Trends in Nonprofit Website Design

I’ve recently been doing some research on nonprofit website trends for the Open Society Foundations’ Health Media Initiative and I thought I’d share them here:

  1. The Human Face: We engage with causes because we care about our fellow human beings. The face reminds us of that human element of the cause and reminds us to care.  The anti-poverty organization ActionAid shows vivid photos of the people they help and Housing Works homepage is composed primarily of photos and quotes of people living with HIV and AIDS that receive their services.
  2. Showing Results: Either quantitatively or through description, the site should show visitors the impact the organization is making. Avaaz has a counter on their homepage showing the number of global members of their petition site. Greenpeace USA shows the number of emails its members sent to lobby for protections from mercury poisoning and its homepage graphics highlight both successes and calls the action.
  3. Calls to Action:  The site must give the visitor an opportunity to engage with the cause beyond a simple donation.  Some actions are symbolic, like the photos of the NOH8 campaign, but others, like the The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, also tell visitors how they can become involved in clinical trials.
  4. The 50 Word Rule: As the first trend indicates, we are becoming an increasingly visual society.  This also applies to web site design.  Effective homepage are very low on text, and a limit of 50 words or less is a good goal.  Though this may seem low, the ONE campaign against extreme poverty and preventable diseases has only 26 words on its homepage “above the fold” (before one scrolls down).
  5. Getting Social:  Using social media is not new, but nonprofits are getting increasingly creative in how they incorporate social media.  ONE shows photos of their Facebook supporters on their homepage while Housing Works highlights a Twitter matching fund-drive.

The 7 Activist Uses of Digital Tech: A Webinar on the Case of Popular Resistance in Egypt

How can digital technology help activists? Often, the options seem limitless. Ranging from public crowdsourcing in the wake of disasters to grassroots human rights campaigns with global scope, activism is evolving as is the landscape against which it is set.

Is this just the time for new tools and new methods to achieve the same goal, or is there something entirely new happening?

At a recent webinar for the International Center on Non-violent Conflict, Mary Joyce, founder of the Meta-Activism Project, discusses the role of digital activism in the Egyptian revolution.

More information does not imply more knowledge or better strategy.Stressing on the importance of process, Mary says that we are at the beginning of creating knowledge for digital activism. The elements of digital technology useful to activists, in the context of the revolutions in Egypt are explored in detail.

Message Jamming: 7 Methods of Signal Disruption

Now that the masses have access to mass communication, there are not only more opportunities to create messages, but also to jam them. When governments try to jam messages we call it censorship, but this is only one form of message jamming. Here are seven methods of message jamming that can be used by activists or governments/elites.

1) Stop the Message


Mechanism: Stopping the message means placing a block between the message and the audience. It is a form of censorship that includes putting blocks within the network architecture to prevent certain words, articles, and even entire sites from being accessed by a certain population. Most governments that censor use these mechanisms, which function automatically and are easy to implement at the national level. There are even nice Western technology firms who have created software to make it easier.

Counter-Action: Activists and citizens can use proxies, onion routers, and VPNs to circumvent these blocks.

Advantage: Governments. Even though savvy users can get around censorship, most citizens remain blocked.

2) Stop the Messenger


Mechanism: Repressive regimes are not satisfied with blocking the transmission of dangerous messages. They want to stop these messages at the source, which means stopping the messenger. There are several ways to stop the messenger from transmitting messages, including threats and intimidation, resulting in self-censorship, or physically cutting activists off from the means of transmission. This can be achieved by separating the means of transmission from the activist (turning off the Internet or SMS services) or by separating the activist from the means of transmission (imprisonment and illegal detention).

Counter-Action: Find work-arounds. In a case in which the infrastructure is cut off from the activists one can replace Internet communication with fax or access the net through international dial-up modems. In a case in which the activist is cut off from the infrastructure one can find creative ways to get the message out, such as blogging from jail by writing posts on pieces of paper and passing them to friends on the outside.

Advantage: Governments, again. Savvy activists can get their messages out but, for most people, Internet shut-down or imprisonment does stop the messenger.

3) Delegitimize the Message


Mechanism: If the message and the messenger cannot be effectively stopped, they need to be rendered non-threatening. One way to do this is to make the message less appealing. For example, in the US, when a public health care option sounded pretty appealing, Sarah Palin re-defined it as “death panels” (a very “sticky” idea). In this troublingly effective 2009 statement she took an idea that seemed appealing and cost-effective and re-defined it as “evil” in a few sentences:

The Democrats promise that a government health care system will reduce the cost of health care, but as the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, government health care will not reduce the cost; it will simply refuse to pay the cost. And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

Counter-Action: Coming up with a “stickier” definition of your message than your opponent, the back and forth ends when one side’s definition of the idea sticks.

