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Can a tweet save the coasts?

December 02 2010 | Culture Shifting, Jim's Blog,
by Jim

A little over 26 years ago, three people in Malibu were concerned that a wave, First Point, was about to be destroyed. That concern became large enough that they acted; they engaged with local leaders and eventually saved one of the most famous waves in surfing. This was also the genesis of Surfrider Foundation. What would have happened if all they did was tweet about it? The wave would probably be lost. But if we stop the dialog there we miss the larger point regarding how modern activism works. Worse, we risk minimizing our collective coastal preservation impact. A day doesn't go by that I'm not reminded of the relative value of different levels of engagement (and the general confusion about how valuable any given action is). There is a camp of people who still feel all flavors of social media are essentially a waste of time. They routinely point to a vignette like the one above: Can a tweet save a wave? Of course it can't and so their conclusion is that networks and social media are just hype. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a different group of people who seem to have bet the farm on social media. They point to the role of Twitter getting real time truths out of places like Iran and China. These people flirt with overstating the value of social media and even go as far as suggesting that it has replaced other forms of face-to-face organizing. Let's take a step back and try to assign real values to these different types of engagement. Perhaps the lightest weight action is to "like" something on Facebook or to sign up for a weekly digital newsletter. I estimate these kinds of actions, as in following an idea on a particular social network, require about 20 minutes a month (or 40 seconds a day). Today Surfrider Foundation has about 500,000 people in this category (more than 300,000 on Facebook alone). The next level is comprised of people whose actions require a notably larger amount of investment. People showing up for a beach cleanup will probably invest about 40 minutes in the month (which averages out to 80 seconds a day). Becoming a member of Surfrider for $25 falls into this category. Similarly, this group includes people that come to a chapter meeting or give a comparable donation to a cause. Based on the fact that they invest twice the amount as the lightweight group above I'd argue these people are at least twice as valuable. To oversimplify let's just add one more group: the leaders. These are people that have truly made a shift in their lifestyle. They don't just do the above-mentioned activities; they are the ones leading local campaigns. This requires much more investment. My sense is that these people are devoting 900 minutes a month (or 30 minutes a day). Of course there are far fewer people that are willing to invest this much in an idea so as to become a spokesperson for that idea. These people are, what I would call, "all in." Three points here. 1. There is a funnel of engagement. At Surfrider we see that there are millions of people that are potential targets for the lightest weight category. Light-weight asks are made to this group, which are appropriate for people new to a cause or idea. Furthermore, there are tens of thousands of people at the middle level and there are hundreds-to-thousands at the deepest level. All levels matter and they act as a feeder system, onramps, into the next level of engagement. 2. Converting people to deeper levels of engagement is vital. No, a tweet won't save a wave, but it might introduce a person to that fact that a wave is in danger, a beach access is about to be taken away or that local waters are polluted. Another attribute that matters is the fact that a tweet can scale effortlessly to the masses. A message on a social network can reach tens of thousands... even millions of people. If you want to preserve a coastline you need tonnage; you need millions of people who are aware of an issue. These millions of people feed into engagement funnel model and will produce thousands of people who will end up engaging at a deeper level. In the past, we've used networks and social media to get 4,000 people to Trestles hearings... twice. That tonnage was a key enabler to the Save Trestles victory. Yesterday Obama announced he was extending the moratorium on net new offshore drilling, more than 20,000 people used our online tools to ask him to do just that. Of course there are always multiple groups pushing for these results. Surfrider Foundation's contribution is engaged activism. It's difficult for any governing body to look out into a crowd of thousands of people who care enough about an issue to engage and show up... and then vote against them. This same principal applies to all our campaigns. 3. Talk is cheap, engagement matters. When someone pops an opinion out into the ether I don't assign it the same value as I do the opinion of one of our leaders. People engaged in lightweight ways are worth a fraction of those engaged at heavier levels. At some point this is simply a math equation. With the time commitment numbers I've suggested above a lightweight person is literally worth 1/2 what a person engaged at the middle level is and only 1/45th what a leader is worth. Above, I said that all levels matter, and they do... but there is a relative value to them. Our chapter leaders and campaign activists are the rock stars of the coastal conservation movement. This is why virtually all of my podcasts are focused on them. They inspire me every single day. So, no... a tweet won't save a wave or save the world. Think of a tweet is a spark. The question then "will the spark lead to something larger?"
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