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Using Generativity

Binders full of women.

Almost as soon as Mitt Romney uttered those words during a U.S. presidential debate, the phrase took on a life of its own. A parody Twitter account attracted 30,000 followers before the debate was even over. People posted thousands of photos on Tumblr poking fun at his comment. A Facebook page of the same name received 274,000 likes, and Amazon was flooded with satirical binder reviews. Nonprofits like EMILY’s List, joined in on the #bindersfullofwomen craze, and helped mobilize women against Mitt Romney in the final weeks of the election.

Two years earlier in Russia, a similar campaign mobilized people against Lukoil, the country’s largest oil company. A Mercedes carrying the company’s vice president crossed into oncoming traffic, slammed into a small Citroen, and killed the two female passengers inside. The Mercedes had special license plates exempting the driver from traffic laws, and official media blamed the accident on the driver of the Citroen. Russian bloggers debunked the story, a rap video questioned the circumstances, and a fake TV ad showed a car doing crazy stunts to reach a Lukoil gas station.

Although the Lukoil official remained unpunished, the campaign resulted in two new online communities dedicated to achieving a ban on these special license plates. Antimigalki publishes photo and video evidence of violations by drivers with special plates while The Blue Buckets Society (named after the blinking blue flashers VIP vehicles use) organizes flash mobs.

Like binders full of women, the campaign against special license plates was not the creation of NGOs, but brought much needed attention to the issues at hand. They were started by disconnected individuals who created cultural artifacts (images, blog posts, reviews) that were shareable and “joinable.” These were campaigns started by no one, controlled by no one, and accessible to anyone. They were amorphous, unpredictable, and powerful. Indeed they inspired and even permitted creative production. They were generative.

To be generative is to inspire and permit independent creative production. The term entered the popular lexicon in 2009 in The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It. The book explains that the Internet became popular because it was generative: People were able to build things on top of it without the assistance or permission of its creators. The inventors of blogs, wikis, web pages, and computer viruses did not need to ask any owner of the Internet permission. The Internet both inspires and permits creative production not imagined or controlled by its creators.

So what does this mean for civil society? Traditionally defined as voluntary associations independent of the state and the market, we think of civil society as being composed of trade unions, local sports leagues, churches, and universities. But in today’s changing world we need a new understanding of civil society that includes these loose and often ephemeral civic organizations.

If the new civil society is generative in that it inspires and permits independent creative production, what makes it so? Based on these two examples (and there are others, like the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, and the 200809 European Student protests), the Internet, and particularly social media, appear to be of central importance. Anyone can create a compelling frame for a public issue, have it quickly disseminated over a range of social platforms, and also use those platforms for collective action.

Social media provides both the motive and the means for generative civil society: people can share their criticisms of the status quo on these platforms and also form connections with one another to take collective action in response. A campaign can start anywhere, or in many places at once, and various forms of participation, from creating content to sharing and simply “liking” are also easily accessible to all. Participation grows until some resolution is achieved of people simply lose interest.

Lessons for Health and Rights Campaigns

It is difficult to think of public health campaigns that are purely generative along the lines of the Lukoil or Binders Full of Women examples. This is probably because it can be hard for health NGOs to give up control and let things develop spontaneously. The first reason is the high value placed on expertise. There may be a perception that because ordinary people lack medical, legal, or public health training, they should not be encouraged to create content and organize actions around the NGO’s mission. Another reason is that when working with marginalized populations, concern for their privacy and wellbeing can make organizations very wary of engaging the public.

But there are some examples of campaigns that incorporate participatory or generative elements that perhaps point the way.

One is the Robin Hood Tax campaign in favor of a financial transactions tax which will, amongst other things, raise money for global health. The campaign’s Week of Action in 2012 encouraged activists around the world to conceive and carry out their own events, and to share these on Facebook.

Another example is the Here I Am Campaign, which encourages people to record and share their stories of how they have benefited from the Global Fund for AIDS, TB, and Malaria, in order to support advocacy for replenishment of the Fund.

The Open Society Foundations Health Media Initiative focuses on advancing the field of communication and media for advocacy on health and human rights. As we support our grantees to effectively use media to advocate on key health issues that impact marginalized populations, we are faced with some key questions:

  • Where relevant, how do we make actions joinable? How do we make it easy for people to participate at a variety of commitment levels?
  • How do we define causes as personal to a broad demographic? (Generative campaigns tap into broadly defined themes that are also very personal, like women’s rights, corruption economic injustice, and education policy.)
  • How do we foster experimentation?
  • How do we manage the tension between the desire of organizations to keep tight control of their messaging, and the fact that generative campaigns require a relinquishing of control? 

While these questions don’t have easy answers, we need to grapple with them. Social media is changing the way people expect to engage, and disrupting old models of engagement. People will be most generous with their time when they feel their work benefits a broad community rather than a single organization.

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