Advantage: No one. It’s a rhetorical game and no one has a monopoly in coming up with sticky definitions.

4) Delegitimize the Messenger


Mechanism: If a message is a threat, it is probably a threat because it is somehow appealing on its own merit, so while a repressive government could argue the merits of “down with the dictator,” they usually don’t. Rather than delegitimize the message, they delegitimize the messenger. For example, during the recent revolution, the Egyptian government forced Vodaphone to send out this SMS to all its subscribers, defining the pro-democracy activists as “traitors and criminals” and government supporters as “honest and loyal men.” It’s pretty textbook:

The Armed Forces asks Egypt’s honest and loyal men to confront the traitors and criminals and protect our people and honor and our precious Egypt.

Counter-Action: The messenger is in a harder position here than with message delegitimization, because not one message, but every message he/she transmits is tainted by association. This makes it harder to fire back and redefine the message in their favor.

Advantage: No one. Neither government nor activists have a monopoly over character assassination. Both can use the tactic effectively. In fact, activists may even see their legitimacy rise if they are the subject of attempted character assassination by an unpopular government.

5) Impersonate the Messenger


Mechanism: Why defeat your opponent when you can impersonate him/her and transmit your own messages in their place? It is tough though as it takes perseverance and skill to impersonate one’s target and one also has to be convincing enough not to be immediately debunked. During the 2009 Iran election protests, a number of Twitter accounts were set up for the seeming purpose of confusing activists and observers and encouraging the former towards violence. Identified by TwitSpam:

  • http://twitter.com/Persian_Guy (Using fake RT to spread disinfo)
  • http://twitter.com/serv_ (posing fake RTs; disinfo)
  • http://twitter.com/TruePersian1 (Was preaching violence & destruction in all caps; now updates are protected)
  • http://twitter.com/ohaitere (Alternating between a false report of Mousavi death and spam about iPhones)

A particularly ingenious use of impersonation was carried out by the Pakistani government when they (accidentally…hmmm) asked a national ISP to set their DNS servers to impersonate YouTube.com, thus erroneously re-routing millions of page requests around the world.

Counter-Action: Publicly debunk the impostor or overwhelm disinformation with accurate information, either from multiple sources or from a single trusted source.

Advantage: Governments, slightly. In an age where activists as well as the government can shout loudly, it is not so difficult to debunk or overwhelm the impostor, making it difficult for government agents to impersonate activists. However, it is much harder for activists to impersonate the government.

6) Dilute the Message


Mechanism: If you cannot stop or delegitimize the message/messenger or impersonate the messenger, then you might as well try to dilute the message so much that it is drowned out. Yes, there are a lot of water analogies for this one. The basic idea is to shout louder that your opponent such that your opponent’s message no longer has the attention of the public and you are able to define whatever the subject is by flooding (there’s another one) the public space with your own messages.

There are many good examples of this, but one of my favorites is the case of the Westboro Baptist Church, which protests funerals with posters of virulently hateful messages. In the action pictured above, counter-protesters appear to be attempting to drown out the Westboro protesters with their own signs that simultaneously mock (delegitimize) and dilute the hateful message.

Counter-Action: Scream louder. Push your message out over more platforms, particularly ones that are more influential.

Advantage: Governments unfortunately have greater access to influential channels (network TV, print media, etc) than activists do.

7) Co-Opt the Message


Mechanism: This is the last option, only one step removed from utter defeat. To co-opt your opponent’s message is to say “yes, the message is right, but it’s our message so we should get the credit.” This is the dictator extolling the benefits of democracy when he’s been forced to hold a free and fair election.

Counter-Action: There is no counter-action as the opponent has effectively won.

Advantage: Since this is the last recourse of the rhetorical loser, no one who uses it has the advantage any more.

Implications


Of the seven methods, governments have the advantage in four (stop the message/messenger, dilute the message, impersonate the message) and neither activists nor the government has an advantage in two (delegitimize the message/messenger). Activists don’t yet have the advantage in any tactic, but they should seek to drive governments into tactical battles of delegitimization, where activists have more of a fighting chance. Where censorship and message dilution are prevalent, activists are in a distinctly inferior position.

