Creating Technology for Social Change

Cultivating Habits for Social Good With Your Peers: TearFund’s New Rhythms App

Can small challenges and peer support help young people grow habits to become socially responsible people? That’s the premise of Rhythms, a fascinating web and mobile app launched this May by TearFund, the UK Christian relief and development agency.

Nathan’s avatar checks his privilege on Rhythms

The Rhythms site asks young people, school groups, and church groups to sign up for 30 day challenges around a single theme. The connection rhythm helps participants encounter experiences different from their own. The advocacy rhythm helps young people learn about important causes and find ways to support them. The generosity rhythm helps participants learn how to be a generous person, and the contentment rhythm offers offers a chance to reshape our experiences of material consumption and sustainability.

I chose the “Connection” challenge and quickly filled up my list of promised actions. I promised to spend 5 minutes reading international news and report back what I learned, to look at my local council’s website and newspaper, walk to the places I read about, and pray for the people involved. I promised to make a map of all the countries that manufacture my clothes. The “Broken Heart” challenge asked me to create a sacred space, sit down for 30 minutes, and meditate/pray for the well being of people who experience poverty and injustice. I promised to read a series of articles about privilege and prejudice. The “Open Your Eyes” challenge asked me to take a photo of a part of my community I tend to ignore. Another challenge asked me to read Isaiah 58 and consider the difference between ticking boxes and seeking integrity in acts of kindness and empathy. Using the system, I promised to write letters to prisoners, interview local community organisers to understand what they do, and watch a short film on the politics of Jesus. It’s going to be a busy 30 days.

The Rhythms site awards points for every complete action, showing the history of completed actions on a personal tree of growth on my Rhythms homepage. When users log in, they are shown a list of new actions that have appeared within their rhythm theme. This week, Rhythms is suggesting videos and actions related to the typhoon in the Philippines. The site is also promoting a Thunderclap campaign to recruit young people for overseas volunteering with TearFund.

My Thoughts on the Rhythms Platform

I *love* the focus on cultivating habits, which allows TearFund to fit learning and advocacy opportunities into ongoing development and relationships of young people. This seems much healthier than the sugar-rush of advocacy campaigns that burn out their supporters. It’s also a compelling extension to engagement-oriented views of civic life that measure people in respect to their actions instead of focusing on who we are in the long term. Much of the work we do at the Center for Civic Media, like Ethan’s ideas on “thick” and “thin” engagement focuses on actions and outcomes rather than way of life.

TearFund’s religious perspective on social ethics is a powerful inspiration for bridging between a rich notion of personhood and a practical focus on impact over time. Some of the implementation — awarding people badges for prayer — raises concerns about the motivations it encourages. Overall however, the site’s focus on reflection and other spiritual practices makes it unusually attentive to a wide understanding of personhood. As a Christian myself, I appreciate the emphasis on spiritual experience and personal change– factors that are often omitted by change-making organisations.

I also love the Rhythms site’s focus on community: groups of young people, together with the adults in their lives can work together to connect with their communities and their world. This community emphasis is well placed for the platform to support neighbourhoodcollaboration and collective action. Many of the actions in the system have already analogues in the world of crowd-work: take a photo, read this information, complete this challenge in your community. The Rhythms team will have to decide how much of this collective action will be coordinated by the platform itself and how much of that role will be taken by community groups.

I do have questions about the balance between fostering diverse visions of growth, versus supporting TearFund’s specific vision of being socially engaged. Despite its focus on connection, Rhythms appears to be entirely self-contained, with all original content. All the challenges and links on the site point to videos, actions, and news within Tearfund’s site. The closed nature of Rhythms will help reassure religious parents who will want to be sure that their teenagers are only introduced to safe forms of civic engagement. It will also support the role of Rhythms as a tool for engaging Tearfund’s own supportors towards Tearfund initiatives.

Networked actors are already routing around large monolithic organisations, and even well established organisations are reshaping themselves for these networked realities. With British Christians creating all the material on the site, Rhythms also runs a risk common in Christianity where even the most cosmopolitan communities forget to include to outside voices with full dignity and agency.

A more curatorial approach might open TearFund to more criticism, but it might also create powerful collaborations and foster richer forms of connection online. Some of the challenges on Rhythms do gesture towards people outside Tearfund, like the challenge that encouraged me to interview local community organisers. That openness is excluded from the actual platform itself: the news reading challenge I took gave no suggestions on what news to read. Perhaps a “propose an action” option would let individuals and groups create actions that are more relevant to them, linking Rhythms to other initiatives. I would love to add a Planet Takeout challenge, to meet people from other cultures by documenting local takeout restaurants.

Privacy Concerns
Judging from its very quantified design, Tearfund’s site is collecting engagement data on what challenges its users complete. A well-designed set of policies might make it possible for TearFund to share valuable engagement data with partner organisations while still respecting the privacy of their users. And yet their site has no privacy policy, terms of service, no notification control settings, and no statement on their use of data. Rhythms simply has a placeholder saying “Privacy policy coming soon” with a link to their cookies policy. Although the cookies policy has a few basic protections that any EU site will be expected to abide by, the lack of more clarity is a very serious problem for a platform launched nearly 6 months ago.

When I questioned the TearFund team about their lack of policies or terms of service, they replied on Twitter “Thanks J. We’re working on the TOS and Privacy Policy along with a bunch of other developments. #Watchthisspace”

Despite these serious concerns about the design of this particular platform, I have great respect for TearFund, who play a large role in fostering the social conscience of UK Christianity. Their Rhythms site is a fascinating and inspiring platform at the intersection of social self tracking, social good, and religion. I wish them all the best.