NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: This post is the first in a series about technology by Samuel Levine, who works with the Occupy Seattle Livestream team and runs his own blog at levinetech.net.
If you want to change the world you need ideas, information, and networks of people receptive to your ideas. Technology can give you reach (of everyone else on the Internet), but as of today it cannot help with interpersonal or ideological conflicts, make a poorly worded argument strong or make people cooperate. Social systems can help if you’re working with people that are cooperative and share similar goals, technology can at best help determine and implement them.
Please also keep in mind that everything we’re talking about here are at best pseudo-anonymous, even with encryption. Pretty much any company will give your data to law enforcement when served a warrant. Your laptop that is never connected to a network can be searched. Think before you type or speak into a device with memory, especially when it’s being transmitted over the Internet. Dealing with a government willing to shoot peaceful protesters (Iran, Syria, etc.) is outside the scope of this post.
This being said, some common things activists will want to use technology for include:
- Organizing direct actions, meetings and other events.
- Streaming video, pictures and messages from your events.
- Compiling lists of people in your network and reaching out to them.
This post is mostly about organization. Identifying problems, talking about how to deal with them, dividing up the work, etc. However you do it, organizing events and direct action takes a lot of work. Firstly, don’t use e-mail to organize them. Email sucks. Your parents, boss and/or coworkers may use it, and they may be radicals, but we have lots of more specialized tools at our disposal and most of them are pretty cheap.
Some synchronous (where everybody is communicating in real time) solutions include:
- Google+ Hangouts
- Lots of stuff people can’t afford and aren’t much better than what you can get for free.
You have a ton of options here, so if you’re already comfortable with something, use it and teach the people you’re working with how to use it. Because people don’t read instructions.
I recommend using Google+ Hangouts if you want group chats, or possibly Tinychat if you don’t want to sign up for yet another social network. Everything else available for minimal cost is mostly for one-on-one stuff. Skype is everywhere, FaceTime is only for Apple devices, they’re both pretty cool. None of this works for large groups of people. Streaming video to the masses is outside the scope of this post, but check out Livestream and Ustream if you’re interested in that.
Having everybody talk or be in front of a screen at the same time is very time consuming. Most people don’t need to see everything needed to put on an event. Some asynchronous solutions for organizing are:
- Facebook Groups/Events
- Google Groups/Docs
- Google Calendar
- Text messages/Group Messaging
There are several things you want out of a system you use, but at a minimum you want the ability to tell people about when and where something will happen and if there are any changes. You’ll also want some kind of system (not necessarily technology) to communicate with people organizing the event, divide up tasks, compare promotional material, etc. Use as much technology as you’re comfortable teaching to the other activists that you’ll be working with. If the people you know that you want to show up to an event use a system (Facebook, Twitter, text messages) use the system(s) *they already use* to communicate with them.
Facebook groups give you the ability to create shared text documents, talk back and forth with and poll group members and can be made invisible to Facebook users not yet members of the group. Don’t use this (or any free web service) if you need the element of surprise. Facebook events are a pretty common way of inviting people to events and they’re a good way of reminding people going to an action that it’s coming up in a few hours, or that the date changed, etc.
Using a combination of Google Docs (you can share documents, spreadsheets and small files), Google Groups (Email lists) and Google Calendar events can be good too. If people really want to use email this helps move some of the most painful parts of email to web apps better designed to handle them. Just be prepared for flame wars and long, drawn out off-topic emails.
37signals makes a number of for-pay web apps, including Basecamp (project and document management) and Campfire (group chat). I like them, but if you require a free solution they don’t have it.
Text messages are great because a well-timed SMS blast to people has a very high chance of being read, several times more likely than email. If you have an emergency meeting/event that you need people at, this is a good way to get the message out. You can also use them to communicate things to organizers
Group messaging services like GroupMe can help coordinate things on the ground. Text messages are great, but if you want to share what is happening on the perimeter of a mile long march with a half dozen (or more) people this is really hard to beat. You can share photos, your location, etc. with everyone in the group. This duplicates functionality built into iPhones (the Find My Friends app and the Messaging app) and Facebook/Twitter (both allow you to send and receive updates via SMS), but it’s still handy in that it’s all in one app, groups can be muted when you’re done for the day, etc.
Websites are pretty easy to come by nowadays. A Blogger or WordPress blog can be had for free and you can register a domain fairly cheaply (Namecheap and 1&1 are inexpensive choices). Going into all the ins and out of this aren’t in the scope of this post, but consider two common uses you’ll have for it: introducing new people to the cause, and telling people when and where events, meetings and whatnot will be happening. You don’t need to be a web designer or a programmer to accomplish this.
Hopefully this whet your appetite for more. We’ll go into detail on particular products in future posts so you’ll have a better idea of how to use them.