Awesome Summit 2012 - The Age of Peak Guilt | MIT Center for Civic Media

Awesome Summit 2012 - The Age of Peak Guilt

Live notes from the "Age of Peak Guilt" session at theĀ Awesome Summit, by Rahul Bhargava, Matt Stempeck, Ellen Chisa, and Willow Brugh.

Alexis Ohanian introduces the panel by explaining the problem. Currently, to do well we ask for money by showing a sad kid. This poverty porn just causes us to feel guilty. Have we reached the peak? What else can we do instead. The panelists all have experiences with using positive experiences to cause good.

Zach Walker -"

Most people in the room are aware of Donor's Choose. While it's older than Kickstarter, it's frequently responded as "Kickstarter for Public Schools n America." Teachers can post projects they'd like to do in their classrooms, but that they don't have funding for. People around the world can contribute to fund their projects.A few examples:

  • Sept 2007: A host on The View said she didn't know if the world was round or flat. A person motivated by this statement found a geography teacher in Chicago looking for a globe, and other materials. Our very moderator, Alexis, donated in honor of the host, which ensured that she would receive the class's thank you cards.
  • 2009: A contributor to Daily Kos was fed up with "anti-science" messaging in conservative politics. So once a week, a group at Daily Kos donates to a math or science projects in a red state (207 projects).
  • 2011: group of NYC bartenders pooled their tips of an evening to support their local community. They found a local school that needed recess equipment.

He shares these examples to demonstrate how Donors Choose thrives. The problem can seem overwhelming, but this model breaks it into manageable chunks. This makes giving FUN, turning sadness into opportunity. You can donate as a smartass, combat conservatism, or support kids having fun at recess.

Nick Grossman

Nick is ally in fight against closing down the internet. Nick noted that the panel had some homogeneity via the joke that they tried to get more white guys on the panel, but not possible. Nick wants to make an army of kitten voltrons, for all the good things made possible by the internet. Visiting scholar at MIT Center for Civic Media. Works with Union Sq Ventures Policy". Starting - advocacy organization for the"

Nick cares are how networks are changing everything. Applies to more than just technology. In many cases this creates more opportunity, empowerment, and democratization. This is (potentially) awesome.
We still are baking our old ways of thinking into these systems. This disrupts old ways of doing things, and "the future has no lobbyist". Potential where the future fights the interests of the past. There is a lot of the fighting in DC over new models, like Uber's disruption of the taxi business. "We are all be advocates for our connected future.".
Thinking a lot about making, sharing, and connecting. We should be awesome, and have fun doing it. A few examples:

  • Firefox web browser: the power of market and company to create market disruptions. firefox was advocacy, disrupting the IE status quo in a way the justice department could not
  • we're not doing a good enough job explaining ourselves. Nick wants to create a better market for explaining our advocacy goals
  • Hacker News is a social news site, like Reddit. Both sites have been ground zero for social movements as they spring up, organically, from conversations about the news
  • co-ordinated group tweets. allows you to do tweet bombs. Fun and guiltless.
  • Upworthy: Trying to get beyond memes into things that matter
  • Internet Defense League : open brand and project - involved congressman's office in creating meme-like images to support an open brand
  • Internet Freedom BBQs - built a network before we need it

Nick is working on the /awesome project. Outside of the group of internet people, the stories need to be collected better, and used a ammunition for advocacy. The idea is that every site on the internet adds a page about what new things they are doing.

Alexis reminds us that awesome is a renewable, limitless resource - there is no peak awesome.

Andrew: Harry Potter Alliance

Most folks have read Harry Potter. The HPA uses parallels to inspire a network of over a million fans. They have sent five cargo planes to Haiti and built libraries across the world. They're building a network of fan activism to bring about change. This includes building advocates in multiple ways - a network of youtube power users to talk about equality. Henry Jenkins has said The Harry Potter Alliance is "the model of civic engagement for the 21st century". A like-minded group is Nerdfighters - who believe nerds are made up of the power of awesome. This power of awesome can defeat "World Suck". They are creating fan activist networks that go beyond Harry Potter.

They started the Hunger is Not a Game campaign. Lions Gate tried to shut them down , but media storm generated led tons of people to defend fan activism, and now they want to work together. Pedagogically, they promote a way to learn through the stories we already love. Fantasy isn't an escape, but an invitation. Don't feel guilty about loving to imagine, because we can, and have the power to "imagine better". Andrew calls this "cultural acupuncture" - stories are our needles to activate the energy of our culture. Personal, collective, and cultural stories.

