Mobilizing Generation 2.0: An Interview with Ben Rigby

This fall, I will be teaching a course on New Media Literacies and Civic Engagement. The class is designed to provide a bridge between the research we are doing for the Center for Future Civic Media and Project New Media Literacies. It also hopes to explore in depth a range of current research about how the new media landscape is impacting how young people learn to think of themselves as citizens. Here’s the course description:

New Media Literacies and Civic Engagement

What does it mean to be ‘literate’ and how has this changed as a consequence of the introduction of new communication technologies? What social skills and cultural competencies do young people need to acquire if they are going to be able to fully participate in the digital future? What are the ethical choices young people face as participants in online communities and as producers of media? What can Wikipedia and Facebook teach us about the future of democratic citizenship? How effective is Youtube at promoting cultural diversity? What relationship exists between participatory culture and participatory democracy? How is learning from a video game different from learning from a book? What do we know about the work habits and learning skills of the generation that has grown up playing video games? What impact are young voters having on the 2008 elections and why? What lessons can we take from the study of virtual communities which might help us enhance civic engagement at the local level? Who is being left behind in the digital era and what can we do about it? This class is designed to introduce students to a new wave of research which is bringing together scholars from many different disciplines to ask new questions, pose new models, and try new experiments to better imagine the future of American education and of democracy itself.

Much of the reading in the course will be drawn from a series of books recently produced by the MIT Press and the MacArthur Foundation. These books reflect a national push by the MacArthur Foundation to explore how young people are learning informally through the affordances of new media and what implications this has for the future of schools, libraries, public institutions, the workplace, and the American family. Researchers and guests from The MIT Center for Future Civic Media and Project New Media Literacies will play an active role in the course, sharing projects and curricular materials under development, grounding our more theoretical considerations with real world perspectives. Students will have an opportunity to explore these ideas through research papers but they will also be asked to get involved in the development of projects which are designed to have an impact on real world communities.

If you happen to be a student at MIT, Harvard, or Wellesley, I hope you will consider taking the class this fall. The class meets Mondays, 11-2 pm, and Weds, 3:30-5 pm. I am hoping to write here from time to time about some of the ideas that emerge from the class. We will also be hosting several discussions through the MIT Communications Forum this term focusing on the roles which new media played in the 2008 Presidential Campaigns.

To whet your appetite on this topic, I wanted to share here an interview with Ben Rigby, the author of a recent book, Mobilizing Generation 2.0, which offers case studies and insights for activists and campaigns as they think about how to reach and court young voters. The book includes discussions of blogs, social networks, mobile technologies, wikis, and virtual worlds, among other web 2.0 practices, and features contributions from a range of key thinkers including danah boyd, Seth Godin, Mitch Kapor, and Beth Kanter. Rigby, who has developed web and mobile strategies for a range of nonprofit and Fortune 1000 companies, founded MobileVoter.org, an organization dedicated to using new media to politically empower young people.

You organize your book around new technologies and platforms. Yet at every civic media event I’ve been at lately, the core debate has been whether the change is

being brought about by new technologies or by new social and cultural practices

which help to foster a greater sense of civic engagement. Is this a false

debate? Where do you fall in terms of the relative importance of technologies

vs. social and cultural practices?

It’s absolutely a false debate. Technology is a social and cultural practice. It means nothing outside of the context of the people who use it. This question led me to re-read the paper that inspired me to pursue a thesis program in Science, Technology, and Society back in college. It’s called “Steel Axes for Stone-Age Australians” by Lauriston Sharp.

To summarize Sharp’s brief ethnography: The Yir Yoront is a Western Australian aboriginal group that, by the early 1900s, had very little exposure to any social group outside of their limited radius (and virtually no contact with non-aboriginal peoples). The stone axe played a central role in their lives as a productivity tool, but most important, as a lynch-pin of social relations. Being difficult to manufacture, these axes were in short supply. While any Yir Yaront was permitted to use one, their use was controlled by adult men. Women and children who wanted to use an axe were required to get one from a man (usually a direct relation) and needed to return it promptly and in good condition. A man referred to his axe as “my axe,” but women and children never did. The axe also figured prominently in trading relations with nearby groups. The Yir Yaront traded sting-ray-barb tipped spears for raw stone with their neighbors to the south (where quarries were located). Again, adult males figured prominently in these relations as they were the primary producers of spears and lead negotiators.

When an Anglican mission arrived in 1915, the missionaries set up a plan for “raising native living standards.” In return for undertaking certain tasks or behaviors, the missionaries distributed incentive goods to the Yir Yaront. The missionaries quickly discovered that their steel axes were valued more than any other trading item. Thus, they’d give out these axes as incentives for participation in their programs and as gifts during holidays. They’d give them to men, women, and children indiscriminately.

Sharp describes the events that follow the introduction of the steel axe as “the collapse and destruction of all Yir Yoront culture.” Wives and children no longer needed to defer to their superordinate male. Men, in turn, became insecure as they questioned their roles and masculinity. The hierarchy of ‘ownership’ melted, which resulted in the rise in stealing and trespassing. Trading links weakened as stone was no longer highly valued. Associated trade ceremonies took on less significance and became poorly attended.

