DPI-659 Blog post 7: Final deliverable

On an October night in 2011 Bojan Mandaric and Brogan Graham met up at a bar in Boston. Fresh off rowing the Northeastern alumni boat at the Head of the Charles Regatta, the two were back to their fighting weights. Facing a long, cold winter ahead, this condition wasn’t likely to last long.

It was a cycle that had repeated itself each year since they’d graduated in 2006. Get in shape for the HOTCR, then get out of shape over the long Boston winter. Except this year, Mandaric didn’t want to get fat. But he also didn’t want to pay for a gym membership. Over beers, he and Graham hashed out a plan to keep working out through the month of November. There would be no excuses: they’d meet up first thing in the morning, at 6:30 a.m., outside, rain or shine. No day was too cold or too busy. To keep them accountable, Mandaric set up a Google doc titled “The November Project.”

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The pair met up for their workouts throughout November. December came and went, then January, February, and March. That spring, the pair jokingly made t-shirts hyping their Google doc and wore them to a local road race. Graham created a Twitter account and started advertising their workouts, and was shocked when one day a woman showed up at Harvard Stadium to join them. She had such a good time, she brought a friend the next week. Then the friend brought some friends…

Five years later, November Project is a global movement, with thousands of members meeting up in 30 cities around the world to work out at 6:30 a.m., rain or shine (or snow), for FREE. The group has been the subject of news segments and academic papers, appeared on the cover of Runner’s World, published a book, and a short documentary.

So how did a pact between friends morph into a grassroots fitness community? Thanks, in no small part, to the internet.

In my final deliverable, I will examine how the concepts such as the long tail, Netroots, the Cathedral and the Bazaar, and crowdsourcing have contributed to the group’s success. The savvy use of hashtags, creation of Facebook photo albums, and entertaining YouTube clips helped build awareness of the group and build its culture. Keeping it free and modeling on crowdsourcing also helped create community.

There are dozens of sites that promote fitness through virtual 5ks, logging miles, and meet-ups. But November Project is not just a platform, it’s a community. Its not enough to post photos or log a workout; a premium is placed on attendance in real life, and at the end of the day the group seeks to build community through fitness. If you say you’re going to show up (referred to a “dropping a verbal”) and then don’t, you’re likely to find your photo on the “We Missed You” page of the group’s blog, a social shaming of sorts.

While technology has helped November Project grow around the globe and enhance connections between tribes, I would argue that the real-life community building is what has enabled November Project to be so successful. By emphasizing #justshowup, an online community has transcended into real life, and a group that might have once attracted a small group of hardcore athletes instead draws people of all ages, backgrounds, and athletic abilities.

As grassroots organizations increasingly turn to the internet to fundraise and build networks, I think that there are lessons to be learned from November Project’s success.  All the technology and algorithms in the world cannot replace in-person touch and community building. While social media may augment or enhance efforts, they cannot be seen as a substitute.

DPI-659 blog post 6: Arab Spring

The Arab Spring was supposed to be the start of a revolution. And in a way, it was. Online tools emboldened young activists to give voice to longtime tensions that had simmered just beneath the surface of society, creating a wave of protest that ultimately toppled the government.

In his book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky talks about the three levels of social awareness: 1. everybody knows something; 2. everybody knows that everybody knows; and 3. everybody knows that everybody knows, that everybody knows. Prior to 2007, Egypt was in the first or second level: people suspected that their government was corrupt and perhaps through local conversations, they knew that this sentiment was shared amongst their friends and family. But because communication was limited and the government controlled mass media, few talked about it publicly, and the state could continue with the status quo.

The age of the internet changed this. As Shirky notes, the internet collapsed the cost of sharing and coordinating, making new methods of organization available to ordinary citizens, methods that allowed events to be arranged anonymously, without much advance planning. The ability to speak freely and to share widely unleashed the third wave of social awareness: anger mounted; citizens were emboldened to speak out as they saw others doing so; and protests could be organized almost instantaneously over social media.

