A remarkable sea change has taken place in the world of activism. What were once grassroots movements have blossomed into huge transnational institutions, concerned with professionalism, branding and most of all: money. As a result, the likes of Save the Children and Amnesty International now have more in common with corporations like Apple and Coca-Cola than they may care to admit.
I interned in a communications department for an international NGO for a year. I spent a lot of my time proofreading or frantically trying to get the website to work properly when my colleagues wanted to release a document or a report to the wider world.
In between these flurries of activity, I’d try to keep all the specialists working in their respective departments widely informed about what was going on in the news that could relate to our mission. It’s remarkable how much people can know about something completely obscure and have very little idea what’s going on in the news – the news that most people saw and talked about.
One day, my supervisor came over to me and presented me with a copy of the Financial Times. This conversation took place in 2012.
“Do you know about memes?”
“I just read this article about internet memes. Very interesting.”
“You should read it. It’s this new way that people are sharing information online. Perhaps you could come up with one for us?”
Luckily, she walked away after delivering this task and forgot all about it. At the time, the idea of creating an Advice Animal for a human rights advocacy charity struck me as being particularly ridiculous.
Let’s leave aside the bastardisation of the term ‘meme‘ for now (stand down, internet pedants) and follow how something becomes popular/viral on the internet.
1) Some kind of content, usually an image, gets created and shared around a small but very active group of heavy internet users. As mentioned before, 4chan is the typical starting point.
2) A larger aggregator/online community picks up on it and re-shares it. In the old days this was done by Digg, now it is usually done on Reddit.
3) All the heavy users normal people have in their Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr feeds re-share this new, hilarious or profound content to impress normal people.
4) A stuffy broadsheet newspaper does a half-hearted column on the phenomenon and it dies through overuse.
Why does this matter?
Around three weeks ago Ted Chaiban, Director of Emergency Programmes at UNICEF, did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit to respond to questions about UNICEF’s response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Reddit is divided into subreddits that deal with specific types of content or subjects – AMA is a particularly large one and has had a wide variety of contributors such as Bill Gates, Louis CK, and even Barack Obama. People like Mr Chaiban go online for a few hours and respond to as many questions from the Reddit community as they can. Very simple.
The community itself is, by any measure, massive. At the time of writing there are 4,300,272 users registered to the AMA subreddit. Chaiban’s session generated 650 comments (including his 17 answers).
Communications and advocacy people should be getting excited right about now. When is the last time, for example, an article about humanitarian aid generated more than 600 comments?
Take a look at some of these questions:
“bumblebeesbummy: I’m thinking about donating through UNICEF but since this would be my first time donating internationally, I’m not very familiar with it. Could you tell me how much, say, $50 would translate to in terms of different kinds of aid that UNICEF will provide, for how many people and how long etc, so I can decide how much I would like to donate?”
“ckellingc: What percent of all money donated goes directly to relief efforts? Whats the usual breakdown of funds (x percent to food, y percent to medicine)?”
What more can be done to stomp out fraudulent aid relief funds or ‘organizations’ who seek to profit from horrific tragedy?
Where do you see the future of aid relief heading? For example, do you expect more international cooperation, foresee organizational mergers, etc.
Please tell all of your employees how much their work is appreciated”
These are engaged, smart questions from people with a sense of some of the major issues with humanitarian aid. These are the sorts of questions mainstream journalists ask, not just some geeky online community. More than that, isn’t it incredibly useful to know what people are concerned about and thinking about regarding your work? The great thing about an AMA is it allows campaigners to directly engage with the very people they’re looking to get on board.
As mentioned above, Reddit is probably the online community most responsible for shaping online trends and virality. Comms departments, I am hoping you know the difference between ‘lurkers’ and ‘active users’ is (you really should) but here’s a brief explanation: lurkers are users who take from social networks and/or online communities without giving anything; active users typically give more than they consume. Reddit is used by around 6% of American adults whereas Facebook (52.9%) or Twitter (15%) have much larger total audience, but Reddit users are much more active than other communities. It’s that high activity level that makes Reddit users the gatekeepers of internet popularity.
Reddit users are more likely to click through to your campaign, to your story, to whatever content you are pushing than other social media sites. They want to find and promote the most interesting content on the web so will do more to seek it out. In terms of funnelling traffic, this is a site that can easily beat out Facebook or Twitter. Which is a pretty big deal if you are trying to promote campaigns or ideas with a very limited budget, as most NGOs are. My own blog, Development Intern, has received over a third of its hits from Reddit. The next highest share is Facebook with ~5%.
As I’ve written before, the sharing function of the modern internet is becoming increasingly important in shaping public actions. People want and expect to be a part of the process, to be communicated with on a more immediate level, and to be able to get involved if they want to. There is no point in lamenting this fact; the third sector needs to engage with this new reality, just like the media are.
We cannot continue to either be ignorant of what people outside of the development bubble are engaging with or to allow that engagement to exist outside of development. So, the next time you want to spark attention of your work don’t bother with memes – ask them about Reddit.