(UPDATED, mostly to correct typos.)

7 Activist Uses of Digital Tech (Slides)

I just finished presenting a webinar for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict on the seven activist functions of digital technology, illustrated with examples from the recent revolution in Egypt.  The full slide-deck is below.

Semantic Censorship Evasion: Example from Libya

As Gaddafi’s scope of influence shrinks to the capital, news out of Libya is that the regime is still not giving in. A video of the dictator’s son has emerged, beating the drums of war and saying to supporters “I am bringing you reinforcements, resources, food, weapons, everything you need. We are doing well.” The violence is likely to continue.

So far, digital technology has not played the prominent role it played in Egypt’s revolution, but at least one interesting digital activism case study has emerged: using online dating sites for activist networking. ABC news reports:

“We used to call it the digital black hole,” said Nasser Wedaddy, a civil rights outreach director for the American Islamic Congress and longtime cyber activist who has worked on cyber outreach efforts in the Middle East for years. “It’s not that they don’t use the Internet. They’re very afraid.”

Activists in Tunisia and Egypt adopted social media on a mass scale, but “for all intents and purposes, in Libya, there isn’t much cyber activism going on,” Wedaddy said….

To avoid detection by Libyan secret police, who monitor Facebook and Twitter, Mahmoudi, the leader of the Ekhtalef (“Difference”) Movement, used what’s considered the Match.com of the Middle East to send coded love letters to rally the revolution.

It was “for the freedom, not for the marriage,” he told ABC News.

Not only are Libyan activists showing their flexibility in switching platforms, they are displaying the same “semantic work-arounds” to censorship that have previously been more visible in China, where images of the cartoon green dam girl were used to critique new censorship software and the terms “grass mud horse” and “river crab” are used to poke fun at online filters to freedom of speech.

In Libya we are now seeing the same innovation in co-opting apolitical words to discuss political topics undetected, including switching genders to allow male-to-male messaging and using codewords like “Jasmine” to refer to the revolution in Tunisia, and “love” for liberty. Once a connection is made, activists can continue their conversations on less public channels like SMS and Yahoo Messenger.

The conservative [dating site Mawada] doesn’t allow men to communicate with other men, so other revolutionaries posed as women to contact him, assuming aliases like “Sweet Butterfly,” “Opener of the Mountain,” “Girl of the Desert” and “Melody of Torture.”

….They also communicated in code the number of their comrades supporting the revolution. The five Ls in the phrase “I LLLLLove you,” for example, meant they had five people with them. If a supporter wrote, “”My lady, how I want to climb this wall of silence. I want to tell the story of a million hurts. … But I am lost in a labyrinth. … Maybe we can meet on Yahoo messenger,” it told the writer to migrate the chat to Yahoo Messenger so as not to raise the suspicion of the monitors, Mahmoudi said.

In the language of social movements, this is a classic example of “tactical innovation,” responding the an opponent’s counter-measures with a creative alternative.

(hat-tip to Patrick Meier for tweeting the ABC article)

The 7 Ways Digital Tech Helps Activists

The pro-democracy activists in Egypt have been granted their first demand: Hosni Mubarak, dictatorial president for 30 years, has resigned. It is too early to do a post-mortem on the Egyptian revolution as a decapitation at the top cannot cure the corrupt and dictatorial Egyptian state. The activists in the streets know this, know their work has only just begun.

Yet it is an appropriate time to begin a post-mortem of the unprecedented mass mobilizations that brought Egypt to this previously unimaginable moment, particularly the role of digital technology. Just now the complex interplay of online and offline activism and organizing is becoming clear, elucidated by recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, as well as first-person testimony by digital activist Wael Ghonim, who has become a central spokesperson for the youth movement that organized the protests.

In the coming days, people will attempt to assign all kinds of roles to digital technology: organizing, mobilizing, coordinating on Facebook, spreading the word, shaping the narrative on Twitter, exerting pressure, generating citizen journalism, capturing abuses on video, and vague “empowerment”. Doubtless technology will be given credit for achievements it was incapable of and will be downplayed in the role it did play.

In order to focus the discussion, below is a framework for considering the way digital technology assisted the activists in Egypt, or indeed anywhere. While many people think that digital technology can be used for an almost unlimited number of purposes, on closer analysis we can actually distill that list to seven activist uses of digital technology, which are described below.

