Yesterday at TEDxSV, Reid Hoffman spoke about the opportunity for low-cost, highly-scalable internet platforms that can engage millions in social change. These platforms, Reid envisions, will take advantage of the ability of open source projects to self-organize to harness small contributions to make a large difference. Examples included Kiva.org and Facebook Causes. Hoffman is currently a VC at Greylock partners, was an early PayPal employee, founded LinkedIn, and (disclosure) was an early investor in Socialtext.
The trends Hoffman described are interesting and promising, but they are not enough. As an example of the failure of large-scale internet activism, think of the trend for users to turn Twitter avatars green in support of people in Iran protesting the election. The green avatars raised awareness outside Iran but had negligable impact on what happened in Iran.
The next presentation from Stanford Professor Clayborne Carson revealed several layers that were missing in Hoffman’s talk. Carson is best known for his work editing the papers of Dr. Martin Luther King, but he got his start researching the work of Bob Moses, whose pioneering community organizing with SNCC enabled poor black folk in Mississippi to build courage, skills and leadership abilities. The charismatic leadership of Dr. King inspired millions to protest segregation and press for civil rights; the less-glamorous, on-the-ground work of developing local participants and leaders laid the foundation for longterm transformation; and the disintegration of SNCC into violent spinoffs made King’s emphasis on nonviolence seem more prophetic in retrospect.
Hoffman’s vision of a platform for change is missing the layers of inspiration and organizing. Tools can lower the cost of coordinating and taking action. But tools themselves do not inspire people with the vision and hope to make a change. And tools themselves do not provide the organizing methods to give courage and leadership skills among people in the community. There is a layer of inspired leadership above the tools. There is a layer of organizing above the tools.
The well-known example of the Obama campaign’s use of social networking for fund-raising and organizing supports this distinction. The campaign used its social networking and campaign data tools well, but it was Obama’s inspiration and the fear of Bush administration failure that provided the drive, and the community-based, personalized, and highly-co-ordinated organizing methods that enabled large numbers of people to take effective advantage of the tools.
There are a few additional elements in the layers above the tools. First is the design and leadership of self-organization. Reid Hoffman talked about the ability of open source projects to “self-organize” and break work up into many small contributions. But in the Obama campaign, and in large open source projects such as Linux and Apache, there is substantial human effort involved in coordinating project roadmaps, making technical decisions at many levels, coordinating code integration, and more. From a distance, it looks like open source projects are “self-organized,” and contributions flow to the project like streams to the Amazon to the ocean. Closer in, there are sophisticated practices of governance that are different from the centralized processes of traditional corporate development, but that still require human effort.
Second is the connection of online to offline. Hoffman was particularly skeptical about this element, seeing that offline connections add friction to otherwise simpler, more viral on-line only programs. But in order to catalyze real change in the world, there needs to be connection to people’s real world social networks, and to the levers of power that operate in the real world. Without this offline connection, we are often left with ineffectual green avatars and no change in the world.
In summary, Reid Hoffman’s presentation sketched a vision of internet-powered, low-cost, scalable platforms for self-organized change. As Silicon Valley tech innovators, we are often tempted to consider technology as the determining factor in social change. But the change enabled by new platforms is likely to be trivial without the presense of other layers of practice above the tools that long predate the internet: visionary leadership, grass-roots organizing to empower participants, effective co-ordination of decentralized action, and connection to realworld networks and actions.