Frustratingly, Sharp’s ethnography leaves off there. It appears that he left the field just as these monumental transitions were taking place. I haven’t been able to find any followup reporting. It’s the ultimate cliff hanger (if any readers have additional information on this group, please send!). He reports, somewhat melodramatically, that the Yir Yaront’s southern trading partners passed through a similar set of cultural transformations which resulted in an “appallingly sodden and complete cultural disintegration, and a demoralization of the individual such as has seldom been recorded elsewhere.”

Even without the melodrama or the end of the story, it’s clear that a technical innovation (or introduction of such) sparked the transformation of a society. However, because the technology in question is a simple axe, it’s easy to disambiguate the tool from the social and cultural practice that surrounds it. Here, the tool gets moderately more effective at its ostensible task (chopping), but it’s how the Yir Yaront wove it into their life that’s critical. If it were any garden variety tool, that’d be one thing. But the axe was central to the Yir Yaront hierarchy and belief system. It’s impossible to understand the axe without understanding its cultural context – it doesn’t make sense.

Similarly, email, social networking, and YouTube don’t mean anything by themselves. They are what we make of them – and how we believe in them. Peer production of media is significant because of the way that we value media. Technology is inherently social.

In fact, this question ties into my motivations for writing Mobilizing Generation 2.0. In order to make social change, you have to understand -a- what the axe does (chopping) and -b- how people value it (cultural context). Of course, there’s a chasm in complexity between the axe and today’s technologies such that even understanding -a- is something of a challenge. However, it’s -b- that’s really important. And you can’t get to -b- without first getting to -a-.

So the book is organized around our most significant axes: blogs, social networking, mobile phones, wikis, video and photo sharing, online mapping, and virtual worlds. It intends to give readers a crash course in understanding -a-. Then, once that territory is covered, the book goes into -b-: how young people are using their technologies and how organizations are, in turn, using these same technologies to connect with youth.

We have a curious relationship with the word “technology.” In common speech, we use it to define a subset of our tools which are unfamiliar to some, but not all, members our social group. Thus, tools such as tshirts, shoes, and axes are just “things”… things familiar to everyone. But microchips, cell phones, and Web sites are “technologies.” Of course, they all belong to a kind of tool continuum – and it’s helpful to understand “technology” in this context.

There’s a moment when a tool stops being referred to as a “technology” and becomes just a thing. A light bulb, for example, has moved from being a technology to just a thing. However, a cell phone is still a technology. It will eventually move into the category of “thing” as it becomes more familiar to more people and as newer and less familiar tools take its place. The dividing line on this continuum differs among age groups – it sits forward for younger people. This rough diagram illustrates this idea.

tech.PNG

Of course the continuum varies from person to person. But for an older person running a nonprofit or political campaign (as most director level people tend to be), it’s helpful to imagine that most of their “technologies” are just “things” in the minds of young people – nearly as natural and thoughtless as putting on shoes in the morning (which is not to say, however, that they’re insignificant).

All along this continuum (and back to your question), each of these tools is embedded in our cultural context. I can’t imagine it being any other way until the point at which our tools take on an agency that’s quite outside of our collective control. To my thinking, this point happens when we start having earnest discussions about civic rights for intelligent computer systems – which means that these systems will have evolved into something entirely different from what they’ve been. I think that this moment will eventually arrive, but that it’s many years away.

Over the past few years, organizations of all kinds have begun to explore the

value of virtual worlds. Yet, virtual worlds still arguably reach only a culture of early adapters. What is the current value of virtual worlds as a political platform? Are we experimenting with something that will have a long term impact but may offer only limited short term rewards? If so, how can you justify putting energy there in what may turn out to be a tight political contest?

I don’t know much about the inception of Second Life, but I imagine it went something like this:

[Scene: friends sitting around a poker table drinking beer]

Philip Rosedale: Have you guys read Snowcrash?

Friend #1: Yea, it rocked.

Philip Rosedale: Wouldn’t it be cool if we built that thing?

Friend #2: What thing?

Philip Rosedale: The thing! The actual virtual world that Stevenson describes. I know some tech guys.

Friend #1: Phil, you should do it. That would rock.

Philip Rosedale: Yea, maybe I will.

Then Rosedale takes the book, hires some coders, and transliterates the book into pixels. And so, we’ve got Second Life, which is Snowcrash come to life – irony and all. Second Life was such an early sensation that it has, thus far, defined what is meant by “virtual world.” In fact, it’s gone further by defining the common understanding of character-driven 3D space (which is distinct from a “virtual world”).

Second Life’s early success and recent woes have, in fact, put a damper on innovation in the 3D space. Second Life and its imitators (of which there are now dozens, including Google’s recent project called Lively) continue to replicate Snowcrash. They recreate fantasy versions of something that approximates real-life. And social change efforts in these worlds are doomed. They are shoddy replications of experiences that are better in real life: walkathons, tschotchke giveaways, museum exhibits.

But these efforts are only the first forays into what will eventually be the next world changing technical movement. Snowcrash is not where we’ll end up. The potential of immersive 3D space is much greater than imitating and fantasizing about our existing reality. Remember in 1995 when businesses would scan their paper brochures and use the resulting JPG as their Web site? That’s where we are today with the use of 3D space.