1) Documentation

One of the most basic capacities of digital technology is to document, to encode information into a digital format from which unlimited copies can be made. This documentation ranges from the recording of human rights information in a secure database like Benetech’s Martus to the recording of a cell phone video of police abuse or the typing of an SMS message. Documentation occurs whenever digital content is created.

2) Synthesis

Digital applications also have the ability to refine raw information into a more useful form by grouping it or connecting it to other information in a format called a “mashup“. Patrick Meier has put together a collection of digital maps that mash up information on the Egyptian protests with geographic information on where those protest occurred. While these maps are among the most visual kinds of mashups, less visual data synthesis is also important. With applications like Constant Contact and Kintera, nonprofits in the US link donor data with demographic information to send targeted emails to their supporters.

3) Resource Transfer

Digital technology can also be used to transfer resources, most specifically money. While micro-donations have played key roles in raising funds for political campaign like Barack Obama did with online donations in 2008 and humanitarian campaigns like the Red Cross’s mobile donations for Haiti in 2010, this practice is far from globally pervasive. While it is one of the reasons that many nonprofits in the West got online, it is only one of the activists uses of digital technology, and there is little evidence that it played much of a role in Egypt.

4) Co-Creation

The next three uses are all forms of coordination, and are listed from the strongest to the weakest form. In the strongest form, co-creation, a usually small group collaboratively plans and designs an action or product, such as a protest march or campaign strategy. Co-creation requires repeated back-and-forth communication, in which the product is refined through input by multiple creators. In Egypt, we saw the organizers of the Khaled Said and April 6th Facebook groups using Google chat to coordinate together, as well as using covert offline meetings.

5) Mobilization

The next strongest form of coordination is mobilization, in which a call to action in transmitted to supporters through digital means. Here the April 6th and Khaled Said Facebook groups were useful while the Internet was still on, as well as Twitter and simple SMS. The activists also used paper flyers to spread the word about the January 25th protest in poorer neighborhoods that were not online.

In mobilization, communication is unilateral, from a small planner group to a larger group of supporters who are asked to take the action created by the planners. It is a weaker form of coordination than co-creation because the supporters did not play a role is designing/planning the action. They are presenting with the call to action and then must make a binary decision to participate or not.

6) Broadcast

Broadcast is the weakest and also the most common form of digital coordination: a piece of information is transmitted to a group in an effort to create a shared understanding of a public issue, but with no specific call to action. This type or information-sharing to an audience not asked to take any particular action accounts for much of the chatter on Twitter related to the protests, even the live tweeting from Tahrir. While this type of information is critical to creating a sense of shared identity among protesters, it demands less of participants than co-creation or mobilization.

7) Protection

Digital technology not only helps activists to work together, but also protests them by helping them circumvent censorship blocks and evade surveillance. Activists can use a proxy server or applications like Tor, Ultrasurf, and Freegate to access forbidden information, or send email using HTTPS for encrypted person to person communication. The increased digital savvy of repressive governments like Egypt, which track the actions of dissidents on Facebook and Twitter, made these anonymizers ever more important.

Conclusion

This framework does not define how Egyptian activists used digital technology in their work, but it does draw a boundary around what is and is not possible. The case study of Egypt has changed our understanding of what is digitally possible in an authoritarian regimes and there will likely be useful lessons emerging for a long time to come.

What Digital Tech Can Do For Activists: The Short Answer

by Mary Joyce (updated)

What can digital technology actually do for activists? The response to this question usually comes in the form of a long list of tools or a recounting of several case studies. But what if we looked at these tools and cases in the aggregate and focused on the similarities? Could we condense all the uses of digital technology into a few key functions?

This is what scholars and trainers have been trying to do recently and its a question that I’m quite interested in. Here is a list a what I think are the best functional typologies and then I’d be interested to hear what you think of them.

The first, from 2008, is from the Quick ‘n Easy Guide to Online Advocacy by the info-activism training organization Tactical Technology Collective:

1) Mobilising and Coordinating
2) Documenting and Visualizing
3) Informing and Communicating
4) Bypassing and Accessing

The second is from Anastasia Kavada‘s chapter “Activism Transforms Digital: The Social Movement Perspective,” which starts on page 101) in Digital Activism Decoded (PDF).