 

In her article A “Cute” Facebook RevolutionBasem Fathy argues that “the influence of factors (conditions, events, and timing) was much greater that the influence of actors.” I would argue, however, that Fathy underestimates the power of social media tools in accelerating and amplifying the feelings of Egypt’s citizens. A hundred years ago, it would have taken years for books about events to circulate. Thirty years ago, cassette tapes or letter might have circulated slightly faster. But in the interim, citizens’ feelings may have cooled or governments may have had a window to sense the changing winds and respond in order to preserve their regime. In 2011, communication was almost instantaneous. Rather than cooling, outrage was stoked with outrage in realtime. By the time the government responded, it was too late.

There were also some strategic decisions that helped organizers succeed. As Ethan Zuckerman notes in his lecture Where Social Media Meets Social Changeby infiltrating popular social networks, rather than creating stand-alone websites, there are automatically more people who buy into the cause, even if they do so passively (this is perhaps the one place where the long tail doesn’t work so well). It’s easy for the government to shut down a website: only the people who care about that cause will care. But by posting to platforms used by a broad swath of society such as YouTube or Facebook, many more people will be outraged when the government retaliates against a fringe group Suddenly unable to access there cat videos or soccer highlights, large masses of citizens will feel they are being oppressed, stoking more outrage. Similarly, by creating a Facebook page and then cost-posting on the platform, Wael Ghonim was able to reach new audiences and form alliances much more efficiently than if he had been managing a stand-alone website.

While these tools helped bring about an abrupt change, five years later I can’t help but wonder if perhaps social tools accelerated the situation too quickly, toppling dictatorships before any alternative or next step had been thought through. As a result, Egypt ended up with a harsher military regime and now grapples with a terrorist threat. The Middle East is more fragmented than ever.

Fathy notes that the Egyptian uprising was “a very large, loose network of young and old activists that at one point decided to gather together for common action.” And perhaps that was one of the downfalls of the “revolution.” Once the protests were over and Mubarak was gone, there was no unified vision or clear path forward. The status quo had been shattered, but what would take its place? It would take more than a Facebook group to figure that out.

DPI-659 Assignment 5

Everything we think we know about campaigns is a lie.

Perhaps that seems a but hyperbolic, but I have no other way to explain this week’s election results. After a campaign that seems to have lasted years, unrelenting media coverage, and poll upon poll, we have a campaign result that seemingly no one saw coming. I don’t know how that’s possible.

I spent the week before the election reading Victory Lab. I learned that data is now driving elections, that campaigns can use micro-targeting to identify likely voters and tailor their messages accordingly. In this era where data science dictates everything from interest rates to consumer advertising, the idea of campaigns using data made sense, even if it seemed a little creepy.

Clinton’s campaign apparently read Victory Lab too. Today, the Washington Post wrote about how her campaign relied on data from a secret algorithm named Ada, that was fed polling data and then dictated how the Clinton campaign should deploy resources, informing everything from campaign stops to where to buy TV ads.

“Clinton aides were convinced their work, which was far more sophisticated than anything employed by President Obama or GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, gave them a big strategic advantage over Trump,” the story says.

If data is so valuable and so useful and so sophisticated, how did so many people get this election so wrong?

I’m not so much disturbed by the election result as I am by the fact that no one seemed to see this result as a possibility. Not the polls. Not the mainstream news media. And certainly not the Kennedy School. This week, the institutions I rely on to help me be an informed citizen were revealed to be out of touch with HALF of the voting population. There was no conversation or consideration of what a Trump presidency would look like because everyone was convinced it wouldn’t happen. That is a huge, huge failing.

The thing that seems most obvious to me is that we have turned what was once a tool (technology) into a panacea. If the Clinton campaign relied on Ada and allowed it to override decades of real-life campaign experience (which the Post seems to imply) to drive decision-making, that was a mistake. The Clinton’s have been playing politics for almost four decades. They have the experience to know how to connect with voters. And yet, they seem to have disregarded that experience in favor of an algorithm.

Over the next several months, I suspect we’ll learn more about how the polls got this election so wildly wrong. But I can’t help but think that an over-reliance on polling data combined with letting “data-driven decisions” trump tried and true lessons contributed greatly to the failure to accurately understand where the allegiances of voters in this country truly lay.