Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hacktivism and Facebook's Ultimatum Application...

The basic dilemma with organizing social protests and collective action has always been figuring out how to fight the perception that one person can't make a difference. Well, a new Facebook application seeks to address exactly that.

A third-party known as The Point has created a new piece of software that allows Facebook users to not only support a cause in the abstract, but to also set a more practical arbitrary "tipping point" and track group members' commitment to their common goal. Once a critical mass of people has pledged support, a predetermined action is taken. As this Wired article describes, the software, named "Ultimatum", is designed to be a straightforward [application] designed to transform a vibrant online community into a vehicle for specific social change".

Again, the story here is that Ultimatum is focusing on setting practical and achievable goals in pursuit of social change. Other well-intentioned software applications have existed on Facebook and other sites for some time, such as the popular one simply named "Causes", but they are often abstract ideas like "Make Poverty History".

Ultimatum, by contrast, uses "online petitions created by users that requires a tipping point of participants to induce action. Participants are committed to act only when enough other individuals agree to the same, so support for each cause is bound by the group commitment."

"For example, one group calls for Wal-Mart to provide health care benefits for its employees. If a million users sign up, all million pledge to boycott the company if the demand isn't met."

A few years ago, I published a paper on hacktivism, in which I argued that, in a digital world, computer programmers and software developers have a disproportionate amount of power in social politics. One good programmer can create a piece of hacktivist software that will have more of an effect than a million individuals mobilized towards a collective action. Perhaps Ultimatum will serve as evidence in support of that argument, and perhaps not - only time will tell. However, it seems increasingly clear that, at the very least, the Web's viral network architecture alone will not bring about effective social activism. If that will happen at all, it will only happen through better designed software tools.


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