1) Accessing and Discovering Information
2) Disseminating Information and Reporting from the Streets
3) Coordinating and Making Decisions
4) Building Solidarity and a Sense of Collective Identity

The third, which is limited to social media, is from the introduction (PDF) to Beth Kanter and Allison Fine‘s new book The Networked Nonprofit:

1) Conversation starters like blogs, YouTube, and Twitter
2) Collaboration tools including wikis and Google Groups
3) Network builders like social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter

The fourth is mine.
It is still a work in progress:

1) Record: To encoding of information into a digital format.
2) Reveal: To publish or otherwise disseminate information.
3) Protect: To limit access to information
4) Process: To refine raw information into more useful form by grouping it or connecting it to other information
5) Co-Create: To collaborate in order to generate a online or offline product.
6) Aggregate: To bring together information, resources, or people.

These four sources are written by authors, focusing on different niches of digital technology for different intended audiences, yet the challenge is clear: How to you distill hundreds of cases and dozens of tools into a handful of functions that are both exhaustive and mutually exclusive in that they encompass all relevant phenomena while having minimal internal overlap? The goal of creating a list of functions which fulfills the divergent goals of brevity and breadth is not easy.

So, what do you think? Is any of them perfect? How might they be re-mixed?

Images: drcorneilus, Mykl Roventine, AugustaGALiving, boklm / Flickr

Better in the Dark

by Mary Joyce

Famed sociologist Jürgen Habermas likes to do civic participation with the lights on. According to his theory of the public sphere, societies benefit from having a space where citizens can “discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment”. The classic analog example of a public sphere is the coffee house. Professor Yochai Benkler of Harvard Law School then applied this idea to the Internet with his theory of the networked public sphere, in which this civic space exists online and is mediated through digital tools. This public ideal of digital participation and activism is born out in fact: most of the digital tools used for activism, like blogs and social networks are extremely public. Recent design changes, like the loosening of privacy by Facebook, have made digital activism on those platforms even more public.

In repressive societies, the public nature of these popular technologies soon brought grief to activists. Once authorities figured about that activists were using these tools they could simply check an activist’s Facebook profile page (as they do in Iran) to see who their likely co-conspirators are or arrest visible online organizers (as happened in Moldova) when seeking the leader of a protest. The Russian government has gained increasing influence over the popular social blogging platform LiveJournal, probably also in an effort to monitor member’s actions. Vietnam and China have gone so far as to hack seemingly private applications, like Gmail.

Not surprisingly, the increasingly danger of using public technologies to mobilize in repressive regimes has drawn responses from activists, such as Sami Ben Gharbia of Global Voices Advocacy, who has cautioned activists in repressive states not to use Facebook. Jillian York of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society has also been analyzing the effect of reduced privacy on digital activists. Critics like Evgeny Morozov see the increasing savvy on the part of repressive governments as further evidence of the danger of digital activism.

Yet this is overstepping. Public digital platforms are becoming ever more dangerous to activists in repressive regimes, yet they are still useful to activists in freer societies. Also, to use the danger of public platforms to condemn all digital activism tools as dangerous is inaccurate. There are many digital tools that actually help digital activists to operate in the dark.

Rather than eschewing digital tools entirely, it may be safer for them to use encrypted digital tools rather than offline alternatives. Pidgin is an encrypted chat client, that allows activists to communicate without the government listening in. Guardian is an encryption client for Android mobile phones that allows for encrypted SMS. Wikileaks passes uploaded documents through several national jurisdictions to protect its right to publish and the leaker’s anonymity. Tor and Ultrasurf route Internet traffic in a similar (though more complex) system, to hide the Internet activities of users and allow they to bypass censorship. Proxy servers, though less secure, perform a similar function. Though its security system requires several steps, Hushmail, allows users a less hackable form of email.

Critics who use the danger of public platforms as an excuse to denounce digital activism are doing activists a disservice. It is better to inform activists of more secure online options than to simply push them back into the offline communication tools that repressive regimes have spent generations learning how to crack.

image: xJasonRogersx / Flickr

From Our Book: Measuring Success in Digital Campaigns

NOTE: We’ve posted a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at Amazon.com. For the next month we’ll be posting more brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt is the first from the third section of the book, which addresses the effect and ultimate value of digital activism. This excerpt, by Dave Karpf of Rutgers University, opens the chapter on measuring success in digital campaigns with an illustration about the critical difference between tactical and strategic success.

The digital revolution has provided us with an expansive set of tools for pursuing activist campaigns. Never before have the powers of self-publishing in video, audio, or written format been so widely accessible to so many. Anyone with an Internet connection has a platform for getting the word out. But do these new tactics and platforms make our attempts at political activism any more successful than before? If a half million people sign an online petition to end poverty, reduce global warming emissions, or overthrow a repressive regime, what effect does that actually have? Digital activism boasts a wide array of tools, but in many ways they only make the measurement of success that much more difficult.

