Let’s Get Digital (Full Interview)
New digital technology is radically transforming how social movements grow and organize. To find out about new tools and trends (and how to do digital meaningfully), I invited one of the smartest digital minds in Canada over for waffles.
Francis Kung is a digital campaigner who recently wrapped up two and a half years at Leadnow, five at Engineers Without Borders and is currently working with some really cool freelance clients (I’m jealous!). Francis and I worked together for Leadnow during the 2015 election and Francis volunteered on a provincial election campaign that I worked on in 2014.
Corrigan: Are there any current digital tools that you think have jumped the shark? That weren’t really used two or three years ago that are either become overused or less effective today?
Francis: Three, four, five years ago there were only a handful of advocacy groups doing digital in a meaningful way. Now the tools have become such a commodity that groups all over the place are picking them up and trying them out.
I think that’s great because everyone is gaining the value from these new tools. At the same time—I don’t know if overused is the right word—some of these tools are getting more routine. Online petitions are the biggest example of that. There’s a petition for anything and everything. We’ve gone from the early days where Change.Org did bunch of petitions but not many other people did to now where it’s so easy for everyone to run their own petition.
And it’s great. It’s great for identifying supporters. It’s great for building momentum on a cause. But I worry a little bit that basic digital tools like petitions have become, you know, boiler plate almost—just a thing everybody does. Not all groups are actually thinking about next steps and how a petition is actually useful and what it leads to. I worry a little that the effectiveness and meaning of the tool does drop because everyone is doing it.
I think I’ve seen that to a lesser degree with email your MP or email your target tools. I’ve heard anecdotally that some government offices on the receiving end just filter through them and don’t actually read all of their constituent messages anymore. That worries me because, especially with an MP or an elected representative, you want them to be paying attention to their constituents. If they’re receiving too much email, do things start falling through the cracks? It worries me a little that that might start happening.
There needs to be a bit of an evolution. There’s always going to be a back and forth where tools evolve. But people on the receiving end come up with ways to filter through the volume that they’re receiving.
We’re trying to find the best way to refine digital tactics and techniques and new ways of contacting people while also keeping tools and messages meaningful and preventing our campaigns from becoming more and more background noise.
Corrigan: That’s interesting. We’ve done a couple things in the last couple years to combine digital petitions with more tangible real-world actions. For instance, as part of a public consultation in 2016, we paired paper postcards with a conventional email your MPP tool. People handwrote messages, drew pictures and stuff like that. We then hand delivered thousands of those cards along with a digital copy of tens of thousands of petition to Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.
Francis: It’s funny because, I remember being part of those letter writing campaigns, postcard campaigns. They were like the paper version of an online petition. I haven’t seen those lately. I think the last time I saw one of those was quite a while ago, probably before online petitions kind of became the thing.
There’s almost a cycle where it’s like we’ve gone too far in one direction, so now let’s turn it back the other way and find that mix again. Anything to reinforce that there are real people on the ground behind a petition—that it’s not just a bunch of names on a screen—I think always helps.
Corrigan: When you’re working with clients on campaigns, how would you advise them around picking the right digital tools to meet their strategic goals?
Francis: Some groups have a very clear idea of what they want to accomplish and the steps to get there and then what tools are needed for each. On the other hand, because digital tools have become so prevalent we have to be mindful of the natural tendency to just do what everyone else is doing.
I always try to start by figuring out what are the steps to reach your goal and then working backwards to find the right tool for one. I never recommend just using a tactic for the sake of it. Especially for digital, tech and online stuff there constantly feels like flashy new tactics are becoming available. Sometimes conversations are like “let’s find an excuse to use it” or “let’s use it maybe for the experience” or to keep up with the times.
There needs to be a specific thing you’re trying to accomplish with each tool—especially with lower barrier actions like an online petition. There needs to be a conversation to make sure all of your digital tools fit into your campaign arch or broader strategy.
Corrigan: Do you think there’s a value in organizations or campaigns hiring on their own digital organizer to have the inhouse capability of designing custom tools or do you think that most campaigns are well served using providers?
Francis: I think that is a really important question for organizations to ask themselves. Building and creating new custom tools—I love doing that stuff, that’s my bread and butter—but it does take a lot of effort and investment. If you’re going to do build that inhouse capacity, you need to invest to do it well. [If the work is not done properly,] then it is easy to spend a lot of time and money without getting much of a return.
