I am amused by the time and energy people on the Quadrantish side of politics are devoting to GetUp Australia. Conspiracy theories and discernment of hidden hands at work are becoming memetic – or perhaps emetic – among the right-wing – I just typoed right-wind and should have kept it! – groupthink brigade. I am less amazed by GetUp. I really think it’s just doing a whole lot of old-fashioned activist things, as the title of this post suggests, except that it does it with technological smarts. It works because we punters out there – especially those who sympathise with the kinds of causes GetUp has supported – have enough tech smarts of our own to be in the loop. Is it much different really from organising your 21st birthday party on Facebook?
Back around 2002-3 it must have been Jeremy Heimans, one of the founders of Get-Up, dropped into my staffroom at SBHS. “Wow! You’re a blogger, Mister Whitfield! Fantastic” – or words to that effect. I was chuffed, I have to say, as Jeremy had been into such things and more while in very short pants, while I at the same time was a middle-aged technophobe who was scared even of touching a computer. Yes, Jeremy had been in SBHS’s class of 95, but what the school ever taught him I can’t really say. He certainly taught us quite a lot. I do recall seeing him in the English staffroom in the 1990-95 period advising on tech matters from time to time.
Jeremy at 12 after becoming 1990 Young Achiever with Prime Minister Bob Hawke
As Jeremy says of himself: "Jeremy has been building movements since he was a precocious little brat in his native Australia, running media campaigns and lobbying politicians from the age of 8…" True! He was at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 when he was 14! Not many Jeremies come your way as a teacher. Very glad this one did.
At the moment Jeremy is in London – or soon will be. This interview has just appeared in The Guardian. He is a speaker at Activate 2011: “the Guardian newspaper’s platform for leaders working across all sectors who are proving that, through the use of technology and the internet, we can make the world a better place. With events in London and New York we aim to connect influencers and change-makers and foster a new generation of people that utilise their talents for good.”
New York City. Our offices are at the cultural nexus of Chinatown, Little Italy, and SoHo.
In 30 words or less tell us who you work for and what you do:
I am the CEO and co-founder of Purpose – a social movement incubator and agency. We work on ways to help millions of people combine their power as citizens, consumers and cultural agents.
Do you have a website / blog?
http://purpose.com and @purposenyc on Twitter
Website you can’t live without?
The Dish by Andrew Sullivan. He’s prolific, bright and his blog is wonderfully eclectic. It’s also more fun to read someone with a somewhat different political worldview to mine – there’s only so many Frank Rich op-eds you can furiously agree with.
Hero or person who inspires you?
My friend Andy Kuper. He raised $140 million for a fund to provide insurance services for the world’s poor before the age of 35. Andy’s micro-insurance fund provides safety nets to people who previously would not have had them, and allows them to take more entrepreneurial risks in their lives as a path out of poverty.
How did Purpose get to where it is today? Was it easy to get your organisation up and running?
As a start-up, there are plenty of challenges and difficulties everyday, but we are able to learn quickly and get better. Building up an organisation is like starting a social movement. At the center of everything is the core team. I have the honor of working with some phenomenal people at Purpose who are at the top of their fields. That energy and common purpose among the team is what inspires me and where the magic happens.
We have grown from a two-person operation just over two years ago to 40 team members today, so there are certainly growing pains in terms of defining our structure, model, and culture. It is a delicate balance of "controlled chaos"; we are constantly tweaking things to have enough structure to be strategic, but enough of the unpredictable to foster that team chemistry and serendipitous innovation.
We have seen an increasing interest in understanding and leveraging technology to harness mass participation and self-organisation. And it’s not just the tech geeks or policy wonks, but it’s also business folks and the design community. In our work we seek to connect the dots and our team draws from those diverse communities.
How important is technology and social media in what you do, and how do you marry online action with offline action?
We believe in the appropriate use of technology, not tech for tech’s sake. Everything we do needs to have an effective story to tell and "theory of change." There needs to be a clear strategic reason for deploying any particular tool. Online and mobile are great lower-barrier ways of coordinating offline action as we have seen recently in Egypt, Tunisia, and across the Arab Spring. We want to take our movement members up what we call a "commitment curve," from the lowest barrier to more high-barrier actions. We want to make it easy to join and then engage our members over time with effective communication and storytelling. We don’t want to present too many choices in the beginning in order to avoid choice paralysis.
How would you describe 21st century activism? Has politics been changed forever because of the internet, or are these changes merely cosmetic?
Politics have been changed forever because of people. The Internet is one of the tools that has helped. And it isn’t just politics. The new networked dynamics that are now possible with these new forms of communication are also changing the way people engage as consumers that demand more social value from corporations.
Clay Shirky pointed out that the "revolution doesn’t happen when people adopt new tools, it happens when they adopt new behaviors." Behavioural change is a big part of what we do at Purpose. Twenty-first century activism is all about evolving models of social interaction, with the increased ease of peer-to-peer communications, and a many-to-many model that coexists and sometimes challenges a one-to-many broadcast model. Right now we’re only glimpsing the full potential of these new ways to tap the collective power of citizens and consumers.
One example of 21st century activism we are engaging in is All Out, a first-of-its-kind global movement to advance the interests and rights of LGBT people. All Out is bringing together people of all identities to build a world in which everyone can live freely and be embraced for who they are. In its first months, All Out has already built an amazing community of more than 500,000 people in 190 countries. We started with a friends-and-family email list and campaigned against anti-LGBT legislation in several countries, and enlisted volunteers around the world to produce our crowd sourced "coming out video" introducing the movement. None of this coordination would have been possible without the Internet.
What advice would you give to fellow social entrepreneurs looking to make a difference? Can innovation and entrepreneurship alone solve some of the world’s problems?
There is no magic bullet, but as I mentioned earlier, building a brilliant, talented, and culturally and intellectually diverse team is key.
At Purpose we talk about movement entrepreneurs who create new sources of power by aggregating and mobilizing the voices of many. These new sources of power are important levers in driving innovation and social change.
Buckminster Fuller was quite prophetic when he said "to change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." I deeply respect the people trying to make change within existing legacy organizations, whether in government, the NGO sector, or the private sector, but in my life, and this is what we do at Purpose, we are looking for ways to build new models.
And finally, what can we expect from you at the Guardian Activate Summit in London?
I want to talk about multiple levers of power, like I mentioned before. I want to talk about how we can tap into social technologies to mobilize people not just as citizens/voters who influence the political system, but as consumers who can influence corporations and markets, and as a community of individuals who can encourage and support each other in changing behaviours.
I also want to preach simplicity in a noisy over-mediated world. Although the Summit is about technology, I also want to focus the conversation around the stories of real people and the impact that they can make with technology, rather than dwelling just on the tech itself. Even as tech changes, the need for real human connections and storytelling will be key.
Good on him, I say! I feel very privileged to have known Jeremy and to have followed the story so far. Do visit Purpose and see there what movements it supports.
Whether Jeremy is justified in the scope of what he says there I will leave you to ponder. Inspiring he certainly is — not a word I would apply to Julia or Tony!
Also, I know that the person speaking on that video is authentic Jeremy: what you see there is what you get. Jim Belshaw’s commenter kvd couldn’t be more wrong when he says: “GetUp is a very fruitful, very cynical marketing exercise which could be lifted, franchised, into any geographic location with minimal text change and a catchy title.” It really is idealistic! Hard to credit, eh!