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What's in a Name: Why 'CauseWired'?

By Tom Watson on August 6, 2008No Comment

The book’s title has one thing going for it – it tends to make people curious. “CauseWired, eh?” they’ll say, perhaps rubbing a chin or two. “What’s it about?” The easy answer is “the rise of online social activism,” but that’s too short for anything but the quickest of elevator rides. So I thought I’d do a post borrowing a few thoughts from the book on what “CauseWired” means, how far it reaches, who it involves, and what it may come to encompass.

First off, “CauseWired” is a term of art – a bit of marketing short-hand that publishers love for book titles. It comes directly from a headline that the good folks at Contribute magazine put on an article I wrote last summer about Web 2.0 utilities and philanthropy. So I didn’t invent the term, but my publisher liked it and I thought it might come to stand for much of the activity I set out to chronicle. And I did break it down a bit before adopting the neat catch-phrase.

First, the “cause” part. To me, causes are situations that motivate people to try and change some part of the status quo; causes are, by definition, progressive. They are what drive people to seek change. But I also favor the widest possible definition for the purposes of this study. That change can be fairly conventional – what we’ve always thought of charities and nonprofit institutions to be about: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, protecting the environment, fighting injustice, educating the young. These areas, at the least in the United States, are dominated by established 501c3 tax-exempt organizations and religions organizations. Many of these groups have pivoted sharply in recent years and adopted cutting-edge technology in their fundraising and donor cultivation activities – they realize that as the donor pool gets younger and more open in its connection to causes, they must evolve quickly or be left behind.

Certainly, large nonprofits are part of the story but they’re not all of it. Unless you’ve been hiding away from the tumult and national argument, you’re undoubtedly aware of the effect online organizing has in recent politics. Millions of Americans have signed on as virtual supporters and they’ve contributed tens of millions of dollars to their candidates; all the while, a new class of activist-journalists drives debate and challenges the mainstream media’s view of the national polity from behind the dashboards of their blogs. Then there are what I call the “flash causes” – quick and fast-moving drives to organize people online to take action, in response to a disaster or news story, for example. Finally, there are the social entrepreneurs, a rising class of visionaries that is building online activism into plans for a new generation of change agent organizations.

And what is “wired” about this movement?

Surely, nonprofits and politicians have been raising money online for more than a decade now. And “wired” itself just doesn’t cut it in a media landscape so dominated by wireless technology. Yet, there is something about the current environment that makes wired causes so compelling right now, as opposed to a few years ago. First, “wired” doesn’t just mean the chords attaching your computer to the wall, or the high-speed cable inside that wall and leading out to the street. It means the people on the vast network of networks; never before have we all be so wired – that is to say, so closely related. Email was one thing, the “killer app” of the first decade of the commercial Internet – and it remains a vital connector.

But we’ve moved well beyond it, to a far more connected Internet. On any given day, I stay in touch with hundreds of people – real friends and Facebook “friends” – and they keep track of me, through Facebook, via Twitter (a short-messaging service that limits posts to 140 characters) and FriendFeed, by subscribing to blog feeds or Flickr feeds or YouTube accounts. That wired – or wireless, of course, but it makes for an inferior metaphor – infrastructure of personal interaction and its growth over the last three years creates fertile ground for fast-moving social activism online. It allows for a kind of charitable involvement that is both personal and open to the world, what microfinance pioneer Susan Davis terms “the philanthropy of you.”

There’s another force in the “wiring” as well. We’re living in a time of widespread experimentation involving causes – call it social entrepreneurship, venture philanthropy, social enterprise or whatever term strikes your fancy. But at its core, this movement favors a tolerance for risk in seeking social change. It’s no accident that two of the poster children for changing how society engages in philanthropy are web-based, social network-friendly, highly viral – the microfinance site Kiva.org and the targeted philanthropy enterprise DonorsChoose. The ability to tap vast databases and provide a personal donor or lender experience is at the forefront of online social activism. Together they form what Ben Rattray, founder of the innovative giving portal Change.org, calls “the mega-public,” a vast and interconnected army of people who, at least in part, want to change the world.

Technology makes it possible, of course – new protocols and software “hooks” that allow websites to talk to each other, that break down the barriers and silos that held back true online collaboration in the early days. The authors of Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, describe that model for widespread collaboration: “Call them the “weapons of mass collaboration.” New low-cost collaborative infrastructures—from free Internet telephony to open source software to global outsourcing platforms—to allow thousands upon thousands of individual s and small producers to co-create products, access markets, and delight customers in ways that only large corporations could manage in the past. This is giving rise to new collaborative capabilities and business models that will empower the prepared firm and destroy those that fail to adjust.”

Tapscott and Williams, who focus primarily on consumer markets, foresee something of a golden age – “a critical turning point in economic and social history” – and it may well be possible extend their view of online collaboration to causes. Wikipedia, the massive free online encyclopedia that is written and edited entirely by its own user community, is emblematic of this possibility. In seven years, that community has built Wikipedia into a strong consumer brand – the the fifth highest brand ranking by the readers of brandchannel.com – with over 10 million articles in 253 languages, comprising a combined total of over 1.74 billion words by March, 2008. Yet, Wikipedia is itself a wired cause, run by the Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. a non-profit organization headquartered in San Francisco. To its most ardent volunteers, Wikipedia is a vital cause, a rallying point for online social activism: “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment,” reads the foundation’s credo. Wikipedia’s 75,000 active users write and edit and check facts – and they support the cause of knowledge using a set of digital tools unavailable a decade ago. They’re part of a hidden economy, or “prosumers” as futurist Alvin Toffler calls them – amateur or semi-professional volunteers and activists, passionate in their work and contributing real value to the greater society. In terms of social activism, they’re part of Ben Rattray’s increasingly powerful mega-public.

And not to put to fine a point on it, much of that mega-public is young. The headlines and the ubiquitous B-roll footage don’t tell a particularly compelling story about the priorities of young people these days. To the popular press, young Americans are “generation clueless” – millions of selfish, naïve and coddled starlet types staggering through their lives intentionally blind to the suffering of others, to world poverty, to the great issues of our day. To some degree, this reputation is hard earned.

But the generalization of a materially obsessed generation masks a vital and important movement – a subtle shift in priorities and aspirations that will have a huge impact on the future of philanthropy. At no point since the student movements of the 1960s have young people worn their causes so openly – but this time around, the Facebook Generation isn’t fighting the establishment. The own it. For today’s super-wired, always-on, live-life-in-public young Americans, the causes you support define who you are.

And so, they’re CauseWired – at least I think so. What about you?

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