Michael Norton: HBS

Michael helps run studies looking at how to create happiness out of money. We often don't do the things we are "supposed to do," but we do things that have benefits for you. This has implications for companies as well. They try to show that companies can do better when they engage in charitable activities. Is it the case that giving money away makes you happier. Working with Gallup they looked at existing data about happiness and if people have donated money in the past month. Michael shares a correlation map that shows nearly everywhere people that give money away are also happier. This isn't causal, so they decided to test that theory. This led to a study giving people money, telling some to spend it on themselves, and others to spend it on someone else. The amount of money varied. People that spend the money on themselves didn't have an increase in happiness, but people who gave it away said they were happier. People don't give it away on their own, the study design has to make you give it away.

With organizations they create teams, giving one some money to spend on a teammate. Another team doesn't get anything. A third is told to spend it on themselves. The team that is told to spend it on a teammate consistently performs better as a team over time. A conjecture on why this was the case is that spending on others creates a greater social bond, so when your'e considering if you should go to the team event or not, you feel more of a connection and commitment. This example was with dodgeball teams, but they did the same with sales teams and the results matched. Guilt can work, but the trend he highlights is the opportunity to increase good feelings without making people feel bad first. Make it fun to do charitable acts. How does involving lots of people in an act of giving make it inherently more fun.

Q & A

What are specific things we can do to build awesomeness into organizations that don't have it baked in from the start? How do we inject awesomeness? Nick mentions that we can use competition to convince otherwise staid organizations to be more awesome. They have done work like this with transit agencies with success (such as by convincing them to open their data to developers). The challenge is a trojan horse for building community. Andrew believes playfulness should be baked into your organization. If you are advocating for humanity there should be some kind of understanding of what it is to be human. The experience of being human is playfulness. If your organization doesn't allow for this you missing something big.

Alexis pushes back on this argument- what about organizations working on very serious issues? Can you do playfulness within serious work? Andrew's response is that even when you're fighting for a serious cause, you're still fighting for human beings, who still want to smile at some point. Not every moment of your life has to be fun; I'm unfortunately one of the biggest purveyors of the Protestant work ethic, and I'm not even Protestant. So how do you get people to connect with hunger when they've never been hungry? We use the same language of myth and play from The Hunger Games. Andrew doesn't want to be a fundamentalist... "fundamentalists always bring the mental, rarely bring the fun".

Michael adds that there's a sense that nonprofits don't want donations from people who don't actually care. The Product RED campaign sent some money to fight AIDS in Africa, but most of the money went to the individual's shiny new iPod. People were offended that there was a fun consumer goal in addition to giving money to a cause. The partnering nonprofits felt icky about the money coming from people who were barely aware of the cause they work on. KarmaCurrency allows employees to give a company's money to causes, with great personal impact.

The Movember effort grew from a silly little Australian campaign to raise awareness for colon cancer. But most people are growing mustaches because it's silly, not because they care about colon cancer. launched Mustaches For Kids, held in October. The people who get involved this way don't necessarily stay involved long-term.

Andrew's starting a Center for Cultural Acupuncture to make important ideas catchier. Global warming is a public communications nightmare. It's faceless, silent, happening over time, and solutions require international and corporate cooperation. A mythology could help us fight climate change. We need a super-villain to personify global warming. There's a villain, but also a collective stable of heroes to stand up to him. Instead of a faceless entity, we have someone to fight together. Alexis says this is reminiscent of the planeteers.

Alexis has seen a sea change online. The people who live online are more and more in control of creating and scaling popular culture. Maybe we can tell the stories we need, with or without a feature length film.

An audience members relates two stories. In Monsters, Inc., they realize that you get more energy out of kids by making them laugh, rather than scaring them. In Batman, Alfred argues that Gotham needs Bruce Wayne more than it needs Batman. How do we ensure that philanthropy is more about solving problems, and not about the act of giving? Zach shares that 3/4 of the people who give to DonorsChoose are giving to public schools for the first time. And they're interested in being part of the movement to fix education. DonorsChoose gives them a window into the problem, and a way to be involved. Nick says the internet makes people feel like superheroes. We back projects that didn't exist and feel like we've performed magic. It's part of moving from guilt to empowerment. The Internet Defense League lets us put a badge on our chests.

An audience member asks about the "Kony 2012 effect." There are still bad guys out there, and people can still be convinced to give millions of dollars out of guilt. The campaign was also hotly contested because it ended up not being about the people it was trying to help (kids in Africa). How does this impact trying to move away from guilt based fundraising?
Andrew is impressed by the Invisible Children movement around Kony2012. The vitriolic backlash saddened him, because he saw it as trashing the enthusiasm of the youth involved in the campaign. The weakness, he argues, was that their ask wasn't big enough. Alexis admits that a large number of the people making up the anti-SOPA movement were misinformed or uninformed. It's inevitable with a movement of that size, he says. A panelist suggests that a group with a clear message is the charity: water initiative.

Nick tells us that the public backlash to SOPA, informed or not, did create a space for conversation with congressional offices who previously didn't care about the issue.