What’s the point of social media? Liam Barrington-Bush of more like people recently characterised the way third sector organisations answer this question with three crude (his word, not mine) categories.

In his own words, organisations see social media as:

1. The new fax machine. It's a tool that gets given to a low-ranking member of staff to handle, with little-to-no autonomy or recognition of its significance. 'One tweet per week' kinda thing. Where lots of organisations were a few years ago, and at least a few still are... The point tends to be to keep up with the Joneses, ‘cause others are doing it. Nothing more.

2. The social engineering project. Highly specialised digital teams that add up lots of metrics and then conflate them with campaign success or failure. This tends to involve lots of assumptions about the people who support us, boxing them into demographic groups and feeding them lowest-common-denominator (clicktivist) actions based on those assumptions. The point to this approach tends to be bigger numbers, and that more = better. This is obviously true in many situations, but can be a misleading metric of success in many others, if it is a kind of involvement that minimises what people feel they are able to offer to a cause, to give people something that is likely to boost total figures.

3. The more like people organisation. Everyone who wants to tweets, blogs, shares, etc. The tone is less managed, the line between staff, members, beneficiaries, supporters, etc is blurred as freer conversations emerge within and around the organisation. There is an honesty and openness rarely found in many more traditional organisations. These conversations lead to freer collaborations and faster responsiveness, as important information tends to travel where it needs to more effectively through networks than hierarchies. The point becomes about nurturing stronger relationships, which lead to more resilient networks. This stuff is far harder to measure, but comes from a deep belief that if we aren't building stronger networks amongst those who care about our work, we are making ourselves very vulnerable to a range of outside shocks that might make top-down campaigning models more difficult or impossible (laws, tech changes, natural disasters, etc). It also recognises that there is vast untapped potential within and around organisations, that our structures prevent us from realising, and which social media has the potential to open-up, through freer connections between people, ideas, and those needed to make them happen.

This last one is much closer to how social movements tend to organise, and I'd argue that it offers the most potential significance and impact for organisations, because it can start to model new ways of organising that move beyond the Industrial-era hierarchies most of our organisations have ended up adopting over the course of several decades, which have come at massive cost to the people and causes we champion.

What can this tell us about the values likely to be engaged in staff and supporters by these different approaches, and what are the implications?

How we frame supporters of an organisation (and how they experience us)

In The Protest Business, the authors argue that many charitable organisations have moved towards ‘cheap participation’ models - away from grassroots models of deeper engagement (based on action and participation) and towards ‘cheque-book membership’. In these organisations, professional staff rather than members take political action; supporters are kept at arm’s length; and members are little more than cash cows. Barriers to entry are low, but so are barriers to exit: supporters are far more laissez-faire with their support.

At the core of this debate is what a supporter ‘is’. In the fax machine and social engineering project models, the supporter is a passive consumer, the bottom of a top-down, one-way communication model. The values expressed by this relationship are hierarchical, around power and security, based in control and maintaining the status quo. When we engage these values, we can erode social and environmental concern and the motivation to participate in civic action.

In the more like people model, supporters are equals: friends in conversation. The underpinning values are honesty, equality, participation, self-direction and universalism - values that are associated with care for others and the planet and active, meaningful contributions.

The protest business model also has a strong relationship with the metrics of success that Liam points out can often be misleading: that more always equals better. What do we mean by better? More clicks, more likes, more money. Measures that fall squarely in the realm of values around power and wealth, and have very little to do with what these organisations’ real mission is: the wellbeing of people and planet. That an organisation needs money to carry out its work is obvious. But we know that focusing our attention on these metrics can ‘crowd-out’ more intrinsic concerns (such as community and civic action); research also shows that monetary frames, for instance, encourage us to be less other-focused, less environmentally-concerned, and more prone to anxiety. Never mind that this model not only limits the role of supporters to financial resources rather than tapping into their potentially active role in creating change (or that engaging values of power or wealth is actually likely to suppress the motivation to play an active role).

The main problem here is that we know that the most likes and clicks and retweets are often for videos of cats - and excellent as these might be, they aren’t likely to motivate someone to take to the streets to demand the government creates more support for community renewable energy schemes. And the focus on the instant response - on the short-term outcome - means organisations can end up sacrificing their longer-term goals (from Liam: “the ice caps are melting but our click-rates are up”).

What about putting as much emphasis on measuring the depth of engagement as the breadth?


How we frame (and experience) our own colleagues and organisation

The working structures and practices taken from the commercial and bureaucratic worlds to the professionalised NGO have brought new skills, expertise and efficiencies into the sector. But are all of these practices a good fit? In the fax machine model, we recognise a tightly hierarchical organisation that allows decreasing levels of freedom and decision-making power the further down the ladder you exist. The strict levels of control and unrepresentative decision-making processes aren’t those we want to see in the wider world, so why do we want them in our own workplaces? And in the social engineering model, Liam argues the specialisation is accompanied by silos within organisations that erode either a sense of common purpose or a climate of sharing and collaboration. Instead, there is division and competition. By promoting these values at work, we’re much less likely to see colleagues who are motivated and producing work in line with the organisational mission - something we discuss in Common Cause for Nature too (section 4.6).

The more like people model presents an alternative - work like networks, based on and encouraging the values of equality, participation, community. How? A few starters include breaking down unnecessary hierarchies, increasing transparency and allowing supporters to get involved in conversations about what actions an organisation should be doing.

You can hear Liam talking about this in a lot more depth at the recent E-Campaigning Forum conference in the video below, and read a whole host of practical ways of making our organisations more like people in his new book.