The Internet is perhaps the biggest amplifier in the world. It’s given a voice to everyone who can connect to it and through it. By that I mean, anyone who is (1) able to interface with the democratic tools of communication available through the Internet and (2) able to engage with others through compelling storytelling, ideas or calls to action (or any combination thereof) has the potential to reach as many people as mainstream media can. Perhaps more.

We’ve seen many examples of how the Internet can be put to good use and just as many if it being misused. I don’t specifically mean abused; though, there are ample cases of that as well. I generally mean misused. As part of my work I follow critics of specific industries and organizations and have found many to be proudly absolutist in their views and more eager to pull the trigger than champion positive and productive change in incremental steps. It’s the fire method that dismisses the need for ready and aim (in either order).

A conversation I had yesterday afternoon turned to a particularly weighty issue. The person I was meeting with expressed an interest in effecting change about this issue and inquired about using social media to drum up a groundswell of support mixed with a high-profile legal action.

The problem I have with this approach is that it’s adversarial. It pits us against them and generally is about shaming stakeholders into change. Not only that, it puts the targets in defense mode. Their legal teams will advise them to not comment and refuse to engage with the enemy. That’s called adversarialism and it’s probably why change so often looks the same.

In many cases the need for change is more about established practices rather than specific intent. That is, the systems and practices (with lumps and warts) have been in place for years. They work even if they’re completely archaic and offensive and may even be recognized as such by those on the inside. Changing the status quo is likely hard for a variety of reasons outsiders can’t fully appreciate. If it was easy, some of the more significant issues would already be addressed.

It’s a lot easier to criticize others than roll up your sleeves to make things happen. Many advocacy and activism campaigns come under fire because the participants do little more than point out shortcomings, stopping short of suggesting practical solutions or offering to collaborate and support the change.

I suggested taking a multi-pronged and cooperative, problem-solving approach. People are more likely to act on the need for change (driven by the evolution of social norms and technological innovations) if they know they aren’t (or won’t come) under attack, can get the necessary support and can be made to look good in the process. To be metaphorical… rather than spark an inferno, build a campfire.

I suggested the following first steps as a starting point:

  1. Identify the core of the issue. Understand why the issue exists today and perhaps not when the systems were first put in place.
  2. Identify key stakeholders and players including those who may be willing to offer support, those who may present roadblocks and those who could present significant problems for those at the centre of the issue.
  3. Identify applicable laws at all levels of government (municipal, provincial, federal).
  4. Identify political, social and economic impacts (domestic, international) and possible champions in politics, government, industry and the public.
  5. Identify some possible (and practical) solutions.
  6. Determine ways in which you and the public can help those at the centre of the issue and how you can help rally support for them.
  7. For each audience, figure out how to present the problem as a short story and the possible solutions in an easily digestible way.
After that, it’s a lot of relationship building, diplomacy and collaboration. It takes effort and energy. Social media can play a role if done well. The important thing is to champion positive and productive change rather than drawing blood. You’re more likely to be taken seriously if you represent a solution rather than a whole new set of problems.