Love it or hate it, social media networks and digital organizing have become part of mass movements. Any good organizer must grapple with the tension between the communication benefits of a platform like Facebook and the major downsides — like surveillance, algorithm control and pay-to-play profit motives. How many of us have wished there was a comprehensive alternative, built by and for social movements?
Two scholar-activists are working to make that a reality. Monica Carrer and Sylvia Frain are building the Everyday Peace Community platform, a networking app designed to connect “social change actors” of all types across the globe, with a focus on those who lack access to resources and networks in imperial centers. They hope to provide a crucial service to movements working for justice in different settings and struggling with different constraints in mutually empowering ways.
Carrer and Frain met at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago on the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. Both did fieldwork in different communities that were resisting violent structures, and both were deeply affected by their experiences. Carrer was based in rural villages in India, where a massive movement against state violence later turned to a violent conflict between Maoist groups and state forces; Frain worked in the Marianas Archipelago (consisting of the U.S. affiliated Pacific islands of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands) focusing on women’s digital, legal, political, and spiritual resistance, and efforts for demilitarization and decolonization. When they finished their doctorates, they connected over how to use what they had learned to give back to communities like the ones in which they worked.
Carrer and Frain’s approach to their work highlights not only the tools that can help movements connect and build, but the ways in which the scholars who study movements and the activists who make them can mutually reinforce our understandings of the challenges movements face and work toward solutions.
I sat down with Carrer and Frain (from the other side of the world) to ask them about their project.
The Everyday Peace Community platform is an ambitious project. Where did the idea for it come from?
Monica Carrer: We were really inspired by the action of the people in the communities we visited in our fieldwork, and we understood that ordinary people are crucial agents of peace and change. They resist violent power structures every day. They do a lot to transform the realities they live in and build a better future for younger generations, even though not only is their role not given much attention or support, but it is usually treated as something problematic that needs to be fixed by institutions. Ever since we completed our doctorates, we thought about what we could do to support people’s actions, and this was the reason why we co-founded The Everyday Peace Initiative.
Building a digital platform was never our goal. What is important for us is for all those who want and could actively take part in social change to be able to do so. It doesn’t matter if it is in the platform we have created, or elsewhere. We have come up with this idea because we see that a lot of social movements and activist groups and communities around the world have the potential to make a great impact, but they may not have access to big funding and technologies that could be game changers for them, especially if they are small and in disadvantaged contexts.
It is always big voices that dominate, even in fields like social change, social justice and peacebuilding. Everyone is under pressure to generate an income to support their activities — also so that they can afford digital technologies and outreach campaigns — and this creates competition. The bigger organizations win, and not necessarily because they are better at making an impact. But if this keeps happening, power structures are never going to change. The small voices really know what being at the receiving end of power and violence is like, and they have been resisting it all along. The limit is that these voices, knowledge, and experiences may be scattered. They would be much more powerful if they could connect and collaborate, systematically gather and share their knowledge, and learn from one another.
In a way, this was our experience, too. We started out as everyday people ourselves, with very limited resources, other than our ideas. We worked a lot with digital tools, as this is a great way to communicate and reach out to our audience. We also turned to digital technologies because when I got started, I was a mother with a baby and a toddler, and I did not have the chance to travel and network in other ways, which again is a challenge that many other ‘everyday’ people have.
Before acquiring the skills I now have in digital technologies, website and app design, digital marketing and more, we experienced many challenges and frustration, just like many others. We all perhaps think that we know social media since we all spend so much of our day there. But when you start using it to achieve a specific purpose, it is a completely different story. Suppose you have created a digital output. It could be an event, an article, a publication, a petition, a video, a resource, a course… anything. Once you have spent a lot of time and effort and successfully created your amazing content, people still have no idea it exists. You now need to figure out how to take people there, get them to reach all the way to your output, stay and engage with it, and then, hopefully, use it to do something useful.
