The promise of Google+ for organizing

A while ago, I wrote a blog post on the trouble with Facebook for organizing.

As the dominant online social network, Facebook is the place where activists and organizers have flocked to help their movements spread. Given the role that Facebook and Twitter played in actual revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, this can’t be understated! Social media are powerful tools for organizing, proved. (Although social media didn’t cause the revolution, and techies can overstate the influence of technology in the organizing work that people do).

Yet there is still a key limitation in Facebook’s model that keeps it from being as powerful as it could be. It’s hard to get to know people on Facebook. The Facebook model, where a friend needs to approve a friend request, is designed for people who already know each other. It’s awkward for people who don’t know each other to to talk to each other, and it’s not very socially acceptable to “friend” someone you don’t know in real life.

Facebook groups overcome this limitation to some extent. In a topically focused group, it’s accepted to talk to others in the group you haven’t met yet; the invitation bridges the gap. But there is still a big barrier to getting to know new people.

Another problem with Facebook for organizers is that as an organizer, you don’t know who people are unless you friend them personally, which is uncool and impossible for large movements. With Google+, you can see people’s profiles. And as a participant, you can also choose what facets of your identity to share with whom. Powerful and ethical, the best of both worlds.

In Twitter, it is easy and socially acceptable to follow someone without following them back. You can become familiar with someone’s tweets, and use gestures like retweet and reply to get their attention and make their acquaintance. But it Twitter back-and-forth conversation is painful and next-to-impossible. So Twitter is better for broadcast than conversation and meeting people.

Google+ design choices, by contrast, make it easy, appealing, and fun to make the acquaintance of new people. Unlike Twitter, conversation is easy to see.

A post is read by the people following the poster, so a conversation will typically have people you don’t know, and new people are quickly chatting amongst each other. It’s easy to take a quick peek at someone’s profile, and see something about them, and what else they contribute. G+ has an asymmetrical model like Twitter, so there’s no social obligation imposed by following. If you choose not to follow someone, their posts still appear in a special “incoming” stream unless you block them, so you can make the decision later.

So Google+ is not just for spreading the world within existing social networks (a la Facebook) and not just for broadcasting, it’s for creating new connections.

Why new connections are important

Malcolm Gladwell was roundly criticized for his ill-informed critique of online organizing as mere “slacktivism”, lightweight action among people with weak ties. In his view, real organizing only takes place among people who know each other well in the physical world. So, the civil rights movement, where organizing traversed the social networks in the African-American church, was an example of real, powerful organizing.

Of course, Tahrir Square showed that was wrong, but why? The principle to learn from the civil rights movement isn’t that movements travel through churches, but that they travel through existing social networks. Facebook traces real social networks and strengthens those networks according to a recent study by Pew Research. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s sociological analysis seemed to show that contemporary folk were more isolated and less organized than in the past. If so, Pew’s finding is showing that online connections these days are strengthening our actual social ties.

There are several flaws in Gladwell’s argument. First, as a strong critique in the Nation points out, connections in Facebook and Twitter include real world strong ties, not just weak ties.

Not only that, weak ties are what allow ideas (and protests) to spread among small groups of close contacts. In the civil rights movement, networks among church leaders and progressive leaders allowed ideas and plans to spread among churches and communities, and media coverage fuled the fire The weak tie connections in social media allow this spread to happen quickly.

The Nation article also critique’s Gladwell’s point that online groups can only “swarm”, they can’t do more complex organizing. It uses the example of the Obama campaign that was hyper-disciplined about managing volunteers and giving them specific actions to do.

Gladwell’s argument is wrong even in his core argument about how classic organizing worked. A key part of organizing is building the social network, not just traversing the existing network. Union organizers created songs, social halls, and workers schools to increase the social connections among workers, to help workers, of course, and to solidify those social connections that would help them organize. Google+, if it takes off, can help people to extend ties, not just to work within existing ties.

What’s missing, and what could be next

“If it takes off” is a crucial caveat. What makes Facebook so powerful is critical mass. In many parts of the developed world, everyone is there. In Egypt, a relatively small number of poeple were online, but people online were able to share tactics with each other and spread them to people who were not online. Google+ needs a large following among nongeeks in order to become effective. The rapid growth is promising, but it’s early.

Google+ is missing two critical features to make organizing really powerful. Google+ doesn’t yet have shared groups. Currently it only has “circles” which are set up by individuals to control what they read and what they share. The good thing about this is that I can have a “Circle” of people that are interested in local transit issues, and I don’t need to bore people who are out of town or uninterested.

But the bad thing is there isn’t a way for a set of people to mutually share about a topic or for others to easy discover and join. In Friendfeed you can search for public groups; in Yahoo groups, you can also browse a directory and find groups you’re interested in. It would be great if you could search or browse for public groups, and if you could choose to have public groups appear on your profile, if you want to let others know.

Another gap in the Google+ model for sharing is the lack of hashtags or topic filtering. With Google+, you can only control posting and listening by person, not by topic. Adding tag/topic filtering will make it much easier for people to choose what to pay attention to, and what to ignore. It will make it easier to have advocacy without spam.

Another major opportunity is for decentralized but coordinated action. The Nation article gives examples of the Obama campaign and MoveOn campaigns that centrally coordinate large amounts of local action. But Obama volunteers and MoveOn house parties don’t have very much autonomy, and there aren’t good ways today for groups to work separately but together. That’s hugely promising, and Google’s circles and upcoming APIs could make this easier. This is a rich topic for its own blog post, so I’ll stop here and pick that up in another post.

I’m excited by the potential Google+, as a social network, and as it matures, a potentially powerful platform for organizing.

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