I’ve seen Michael Geist speak on several occasions and each time, despite the overlap of the content, each presentation is engaging and fresh. (defensive clarification: There is a common thread in Michael’s presentations, which is a good thing. This presentation was loaded with new examples on a theme I have heard Michael speak about)

In today’s keynote at the Mesh conference, Mr. Geist provided a steady stream of relevant examples of sites, videos and blog posts that have been instrumental in spreading important messages and rallying people for issues in the public interest. There were also examples of the use of Twitter to rally for intervention of citizens in matters that involve local authorities, and mashups of technologies such as the use of Google Maps to geo-locate violent activities.

What makes digital advocacy effective:

  1. organizing power (Here Comes Everybody)
  2. online AND offline
  3. mainstream media (what gets reported gets blogged, what gets blogged gets reported)
  4. educate
  5. bring to action
  6. speed
  7. new digital tools (thanks Dave Fleet)
  8. localized
  9. government 2.0
  10. general purpose sites

In the conversation that followed, Michael defended the idea that a large online gathering (e.g. 40,000 people in the Fair Copyright for Canada Facebook group) is not necessarily representative of the interested population of subject matter experts and concerned citizens. Michael pointed out that any large gathering is representative of a larger group of people made up of different levels of understanding and experience. The groups are necessary to effect change.

The issues that Canadian citizens are up against are politics, not policy. Michael used the example of Canadian copyright reforms to demonstrates that, where once policy people informed and supported politicians in creating policies that would satisfy a majority of Canadians, politicians are now directing the policy people on what the policy should be and how it should be crafted based on external influences such as US government pressure. The missing ingredient seems to be public consultation, particularly with key stakeholders including the artists affected by the law.

Laws including the DMCA are based on projections of where the technology and society will go. This approach has hindered, not helped, advancements of technology and the arts. It has also created divides and distrust of governments and the key beneficiaries (such as record companies not artists or consumers, movie companies…) of the laws.

After a long and opinionated discussion about the political establishment, someone asked about the danger of online advocacy being co-opted by consumer rights instead of human rights. Michael agreed that duplicating the impact of the Fair Copyright for Canada would be difficult in any situation though there are great examples of digital advocacy. The impact is really up to the people the initiate and participate in various campaigns.

It’s hard to get people engaged. However, getting them connected in a social media community that targets a specific cause, that’s a start. There is a formula that politicians use along the lines of every single letter represents 1000 other citizens. The more people that become involved, the better chance we have as individuals to become groups that can effect change.