Sunday, July 19, 2009

Here Comes Everybody

Last year when I was researching how social networking tools can enhance grassroots movement on toxic issues (it was soooooo before Obama), I read a book called Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky. Mostly I read it in order to back up my arguments at work. We had a communications director who refused to read blogs, talk to bloggers about our work, or even entertain the idea of using new types of online media tools to engage our supporters. Here Comes Everybody is a great book and gives tons of examples of societal change making events through online social media tools from all over the world. So now that I have an understanding of what tools are out there and are experimenting with their effectiveness - I twitter, facebook, blog, comment on blogs, etc. I'm now interested in seeing how access to information on contamination and toxic chemicals can change the way we purchase and make real change in addition to providing us new information.

The major thing that we are seeing right now is through the elimination of Bisphenol-A (BPA). The chemical deemed safe by FDA, but understood by scientists who are not hiding behind corporate and political pressure to bring gifts of reproductive disorders for generations to come is being banned in townships and states at an escalated rate. An entire marketplace has been created around this shift. At Target you can find BPA-free waterbottles and you can roam around websites dedicated to children toys that are BPA and Phthalate free. Alot of this movement is due to online media tools. Mommy bloggers have passed the dangers around so that any new mother now knows or has heard about the impacts of ingesting BPA.

But what really makes me question all this is, what kind of change is this really making on our society? What is eliminating one chemical from a particular types of products (children's toys and water bottles) doing to move our society to a toxic free place? I'm not sure that our movement is getting us where we want to be right now. I don't doubt for one moment that we are not doing good work, that eliminating toxic chemicals is a good thing. But I do think that though it may be good, it hasn't set us on the path in which our laws and products are created from the precautionary mindset.

My fascination with how online social media tools can help set us on the right path was sparked by this book along with having to escalate two different campaigns with barely any money, no team, hardly any experience and just coming out of an organization that has endless amounts of all.

pg 171: "Social tools create what economists would call a positive supply-side shock to the amount of freedom in the world. The old dictum that freedom of the press exists only for those who own a press points to the significance of the change. To speak online is to publish, and to publish online is to connect with others. With the arrival of globally accessible publishing, freedom of speech is now freedom of the press, and freedom of the press is freedom of assembly. Naturally, the changes occasioned by new sources of freedom are most significant in less free environments. Whenever you improve a group's ability to communicate internally, you change the things it is capable of. What the group does with that power is a separate question."

In the issue of school siting, there is no marketplace. People can't stop buying a product that will encourage their school district to only build schools on non-contamination land and out of way of major water and air pollution sources. So what are the models to help achieve precautionary laws on school siting?

Online tools help parents become more informed, but does it make them attend PTA and school board meetings so that they are always aware of potential land purchases? Online tools enable concerned people to send letters to EPA about the importance of strong and comprehensive school siting guidelines that can then be passed as policy locally, but does that make them want to be part of the process to pass a policy?

There has to be an answer somewhere and it is somewhere between traditional door knocking and the connections being made through social media tools. It is beyond information gathering and a very large budget with a field team. I have no field team and I never will. But can't online social media tools be my makeshift field team?

pg 159: ". . . Social tools don't create collective action - they merely remove the obstacles to it. Those obstacles have been so significant and pervasive, however that as they are being removed, the world is becoming a different place. his is why many of the significant chnages are based not on the fanciest, newest bits of technology but on simple, easy to use tools like email, mobile phones, and websites, because those are the tools most people have access to and, critically are comfortable using in their daily lives. Revolution doesn't happen when society adopts new technologies - it happens when society adopts new behaviors"

During the Sotomayor hearings last week, she was asked if she would share her experiences of having tv cameras in her courtroom with the other Supereme court judges. I've never really thought of it before but the only way to know what is happening with the Supreme Court is by listening to NPR and hearing the transcripts read in the morning of verdict (my favorite shows!) or by waiting in line on the hill to get inside or by simply reading the entire transcript yourself. Or as I have recently discovered read a blog dedicated to SCOTUS. The idea that the general population has no way of knowing what is happening in this public forum is pretty amazing. That's a huge information access problem in our country.

As much as lawmakers and judges like to say that policy does not get made in the court's, it does on a regular basis. The courtroom has been a source of great societal change in our country, not always for the best. Senator Graham acknowledge that the court was able to integrate schools when lawmakers were too weak to do so and then said that he would have been too weak to do so if he had been in the Senate at that time. Also, the first time the 14th Amendment was used to create corporate personhood, which currently impacts small farmers in rural areas of our country who are fighting against large agricultural farms in their townships. (note: the small farmer always loses to big Ag because of corporate personhood. a township in PA went so far as to pass a policy stating that the state Attorney General does not have the right of oversight of their township because he threw out their local law to prevent corporate ag from building factory farms in their community.)

Would people be more likely to be involved in the democratic process if there was a greater access to the judicial system? Maybe. Actually I think more than maybe. Anti-death penalty organizations have done great work moving people from wanting to get informed to voting for the abolishment of the practice. Though it is a mixture of traditional door knocking and newer online organizing tools and the shock value once you learn more about the issue. With the ending of so many newspapers, we have to change the way in which we receive and generate news. We have to use these emerging tools in a strategic and mainstream way. If our organization is too far out there in the newest technology we wont have the numbers to make real change.

But where does that leave school siting? Where does that leave passing state and local laws preventing the building of schools on or near sources of pollution? How does that get the toxics movement on a path that will really guarantee a toxic free future?

If you have any advice, let me know!

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