Turning Online Activism into Results - Interview with Josh Levy from Change.org

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Josh Levy

Josh Levy, who is awesome, and I talk about his new job as managing editor at Change.org, what he's learned at techPresident, and why he believes that just writing blogs won't change the world.


What is your role at Change.org?

 

I'm the managing editor, which means I'm overseeing the editorial process that's going to happen on the site, specifically regarding the launch of the social issue blog network, which is, basically, launching blogs that are going to be very focused on specific issues that are already represented among the Change.org community, but are giving more form to the actions and activities that occur on the site right now. So, my job is presently to hire those people, but once those people are hired, it's going to be to oversee the operation of that network. So, everything from working with those bloggers on editorial guidelines and helping them kind of find their voices as bloggers and help them reach out to the community, everything from that to more structural things of what does a blog like this look like?

It's overseeing the editorial nature of the site, but also, managing this crossing over, this bridge that's being built between the blogging world and the activism world. You have a lot of that kind of crossover existing across the web, but I've never really seen it in such a kind of a formalized way. In other words, I have never seen a blog network that's being built from the ground up, in order to convey the connection between blogging and online kind of activism and enthusiasm building in actual real world action and results.

We're going into this from the beginning with the idea that generating interest and generating enthusiasm online is a way to connect people to very specific actions that they can take to help improve the world, and specifically, to help advocate the issues that they care about. So, I'm going to be overseeing a lot of that, so there's kind of the personnel role, and then, there's more of the theoretical role of how to make a blogging network run and how to make that transition from blogging to activism as frictionless as possible.

How do you expect to make that happen? How does Change.org help people actually get out and make change?

 

I think Change.org is a unique community because it has people on the site, I would argue that the majority of the people on the site have this idea, this notion that they want to make a difference somehow about issues that they care about.

And they go to the site, and they're not necessarily experts. They're probably not experts in their field or people that are working in their field. Let's say that they're really interested in alleviating poverty. They're most likely not working in that field, but they have a devotion to making that issue count, or to raising awareness for that issue and to get it generating real world results. So, the Change.org community exists already. There are already those people who are recruiting their friends and bookmarking news stories and donating to non-profits and signing petitions, all with the end result of trying to improve the situation for the issue that they care about.

So, that's a perfect built-in solution to this problem of how do you make blogging count? You know, how do you make blogs connect to the world in a way where you can see actual results? That's already happening on the Change.org site. So, basically, the challenge is going to be how do you continue to cultivate those communities that more or less, organically developed on the site and help them grow with the aid of these blogs, which in some sense, are giving form to what can be a very amorphous process.

So the intent is to use this editorial content to consolidate the voices within the various communities on the site?.

 

Yeah. You know, a lot of us who spend time talking about activism on the web or doing activism on the web tend to prioritize bottom up activity over top down activity. And I think with good reason because the web is uniquely suited to the bottom up kinds of activity that make activism possible, and make social organizing possible. But, that doesn't mean that every project needs to mimic Wikipedia in the sense that Wikipedia is entirely user-generated. There are ways to structure behavior in order to maximize what people can get out of it and to maximize the way that their enthusiasm spreads to other people who might be involved, but don't know about the project.

So, I think our goal with this blogging network is to continue to harness all of that bottom up energy, but to give it some form and to give it parameters because people often need a little bit, especially the kinds of people that show up at Change.org, who maybe have the passion, but they don't know where to direct it. So, the idea with the bloggers is they're not only blogging, but they're acting as community guides or curators of that space.

They'll be giving examples and suggestions for how to direct that energy that so many people have. But, in addition to that, they're also offering a stream of current commentary and context for people, something that is sort of lacking at Change.org right now. So, this is a way to keep the site relevant in the way that it's not always on the face of it at the moment.

This is the challenge of whatever follows the Web 2.0 moment, whether it's Web 3.0 or whatever. Like I was saying before, we totally privilege bottom up activity over top down. As I argue, we should. But, we've really swung wildly in that direction. And there's almost this kind of counter reaction, so any time anybody steps in, there's an individual who offers editorial guidance or a voice. There's a lot of push back there. But, what we're discovering is that you can have a ton of bottom up activity, but that it's very easy for that to turn into chaos. And a lot of people don't have the time and they don't have the patience to try to wade through all the chaos to find the signal, you know what I mean?

