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Social Actions is Twittering Change and Raising Questions

BY Allison Fine | Saturday, April 4 2009

I found this picture of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip standing with the Obamas last week at Buckingham Palace rather startling.

APTOPIX BRITAIN G20 OBAMA

(AP Photo/John Stillwell, pool)

The aging royals, grayer and more stooped than I remembered, were huddled awkwardly beneath of the towering shadow of our shimmering, still-under-warranty, kinetically energetic new President and First Lady. Were the British couple really so tiny or are the Obama’s so large that they dwarfed the royals almost entirely?

The likely answer is a little of both, but the question highlights how difficult it can be to have a perspective on what’s big and what’s small. In the social change world we are experiencing this same dynamic. The social networks that each of us are building and sharing our causes with are becoming larger each day as we friend and follow a growing number of people. But the actions that we’re taking to support these causes are becoming smaller; microphilanthropy (e.g. Kiva), microblogging (e.g. Twitter), and microvolunteerism (e.g. The Extraordinaries.) They are all micro in that the sense that the actions they facilitate don’t cost a lot of money, take little time and are done with the hope that millions of people engagin in these micro ways will generate great social change.

Social Actions recently launched Twitter Action Pack that combines microvolunteerism with microblogging with the hopes that the results will be astoundingly large.

I spoke to Peter Dietz, the founder of Social Actions, about the dynamics of micro-cause efforts and the launch of Twitter Action Pack. As way of background, he explained that the mission of Social Actions is connect individuals with opportunities to take social action. They have built a platform of aggregated data of change opportunities from fifty partners that include Idealist.org, Kiva, Care2, and Volunteer Match among others. Participants sign up for alerts by issue area, including climate change, LGBT issues, for human rights, hunger and even music issues. In a Google TechTalk last fall, Peter’s associate, Christine Egger, said of Social Actions, “We have lots of points of participation, decentralized system with thousands of points of entry.”

The guts of Social Actions is an open source API built using Ruby on Rails. Twitter Action Pack was created to showcase what the open API is capable of producing. Each issue area on the web page is linked to a Twitter account that provides an ongoing stream of actions fed from the Social Actions database and discussion about this issue.

How’s it working so far? Joe Solomon, the lead Social Actions person on the Twitter pack, sent me his observations via email, "What I have noticed is that folks tend to RT actions -- which I find very exciting - as these are actions that chances are they wouldn't have naturally have discovered - and now they're sharing them with their friends!”

Joe pointed me to this example of how retweeting is spreading the word on a specific action and cause:

And, according to Joe, Charles Tsaia of Ashoka's youth entrepeneurship project is using certain accounts for tracking the projects that are going on in his field. Put another way, he’s listening to his field through Twitter Action Pack.

The spread of Social Actions data through Twitter Action Pack raises two interesting issues worth further exploration. The first is the supply side struggle facing traditional nonprofit organizations by these micro-models. This is an issue facing The Extraordinaries as they are launching their micro-volunteering effort using smart phones. There is a large audience of individuals who want to participate in meaningful social change efforts. We know that they, particularly Gen Ys, don’t have a lot of time and are not willing to commit to a lifetime of service for a particular cause – or even a month of service! So these micro-opportunities are perfectly suited for how they think and operate. But, nonprofit organizations aren’t accustomed to thinking in micro-terms. Advocacy groups are engaged in long-term policy change campaigns, direct service efforts provide support for people and communities over years not minutes. These groups will need help to find ways to break down their efforts into bite-size pieces while maintaining the thread of connection between these immediate actions and their intended longer term results.

And it is exactly these results that are at risk within the micro-environment. It is quite possible that we will become frantically busy doing a lot of change stuff that does make the doers feel great (which is important ) but doesn’t add up to the systemic social change needed in communities. Does busy mean the same thing as impact?

Which brings me to the second area of reflection.

We don’t yet have the language and the measures to get our hands around these micro efforts. Here is Joe Solomon's take on how complicated the question of measuring social efforts happening over multiple platforms around the world is, "There are thousands of sites with Social Actions widgets with thousands of people clicking through - but without a feedback loop from our partner sites like Kiva.org, DonorsChoose.org, GlobalGiving.org, etc. - we have to be creative in how we measure success." Lucy Bernholz took up this sticky wicket in a recent post noting that in addition to the complexity of looking at data across platforms to measure results, “SocialActions is notable, in my mind, because they recognize the multiple roles that we all play in this economy - donors, doers, speakers, activists, etc.” This raises a fascinating layer of complexity to micro-change efforts. How do I get my hands the effectiveness of Social Actions in spurring change – is it based on the number of donations, the number of friends, the viral spreading of messages or some combination of all of these?

Social Actions is raising these questions explicitly and implicitly through their efforts, and as a field we’re just beginning to wrestle with them as well.