What it Means to Be a 21st-Century Think Tank

Yesterday the Meta-Activism Project launched its most recent product, Civil Resistance 2.0, which is not really “ours” and not really a “product.” It’s a crowdsourced initiative that will eventually be authored by people both inside and outside our organizations and it does not exist in physical space, just in the cloud. This got me thinking about our values here at MAP, and what it means to be a 21st century think tank.

Along with The Global Digital Activism Data Set, Essential Readings in Digital Activism, and Digital Activism Decoded, MAP is coming to define itself by digital production, flexible human resources through porous collaboration, embracing the economics of abundance, and producing information that is free (in more ways than one).

Digital Production: Our products don’t exist in the world of atoms, they exist in the world of bits. Everything we have created – Civil Resistance 2.0, the Global Digital Activism Data Set, the Essential Readings in Digital Activism resources list, and the book Digital Activism Decoded – exist in digital form. In fact, only the last product exists in physical form. We’re creating products, but we create them only in cyberspace. This saves money and allows for a wide audience.

Flexible Human Resources through Porous Collaboration: Civil Resistance 2.0 is crowdsourced. Anyone can edit the list of methods, which exists as a Google Spreadsheet with no editing or privacy restrictions. For the Global Digital Activism Data Set, we collaborated with Christopher Bail of UNC Chapel Hill, who donated his research assistants’ time to help us code a large tranche of our digital activism case studies. In this way we shared the cost of coding without creating any bureaucratic overhead.

This is the kind of easy and porous collaboration championed by Beth Kanter and Allison Fine in their book The Networked Nonprofit. It also relies on the talent of brilliant volunteers through mechanisms described by Clay Shirky in Cognitive Surplus. The motivation is to leverage passion, talent, and financial resources across a range of institutions and individuals to create the best products at the lowest cost. If we had to pay all the experts and PhD’s that contribute to creating our products, our budget would be at least a few hundred thousand dollars. As it is we pay a small fraction of that, mostly for student labor to code data.

Embracing the Economics of Abundance: As our openness statement declares, we are committed to making our research processes and research products open to the public. But it goes beyond openness. We embrace the economics of abundance on the production side by leveraging the spare time of passionate and brilliant people. We embrace the economics of abundance on the distribution side by creating digital products, of which infinite copies can be made for free. These are the kinds of non-market economics principles discussed in Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks.

Information Should be Free… and Free: Open source evangelist Richard Stallman made the distinction that his software was free as in freedom, not as in free beer. We believe that information should be free in both ways: it should be legally unrestricted (everything we produce is under a Creative Commons license) but should also be cost-free to the user. Be believe that the information we are distributing about digital activism is important and as such we want it to be accessible to as many people as possible. (I’d imagine most people in intellectual endeavors are of this opinion.) Free digital products help us achieve these goals.

Our goal at the Meta-Activism Project is to innovate on three levels: as an organization, in our research methods, and in the results of that research. We want to study the new phenomenon of digital activism in a new way, and be a new type of organization while doing it.

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