Phillip Smith

Mashing the vote at Mesh

What does Web 2.0 have to do with grassroots advocacy and electoral politics? Well, that’s the question that we set out to explore yesterday during the workshop that I delivered (with my good friend Mark Greenspan of the Habitat New Media Lab) at the Mesh conference. For those who were at the workshop, you can find the slides as a PDF here and Sacha’s notes on the session here (and, if you have feedback on the session, please drop me a comment below!).

The basic idea of the session was to tease out the principles and tools behind what’s being called Web 2.0, and then to explore some practical applications of those tools or principles. The examples that I pulled together basically ran through the eight or so main points from Tim O’reilly’s (now legendary) article describing this shift in thinking about the Web. Here are a few examples from the presentation:

The Long Tail

Greenpeace virtual whale march

Okay, so I should have picked a better example for the long tail slide. Upon scanning through my screenshots folder, I came across a much better example: the Greenpeace virtual whale march (shown here). The concept is that the long tail makes it just as easy to reach a large number of people who are interested in niche issues — which is kind of similar to the eBay phenomenon.

Data is the Next Intel Inside

They Work For You

For this concept, I picked They Work For You. Similar to O’reilly’s example of the Amazon book number overtaking the ISBN by adding user-generated data like purchase patterns, ratings, and reviews, They Work For You has extended publicly available data from the House of Commons.

Users Add Value

Since Sliced Bread

Here I went with the innovative project called Since Sliced Bread. This project aggregates common sense ideas from its users and then asks them to participate even further by categorizing and commenting on the ideas that are submitted. Not only cool, this project is demonstrating real impact by getting on people’s radar — recently, one of their ideas was adopted by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (the idea is to tie the US minimum wage to Congressional pay increases). I think I also referenced the Pledge Bank here too.

Network Effects by Default

Went with an easy one here: Tom’s Petition. A visual representations of the six degrees of separation, this campaign make it possible to see the impact of your signature — and your friend’s signatures — over time. Using an innovative tools known as Forward Track, new signatories become the first degree and can watch as their friends sign-on and send the message even further across the country.

Some Rights Reserved. wins the prize for this one. Put simply, they couldn’t find the information they needed to create accurate Google Maps “mashups” and decided to build their own; and, of course, once they built it they gave away access to it for free. This service is changing the face of Canadian politics, as member-based organizations and political campaigns start to map their members and constituents. 

Cooperate, Don’t Control

Heading across the pond again, we looked at the BBC’s Action Network and how they’re helping to connect people around issues locally with free online tools.

The Perpetual Beta

Here I diverged a bit and took folks through what I feel is some of the most innovative stuff that’s happening on a local level, specifically: Who Runs This Town, City Idol, and the Toronto Public Space Committee. My reasoning for these examples is their willingness to try new ideas and to continue to evolve the tactics of civic engagement and local activism. the Billboard Battalion is one of the most innovative examples of local activism that I’ve experienced in a long time.

Software Above the Level of a Single Device

And, finally, I took folks on a tour of some phone-based initiatives like Murmur and One Free Minute and some location-based content projects like Wireless Toronto.

So, once we’d gone through those (and a whole bunch of other examples), I asked the group to break into smaller groups and start thinking about how these tools could impact our upcoming election. After a bit of brainstorming, the participants in the session came up with some fantastic ideas on how to apply the principals and tools of Web 2.0 to the upcoming municipal election, including an election wiki and a hot-issue blog that would help drive the debate.

So there you have it. The Web 2.0 movement is having an impact on grassroots advocacy: it’s true because I said so. Have any other great examples to add?


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


Want to launch a local news business? Apply now for the journalism entrepreneurship boot camp

I’m excited to announce that applications are now open again for the journalism entrepreneurship boot camp. And I’m even more excited to ...… Continue reading