This chapter focuses on two different types of metrics used in digital activism: tactical and strategic. Tactical measurements count the number of signatures, visits, blog posts, etc. They provide indicators of how many individuals have taken some action related to your campaign. Strategic metrics, on the other hand, measure success. They require a clear theory of how you expect your tactics to make a difference, in turn clarifying which measures actually contribute to a win or a loss.

The difference between these two types of measurement dates to the analog era. I first became interested in the difference between them during a campus environmental rally at Oberlin College in Ohio. The organizers had spent months preparing and they managed to gather a large crowd of students to hear speakers, hold placards, and demonstrate their support for the protection of a West Coast forest. Tactically, the event was a great success, one that the group leaders were rightly proud of. But since the fate of the forest was to be decided by the California state government—2,349 miles away—any strategic measure of the event would have had to find it lacking. The students chanted loudly that day, but since Ohio is so far from California, not nearly loud enough to be heard by the state government! In the digital age, the Internet provides every one of us with a megaphone. But, as with those college students, whether the right people will hear and react to digital activism is a more complicated matter.

Successful activist campaigns have always come down to a set of people mobilizing the resources at their disposal to either affect the choices of powerful decision makers or to replace those actors with others more attuned to the beliefs and preferences of the people. To accomplish this goal, activists use the tools at their disposal to educate their fellow citizens and mobilize pressure tactics. But, online or offline, large or small, mainstream or radical, success in all forms of activism must be judged at the strategic, rather than the tactical, level. And, while the availability of online engagement platforms leads to a slew of tactical data, it can also make measurement of success all the more difficult. In the examples that follow, I will discuss some of the pitfalls embedded in easy-to-find tactical-level measures available online, as well as offer a few lessons on how to construct strategic metrics of success in the digital age.

From Our Book: Are New or Old Apps Best?

Today’s excerpt, by Dan Schultz, who will soon begin graduate studies at the MIT Media Lab, is from a chapter entitled “Applications: Picking the Right One in a Transient World,” The chapter offers practical advice for activists on how to choose the applications that will support their digital campaign.

…You can easily get caught up in technology hype, and sometimes that isn’t such a bad thing for an activist to do. Campaigns that use a new technology to accomplish something groundbreaking often end up generating positive attention for themselves. There is also no question that identifying and diving into what will become the next Facebook or Twitter would help you gain traction on the digital front. Using tools that are a bit further along the adoption curve, however, can have some real benefits.

Established systems have established networks, precedent, popularity, and brands. By using a brand that people recognize, trust, and use, you will increase your own credibility and remove some of the barriers to involvement in your campaign. If your intended use takes advantage of network benefits, then the larger user bases of popular sites are going to prove to be a vital asset. Even if the tool is going to be used for something private, like internal communication, you could find the robust support base that comes with established tools to be invaluable.

Another major blow against “cutting-edge” technology is the vast increase of added risk. The tool could disappear, it might be unstable, maybe its popularity is just a fad, maybe it just isn’t going to grow any more—the list goes on. If longevity and stability are important for your purposes, you’ll need to be careful before making commitments to a tool that has only been around for a year. If, however, you are OK with the risk of being forced to change directions at some point down the line, don’t give this concern a second thought.

Of course, completely new isn’t necessarily something to avoid. There will be times when new tools do something that nothing else can do or they are simply superior in the areas you care about. You should also recognize that even the most established tool could become obsolete in a week. What is important is that you know what you’re getting yourself into and assess and address your risks accordingly.

“New Hotness” Pros

  • If the service grows, you benefit as an early adopter.
  • The tool might provide something new or improved.
  • You might discover a groundbreaking way to perform digital activism.

“New Hotness” Cons

  • It could fall flat, leaving you without an audience.
  • It could die off completely, leaving you without a tool.
  • It could change dramatically, possibly in a way that causes it to lose its original appeal.

“Old Reliable” Pros

  • You probably aren’t the first one trying to use the tool for activism, so there will be precedent and best practices to learn from.
  • The larger user base provides network benefits.
  • Established brand means others will be able to understand immediately how and why you are using the tool.

“Old Reliable” Cons

  • Depending on your intent, you might have to fight for attention in an environment filled with noise from other causes.
  • You might find yourself invested in an obsolete technology.

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book Digital Activism Decoded and on July 1st the paper version will go on sale at Amazon.com. For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

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