I think there are probably a handful of groups in Canada that can do that very well and that have the right context and culture and capacity to really invest in custom digital tools. Those can be really exciting places to work.
If an organization can think up really cool new tools, figure out how to use them properly, be willing to test and fail every so often—that’s part of experimenting—that’s great. But that definitely not necessary or mandatory to be an effective digital organization today. Taking tools that are already there, maybe using them in a slightly differently or really just understanding how to use them well, is half the battle.
Corrigan: When you’ve been working with groups like Leadnow, how have you prevented—and you’ve done a great job of this—how have you prevented digital outreach from kind of sinking into clicktivism or devolving that way?
Francis: That criticism of online actions has existed for a long time and I think it’s something to be really cautious and careful of. I came to a better appreciation of that whole “is it or isn’t it clicktivism” question while working at Leadnow.
When I started there, and before that, I was very skeptical of online petitions. I thought they were pure clicktivism and had very limited actual effectiveness. I’ve realized much more that a petition may or may not have impact on its own, but it’s a great starting point—it’s how you can identify the people who you can bring along afterwards. Who you can escalate to another step? Or who can organize in the real world? Or just get to do something—maybe show up at an event or write a handwritten letter.
Without that initial touch point, you won’t know who is willing to do that and you won’t have as much momentum to actually get things going. I’ve come to appreciate that much more than in the past. The clicktivism risk is still there. But that’s why I always want to know what is the next step after the petition? A petition shouldn’t be just a petition.
There is also a breaking down of the digital verses in-person paradigm. That is something I’m really excited to see more and more. Digital use to feel very separated. It’s like—”oh, okay, I’m online this is my online life” and then the things you do IRL—in real life—felt separate from the digital. When the digital and IRL spheres are separate clicktivism becomes a bigger risk.
Where it gets really interesting is where that digital feeds into like real-life actions—where people start organizing and getting together and start talking to their representatives and communities. The petition is a great entry point to that. To be really effective you do need to go back and forth between digital and real life.
Corrigan: When we worked at Leadnow, I guess our desks were like what two feet apart right!
Francis: In that elevator shaft of an office!
Corrigan: Do you think, as a digital guy—I know when I was doing field work, being that close to our digital campaigner really gave me some great insights to how the campaign was going online and kind of connected me to that perspective. Do you think that you benefited from working so close to field folks?
Francis: Absolutely. I loved actually knowing what was going on and getting out of the digital-tech bubble. I tried to drop by as many field events and organizing events like canvass trainings as I could. Context is critically important for tech people and digital people.
There are some tech people who are very good at tech but may or may not be as good at other sides of the real-world context they work in. Finding people who are willing to invest in actually honing or build that instinct—of not just “what I’m building” or what exists online—but of how people relate in the real-world to what I’m building online reinforces the field organizing work that is also happening.
I think there’s a lot opportunity there. I think there are very few people who are thinking about digital and field in that way. That’s actually where a lot of really exciting potential is—where the two can really feed off each other and start to have that lived experience and understanding of both contexts.
Corrigan: Is there anything else you want to add?
Francis: I just think it’s a really exciting time to be working in this world and to see all the different concepts out there—to see the evolution that’s happening. More and more organizations are understanding digital and are onboard with kind of trying new tools out and making them effective. That can only lead to things getting better.
Of course, we’ll have to evolve and change and integrate some of our thinking. There are more people who are who are really taking new digital tools seriously, trying new things and are willing to experiment.
That’s a huge benefit to the social movements, to the work we’re all doing together, and I hope people are willing to work together and share these lessons rather than guarding their own little fiefdoms or turf. A lot of really cool stuff is going to happen in the next few years. It needs to right? Look around. There’s a lot of scary bad stuff happening in the world but I think we’re also rising to it and creating some really good ways of trying to influence it as well on our end.
Want to contact Francis? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
QUICK NOTE: Francis really enjoy my home-made waffles! If you’re an interesting organizer and want to enjoy my hospitality while talking about your work, shoot me an email at email@example.com. I’m based in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood (but also have the phone, Skype, etc if you’re not!)