So, hiring somebody to do that and to curate that space is a very delicate operation because the point is not to tell people what's important to make that person all of the sudden the arbiter of what should be paid attention to. But, instead, to allow that person to give shape to something which seems so shapeless to so many people. I mean, I really do like the kind of metaphor of curating because in the same way that the curator of an art gallery isn't necessarily creating that art, that art is still bubbling up in some way, depending upon the gallery. You know, what they're doing is they're giving form to it, they're contextualizing it for people who, otherwise, would never have the ability to find that art on their own. It's not a perfect thing. Art curation is one of the most undemocratic practices in our culture. But, I think it is like a radically democratized version of that.

OK, so how many bloggers do you anticipate hiring?

 

At this first wave, we're in the process of trying to figure that out. It's probably going to be somewhere around 15.

Are they going to be broken up by region or area of activism?

 

They are. They're each going to be responsible for a particular issue blog. So, for example, we'll hire a human rights blogger who will write the blog on human rights, we'll hire an immigration blogger, and so on. And at this point, we're just going to have one single blogger per issue, which is a financial decision, as much as anything else. We need to prove that this model works before we can bust out with more bloggers per issue.

Right. Now, what else are you working on, other than the blogs?

 

We're reorienting the site in a lot of different ways. We're figuring out how to better build groups on the site. I'm not going to give anything away to you here, but how to utilize group aesthetics to get people to initiate activist projects together and how to kind of reward people for the kinds of action that they take in a way, which makes them naturally want to take more action and invite their friends to do the same. So, we're working a lot on that and that's going to launch, along with the blog network.

OK. Man, this is good stuff. Now, how different is this? At TechPresident, you were come up with content, I mean, you were more of a writer. Are you going to be doing that at Change, as well? Does Change.org need like an official blogger, as well?

 

I didn't have the opportunity to help build a new project from the ground at TechPresident. I helped build TechPresident, but quite honestly, a lot of that was the brainchild of Micah Sifry. And I was involved in the implementation of that more than anything. And as a writer, obviously, my role is going to be very different at Change.org.

I had the good fortune to be able to write on a daily basis at TechPresident and to write my daily digest roundups, which were both a great way for me to stay on top of everything that was happening in the Presidential race regarding technology, and also just good for being a writer because it kept me in the flow. And that's not something I'm going to be doing, obviously, at Change.org. This is the irony of moving up the ladder, right, is that you actually do less of the work that you enjoy in a way and you're going to have to give some of those things up.

But, I will be writing for TechPresident still and I will be writing for Change.org. I intend to post on some of our blogs as I can and as our bloggers need me if they need somebody to fill in. But, I suspect I'll be pretty occupied with a lot of my other managerial duties most of the time.

What have been some of the surprises from these interviews that you've conducted with your blogger candidates? Has anything, in particular, impressed you about them?

 

Well, one thing that's impressed me has been how many people applied. We had over 1,200 people apply, and that's been amazing and impressive and, I guess, surprising because it really points to how much people want to contribute to something like this. Not to mention how many people are out there that have their particular niches and their particular realms of experience that you would never know about. Previously, a lot of these people never had a way to express their interests. And anybody can start a blog and I would think most of our applicants have started their own personal blogs at some point. But, it's quite another thing to be able to work for a media operation that has a lot of contacts in the field among other media organizations, so that you will be noticed.

So, it's just been an amazing outpouring of interest. And I think that's a testament to how enthusiastic people, in general, are about this project because I think we're getting them on a gut level, which is great. It's an amazing indicator. I mean, if you launch a project and I'm sure you've undergone this, Jed, if you launch a project and you explain it to people and they don't get it, it's amazingly deflating. And it's clear that something's missing because there needs to be a gut level reaction.

With a project that's so concerned with popular level support and the embrace of a large community, what you need to be doing needs to be able to affect people on a gut level, and they need to be able to intuitively get what you're doing. And I've noticed that that's been happening. When I described this project to people we were interviewing and when we have longer discussions about it, people get more and more excited as we go. And that's a great sign. I think that means that the general public, when they come to the site, they're going to get it. You're not going to have to explain to them in conceptual or theoretical terms what you're doing. They're just going to be able to play along and participate in a way that feels natural to them. So, I really feel confident that that's going to happen.

