an online petition opens up networks to exponentially more people.
  • It allows for networks with more decentralized power. Today, a movement entrepreneur with a vision and an internet connection has the tools to create networks, launch campaigns, and organize millions.

All Out is a global movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality that brings together networks of activists from New York to St. Petersburg to Kampala and allows people to connect with and support them. When Brenda Namigadde, a Ugandan lesbian living in the U.K., was threatened with deportation, within days, All Out and its affiliated networks mobilized more than 60,000 people in 160 countries to take actions ranging from signing a petition to attending a rally. Namigadde's deportation was put on hold and her case given the fair review it deserved.

Networks allow organizers to build power in communities. Now, those networks can be global, anyone can join, and most importantly—anyone can organize.

Dan Shannon is Strategy Director at Purpose. At the BSR Conference 2013, Shannon will participate in the session “Change 2.0: Networks, NGOs, and the Empowered Individual,” at which he, Valeria Budinich of Ashoka, and Nathaniel Manning of Ushahidi will discuss how network-centric technology and innovative approaches have enabled new models of citizen engagement—and how business can engage with these networks for change.

Photo Credit: U.S. National Archives, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., 1963. Via Flickr Commons.

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