You need to have a consistent strategy and be aware of each step, from where your audience finds you to the point where you want to take them. You need to understand how they think and how they experience this whole process. If any part of this process is confusing, you end up spending a lot of time and money with little results. Or perhaps you create content and get some engagement, but don’t really know where that actually leads. Or maybe you get sucked into creating content that is not really all that meaningful just so that you can keep getting some engagement. The burnout is real!
I am sure that many activists and changemakers are critical of social media and tech giants and their negative impacts on society, however they may feel that there are no alternatives. I am of the view that if something is not yet there, we create it.
So yes, through digital media we have the chance of creating networks more than ever before. The more people and groups connect, the more they can exchange experiences and knowledge to improve their actions, and of course, work together. And of course, some groups are very successful with social media and digital technologies, they are getting better and better, and this really shows the potential of using social media and digital technologies for activism. However, in practice, designing an effective strategy and workflow involves many costs in terms of technology costs, learning the skills (or hiring developers and consultants), and the time dedicated to content creation. Therefore, digital tools are not all that easy to use, cheap, or accessible to social change agents, especially “everyday” ones. After all, these technologies and social media algorithms are designed for profit, not for social change, which makes it even more expensive for social change actors. This is why we have been looking for alternative ways to make digital technologies available to all. So it is not just a community network, there is a lot to offer in terms of software to create and manage content, and we will be offering skills, training, and support to help groups with their overall digital strategies.
What kind of community do you envision this platform developing? What kinds of organizers, activists, and groups do you want to connect?
Sylvia Frain: We have in mind a community that connects social change actors, broadly speaking, so they could be organized in different ways, for example structured social movements, NGOs, social justice groups and advocates, educators, social enterprises, communities, informal groups, peacebuilders, even individuals. We are especially thinking about groups led by people who are addressing issues they experience directly, and smaller or informal groups and movements who may not have access to the resources they need for their digital strategies. We have started working even with groups in remote areas where not many people have access to the Internet and mobile phones, but it is still important to them to be able to spread the word about their work, and build partnerships.
We would also like to encourage better collaboration between researchers and community actors. The idea is to encourage researchers from diverse backgrounds to make their research available to community actors and to communicate in ways that are engaging and accessible, but also to be more inclusive of people’s knowledge, and understand what community actors need from them.
Why is this the right time for a project like this?
Monica Carrer: The pandemic has clearly made the use of digital technologies more prominent for everyone, with many sectors exploring new ways of doing things digitally, and this demand has also accelerated the availability of new technologies. The ones we are using are very new and innovative, with more and more features coming up, so this is a practical reason that made it possible for us to develop this platform, which is very exciting.
Digital marketing is exploding right now, because social media is the place where you find people, it’s where your audience is. If you know how to do it, you have the chance of connecting with a large audience, and possibly a quality, targeted audience. This is true for businesses, but also for everyone else, including social movements, NGOs, activists, educators, advocates, and so on. But the question is, does it work the same way if what you are trying to achieve is not profit? I think that we have a lot to learn, but if we simply take digital marketing and use it in the same way, it may be problematic, as it would end up transforming goals and practices and make us serve those corporations, rather than fulfilling our own goals in the way we want.
Digital technologies and social media are reshaping the world and the way we connect, and we need to be critical of it, too. For us, digital technologies are not a substitute for real-life social interaction, which is too important when it comes to resistance and peace. But they are useful when it comes to scaling things up, connecting, sharing knowledge and resources, organizing. And right now, I feel that this is a time when we really need to scale up social change action as effectively as possible. So I think that now is the time to work towards developing new innovative digital practices that serve these purposes, being conscious of what we want to achieve and the implications of what we do.
I am sure that many activists and changemakers are critical of social media and tech giants and their negative impacts on society, however they may feel that there are no alternatives. I am of the view that if something is not yet there, we create it. After all, building a different future is all about imagining new alternatives, right? We may not have all the answers yet, but at least we can keep our horizons open and work towards it, one step at a time.
What sets your Community platform apart from other social media networks?
Monica Carrer: This platform has been designed specifically for social change, so we have been thinking about what social movements and communities may need, in particular for organizing and sharing knowledge and resources. Our core idea is to make available as many tools and resources, rather than restricting them and making them as easy as possible.
