Criteria for an Activist Social Media Platform

10 Jun

Last weekend I attended the Unlocking Ideas hackathon run by the People’s History Museum and the Working Class Movement Library, both based in Manchester. The 24 hour hackathon took place in the incredible Islington Mill artist space in Salford. I’d never been to a hackathon before and wasn’t sure what to expect. With little or no technical skills in terms of computing I was worried that I’d be out of my depth and unable to contribute to what was going on. Thankfully this wasn’t the case.

The event was aimed at using the People’s History Museum and Woking Class Movement Library online archives as inspiration for developing the next generation of protest tools, as the blog of the Unlocking Ideas project puts it, and groups basically used the time, space and free WiFi (provided by Get-Me-Connected), coffee and food to come up with some innovative tools that could be used by contemporary protest movements.

The space in Islington Mill used for the hackathon

The space in Islington Mill used for the hackathon

The other two groups who took part (I was there with colleague and friend Leandros Savvides) came up with some brilliant pieces of software that in very different ways connect with politics and empower people to take action on an issue and understand better complicated political landscapes. One of these was a programme, developed by members of the Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books collective, that automatically collates random sections from comment threads from various online sources and turns them into a dialogue for an agitprop play. This was a fascinating way of meshing together different responses people have in different contexts and it was interesting to see how the outcome actually worked well as a dialogue and didn’t come across as a completely unconnected series of statements.

The second innovation that came out of the hackathon was an app aimed at allowing people to connect with others who want to work together on a particular political issue but don’t know how to get in touch with one another. Based on the principles of community organising, this would allow users to register their interest in an issue and then create the links between users with similar concerns. It’s a fantastic idea and, as the team who developed it made clear, is aim of harnessing clicktivism and being a first step in real, offline organising is incredibly important.

Leandros hard at work

Leandros hard at work

As I mentioned above, neither I nor Leandros have much experience with the technical side of internet technologies and so we focussed on developing a set of criteria which any activist social media platform needs to meet in order to be effective and successful in helping activist organise. Below are some photos of the pamphlet we put together to explain this. We decided to call the project ‘From Fragmentation to Organisation’ as our experiences with activism have shown us that one of the central problems facing the left in the UK today is getting people who experience similar conditions to actually recognise this and develop a collective consciousness and an ability to act together to change those conditions.

This is of course something we’re still working on, but some of the key criteria for an activism social media platform we identified were:

  1. An architecture that is based on collective engagement to counter the individualism of mainstream social media
  2. Allows space for procrastination and using the platform for fun as well as serious organising, otherwise people won’t spend time on it
  3. Sections should be open to an external audience (blog posts, etc.) while others should be private for the groups involved
  4. Very simple to use
  5. Mechanisms for concrete decision-making as well as discussion
  6. Needs a heavily encrypted layer for covert organising
  7. Should work as an app as well as on browsers

These are the kind of things that are essential to an activist social media platform but which are sadly lacking from existing platforms like Crabgrass. Hopefully the connections we made at the hackathon will allow us to develop these criteria and push the project further by actually building working versions of this platform. At the moment the only object or tool we have is the draft pamphlet, but of course this is a protest tool itself as it could act to attract people to the project and to take it to a real, practical stage.

Something that was mentioned by Catherine, one of the organisers of the hackathon, which really struck a cord was the recognition that while the tools developed and proposed are digital, the aim is to improve actual organising and offline action. This is critical to activist uses of internet technologies and social media, and it’s great to know that the people with the vision and technical skills to work on these projects are all pointing in this direction.

An exhibition based on the Unlocking Ideas project will take place in the Working Class Movement Library in Manchester from the middle of June.

Page 1 of our pamphlet

Page 1 of our pamphlet

Page 2 of our pamphlet

Page 2 of our pamphlet

Page 3 of our pamphlet

Page 3 of our pamphlet

Page 4 of our pamphlet, based on Stafford Beer's Viable Systems Model (https://socialmediaandradicalpolitics.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/the-cybernetics-of-occupy/)

Page 4 of our pamphlet, based on Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model (https://socialmediaandradicalpolitics.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/the-cybernetics-of-occupy/)

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