So, for anyone concerned about the 2008 Election, there’s very little of interest. I wouldn’t spend any time at all in today’s virtual spaces. From the candidate perspective, it’s not worth the effort. My advice for social changemakers is to keep a close eye on the space and to wait for it.

You end the book with a suggestion that “web 2.0″ constitutes a “tectonic shift” in the political landscape. Explain. What’s the nature of that shift? How quickly is its impact being felt? What changes will traditional political organizations need to make in order to take advantage of this new model for reaching voters? And what do you think will be the biggest points of resistance in moving in this direction?

Yochai Benkler describes this shift wonderfully in the Wealth of Networks. We (I) owe him a debt of gratitude for the book. Benkler describes the shift as nothing short of a massive redistribution of the means of production. That’s tectonic. It’s a dozen steel axes put into the hands of everyone. And it’s a power grab right now between:

a) Those who are trying to prevent the redistribution (ie: RIAA)

b) Those who don’t recognize that massive shifts are underway (ie: most large nonprofits and traditional political organizations)

c) Those who love their newfound axes (ie: most young people and Web2.0 business owners)

So -a- will fight it; -b- will lose (most of the time); and -c- will fight to make -b- join them instead of joining -a- so that -a- doesn’t win, which is not at all a certainty at this point in time.

All signs are that a record number of young people have been participating in the current presidential elections and that voter registration for those under 30 have increased dramatically in recent years. What factors do you see as contributing to this increase in youth participation? Will these trends continue to rise as we look towards the fall?

I don’t have anything substantively new to say on this topic, other than to echo what you and other smart observers have been saying for the past couple of years. Young people’s media has become participatory – and they’re reacting positively to a candidate (Obama) who has shaped his campaign in a similar fashion. Moreover, he’s using language and speaking about issues in ways that give him the air of authenticity. For the sake of increasing youth political involvement, it’s a good thing he won the nomination.

You begin the book by discussing your experiences running a nonprofit, Mobile

Voter, which you suggest failed to meet its goals for registering and

mobilizing young voters. Why did Mobile Voter fail and what did you learn from

this failure?

There’s such a finality implied by the word “failure.” I don’t believe in it. It’s too black and white.

To take a recent example – this spring, we entered our newest initiative, Volunteer Now!, into the NetSquared Mashup Challenge. The Challenge involved two rounds. To make it into the first, we needed to generate votes on Net2′s web site. I emailed my list asking for votes and we made it in. The second round involved two days at a conference center in San Jose. At the conference we met dozens of enthusiastic social change activists and several potential funders. We also demonstrated the product dozens of times. In sum, we met a ton of people, honed our pitch, and got great feedback for the project.

We didn’t place in the top three. Did we fail? Of course not. There’s so much value in this experience. I’m unsure what historical events brought us to consider our efforts in Manichaean terms (win/lose, evil/good, fail/succeed), but I think it’s a big problem. We’re afraid of nuance.

So, instead of slinking away from not winning the Net2 challenge, I sent out an email to my list again with the subject line “We didn’t win!!” And funny enough, that email generated a response that was 10x higher than the initial email asking for votes. There was a lot of value in looking at the “loss” as an opportunity for engagement.

So, that’s a long entree to your question about Mobile Voter’s 2006 “TxtVoter” campaign. In 2006, we raised funds from the Pew Charitable Trusts to register 55,000 young voters. By Nov 5th, we’d registered about 35,000 – of which only about 2,000 came through our text messaging system. The rest came via our GoVote.org Web site which we built and operated in conjunction with Working Assets (now Credo, who put the lionshare of the effort into generating traffic to that site).

It would be disingenuous to say that we weren’t disappointed by the numbers – especially since we started the season with a Dean-like yell and aspirations to register many more than 55K. However, there’s a rich context to this “failure.” In addition to TxtVoter’s registration component, we helped to implement a get out the vote (GOTV) campaign that was studied (and party organized) by researchers from Michigan (Dale/Strauss) which has since become the seminal study on the effectiveness of text messaging for GOTV. We also developed a list of best-practices which is now being used to replicate the most successful instances of the TxtVoter campaign (there were some events in which response rates surged to 46% versus the 1% overall average). To boot, the experiences of the ’06 campaign led directly to the writing of Mobilizing Generation 2.0, which intends to address some of the pain points that I saw across hundreds of nonprofits and political campaigns during the TxtVoter initiative.

In sum, the learning is: there is no failure and we need to better embrace nuance.

Comments

  1. Great interview!

    It is a false debate, they technology and cultural practices are intertwined as Ben points out. In practice, where nonprofits are grappling with integrating the axe into their daily practice, there’s probably a step before a – which is understanding why the axe is important to their mission. This gets away from shiny object syndrome and poorly executed (from the nonprofit organization side) strategy.

    BTW, here’s a list of “gen y” blogs about social change, nonprofits, and philanthropy – that might be of interest to your students.

    http://beth.typepad.com/beths_blog/2008/08/where-are-the-t.html