For example, you can create and manage online courses, write blog posts, manage events, even create a webpage that dynamically links all your content, and of course, messaging and communication. Social change should not just be for those who have more money. There is no advertising, no selling. We hope that it could be a place that sparks connection and inspires you to take actions that you can pursue in real life, not one that is addictive and where you are bombarded with ads designed to make you feel the need to buy stuff.
We are experimenting with a heart-based model to make all this sustainable, and we hope that this could be a sustainable model to try for all those who join, too. Everything is free, and donating is a choice, but does not limit access to what you get, or give you special rewards.
There are more digital platforms out there for movements, activists, and other causes. Most offer features mostly related to email marketing and petitions, and tracking and segmenting data from interested audiences. These tools can be very useful, and follow similar principles as digital marketing, but we chose a different model that is based more on collaboration and knowledge sharing.
When all you are trying to achieve is selling something, in a way it is more straightforward. The action you want people to take is ultimately a narrow one. You can easily measure the growth of your sales in numbers. But I think that for us changemakers, the philosophy behind our practices is much more relevant. The practices we use define the relationships we build. If it is just about numbers, and increasing our analytics data by collecting email addresses and personal information, are these really meaningful relationships that we are building?
A lot of activists are concerned with digital security, both in terms of state surveillance and corporate algorithms. How do you think about this in EPI?
Monica Carrer: Privacy and security are a priority for us, and for this reason we have taken hard decisions to keep the platform as independent as possible, even though it means that it will take longer for the platform to grow. We are not interested in using algorithms to collect and track user information, and we want our community members to be aware and in control of the information they create and share. We do not, and will not share information with any institution or third party. But this is a big topic, and the reality is that there are always risks. We live in a world that is more and more designed for surveillance, so trying to do things differently is part of the resistance.
Once we have more resources, we would like to work with digital security experts to ensure we take all the steps to protect our community, and we would love to connect with experts and activists who are working on resisting digital surveillance. But still, I think that we need to be aware that with activism there are always risks, and we have to be aware of them and incorporate them in our practices and strategies.
Where do you see the community platform going in the next 5-10 years?
Monica Carrer: We are very keen on listening to what people need, and so where we go will depend on where people want to go. We do hope to see a growing trend in social movements, activists, and advocates creating and benefiting from content that can help them improve their actions, and nobody knows better than them what is needed. To think about resources that are useful, thought-provoking, engaging and user friendly. They could be courses or toolkits, for example, making good use of micro-learning. Storytelling could be really powerful for social change and there are endless creative forms that it could take. We would love to see a calendar where people can find not only seminars and workshops, but also actions. The calendar is already there, and we just need groups to start adding their events. We are looking at creating further features for different kinds of action and/ or tracking violence.
We also envision creating a library of publications, something that allows you not only to download documents but also for researchers and community members to interact and find pathways for communication. And lots and lots of collaborations and networking. But we hope that most of the action won’t be limited to the platform. Right now what we have created is infrastructure, and it is nothing without people and ideas. The action should happen outside of it. We just hope that groups will be able to get more tools to increase their scope, to think about what they could achieve; more ideas, joining together, generating more ideas, more creativity, more support, more action.
This all sounds amazing. How can folks get involved?
Sylvia Frain: Everyone is welcome to sign up, explore the platform, and start creating. There are heaps of features, and we would encourage members to have a chat with us about their vision. We would love to have conversations about strategy and what groups want to achieve and see how to make it happen, whether here or on other channels.
Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies. This initiative is managed and edited by Stellan Vinthagen, Craig Brown, Ben Case and Priyanka Borpujari.
Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.
Wonderful. I am signing up and will spread information about it.
Very glad to see this.
Sign me up! We were just discussing in a worship sharing group at Northern Yearly Meeting annual sessions how we would like to stay more closely connected in our distinct monthly meetings and worship groups while we work out and share our responses to the climate crisis, the racism crisis, and more. Terry Hokenson, firstname.lastname@example.org