I guess another surprise would be for those of us who spend most, if not all, of our time online doing our various social things like Twittering and being on Facebook and blogging and that sort of thing. I think we tend to forget that for a lot of people, even the people that are so influential in our world and are so passionate about these issues don't necessarily live those lives. And I have had to kind of retrain myself to remember to value the experiences of people that just happen, for whatever reason, to not be on Twitter all day.

So like I actually did have a gut reaction at one point like "Wow, you're not on Twitter?" Or whatever, "You're not blogging!?" But a writer can't be made in a month or two. An interesting part of this will be to see if we can take somebody who has an in-depth knowledge of an issue and experience working in that field, if people like that are going to be able to transition to the blogosphere well. Not all of the people we hire will have that kind of leap to make, but some of them will. And I guess I was a little surprised that so many people don't have that experience.

There's a whole new set of best practices when it comes to blogging that I should definitely be formalized and codified in some way right now.

 

Yeah, it's true, and we're doing that actually. We're writing a guideline document for our blog that's going to include best practices. What I like to remind people of is that what's unique, what's truly unique about blogging and what's going to be the hardest to teach about blogging is that it's not about how you write as much as it's what you read and how you build your social network and interact with that network. Blogging, to me, is a social, cultural activity. It's not writing. So, we have had applicants that have said, "I want to write because writing can change the world." I tend to not believe that, to be honest with you. I think that social activity and group forming changes the world. And I think that blogging is a huge part of the way that that happens online because our favorite blogs are not megaphones as much as they're social hubs. And that's what I'm trying to build here. We're trying to build social hubs that use blogs. Blogging is a kind of metaphor for group building.

What do you find most exciting about working in this field right now?

 

You know, when I was at TechPresident, it quickly became clear that covering Barack Obama was not just covering one particular candidate and the Election of 2008. And people love to talk about his candidacy and his use of the web as this kind of fruition of all of Howard Dean's supporters' work. But, what I think is really interesting is the way that his candidacy has mainstreamed the ability to talk about organizing. I have had conversations with people about social organizing and social networking in a way that I've never had it before, I mean, with people that don't usually think about things like this.

You know, you can talk to somebody about Barack Obama and they'll say, "Oh, the way he's organized his campaign and used Facebook to organize his supporters is just so interesting." And I'm like "Am I really having this conversation with you right now?" Because all of a sudden on a large scale, non-tech people get what he did. And I think that that really points to the future, not for him, necessarily, and not even, necessarily for politics, but for the way that people understand themselves as being part of society. And what I've noticed is happening, if you'll allow me to get a little overly pop culture, is that we're moving past the so-called apathy of the 1990's, which is when you and I both came of age, being told by the media that our generation was apathetic and didn't care about anything, and watching movies like "Reality Bites" that seemed to prove that point. It was an isolating time for a lot of people and society seemed atomized, if that's the right word.

Now what I'm noticing as a total reaction to that in the opposite direction, where people are again feeling themselves to be part of groups and part of micro societies. And our new instinctual understanding and appreciation for how Barack Obama conducted his campaign, I think, points to a big tidal shift in the way we understand ourselves as a culture. And I don't know what all the causes of that are, but I think a lot of it is the Internet and the way that we are suddenly feeling connected to colleagues and friends and family the way that we never did before.

But also, the way that so many of us just have wider social networks than people used to have. We have more connections, so therefore, there are more possibilities in human interaction. And I think that that's amazing. And that's finally starting to be understood on a level where we can harness it for social good.

Totally. I'm also fascinated by the fact that all of my friends who mocked me for having a blog back in the day now have blogs. The vast majority of them are just using it just to show pictures to their family, like pictures of the kids because all my friends are having kids now. But that's real. That is the real application of this technology.

 

Exactly, it connects us. And that's why I get so frustrated. You hear nay sayers, and usually, they're nay sayers who don't have experience with what this stuff is, they just don't know it. So, they'll say, "Why would you want to spend your time on a computer?" I mean, you're hearing less and less of this, but you do hear it sometimes. I'm sure you hear the stuff, "Why would you want to spend all your time on a computer, this virtual life? Why don't you actually try to connect with real people?" It's like, man, I'm connecting with real people all day long. Jed, you and I know each other because of the Internet. If there was no Internet, I never would have met you, right?

You're reminding me of what Clay Shirky's been talking about. The idea of social surplus. I really love this idea that there's an entire rising generation of people who are constantly interacting with each other.

 

Yeah, and if you know anything about how human beings work, it's a recipe for innovation and progress, while keeping people apart is a recipe for the status quo.