Building Cultural Engagement for Change through Media and Narrative

The discussions on issue fatigue at both on my site and ArtTribes Network, and later at SocialEdge, prompted me to start looking at the flip side of fatigue, which in the case of social issues is engagement, participation and commitment. This is also a thread I've been examining in the engagement frameworks I've been co-creating, for Transmedia Activism, which looks at how one uses cross-platform distribution of content, co-creation networks and shared authorship to engage activists toward change; and for Modeling Global Change, which uses design thinking, user experience and structured narrative to examine partnership, influence and stakeholder collaboration toward parallel action and systemic change.

The same constructs which were discussed around combating issue fatigue can be used in creating a cultural movement around an issue. In particular, building platforms that allow for (1) storytelling and communication, and (2) effecting and demonstrating impact, allow for continuous commitment to the movement. Media and narrative play significant roles in creating and building these platforms.

It can be difficult to develop and retain engagement using cause-related media or social media for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the dearth of financing opportunities and access to distribution in the case of film, and the consistent effort and facility with short, quick messaging and branding required in social media. Creating a sustainable engagement platform within your existing structure takes time, creativity and dedication. But it's also easier to disseminate information than ever before, since the internet, web and mobile technologies allow for more connectivity and access.

There are a few foundational questions to be asked before building a cultural movement through the use of media and storytelling. Here are the three most basic:

1) Who's the audience? Are you preaching to the "unconverted"-- that is, are you bringing in the previously disengaged or the merely aware to a social movement to strengthen its numbers and potential? Or are you preaching to a choir of engaged and activist members?

The fact is that the more people are exposed to stories around a cause and the ideas behind theories of change, the more likely that change will be effected or you'll influence the people who can help create impact. But there's a difference in how you influence previously disengaged participants vs. active participants. The messaging and stories for the unaware need to be more basic and should be targeted toward entry and inclusion. Also, the burden of influence and persuasion is higher, while you risk that return on investment may be lower in terms of actually creating change.

The Story of Stuff is an example of a viral media piece that successfully engages at the lower end of the engagement spectrum, bringing "newbies" into the discussion of consumption and climate change while also engaging more knowledgeable or activist participants. Moving further along the spectrum, the film Citizens at Risk presents a more complicated story and presupposes deeper knowledge, yet is still successful and effective in presenting the issues.

2) How will you create connection? How do you pull people in, wherever along the line of the engagement spectrum they sit? Creating the basis for empathy can be a challenge at times. Nick Kristof has noted that humans respond to the suffering of individuals rather than groups. This is a difficult obstacle to overcome when you're dealing with crises or conditions that adversely affect large numbers of people, whether climate change or mass atrocities or access/rights issues. People tend to tune out. On the other hand, people respond to compelling stories and sharp narrative. So there is great worth in storytelling to raise awareness and promote activism. But there is also risk in making a story a "hero's" story and focusing on a champion, to the exclusion of the situation and the impact. In gaining and retaining attention, the use of any media (film, art, social media) needs to be sparse, consistent and targeted and, more importantly, to create a personal connection.

Charity:Water (which uses viral and social media with great effectiveness) , and 3 Generations (which doesn't use social media, but houses its content only on its website and in partnership with The Hub at Witness) each present interesting examples of how you can use stories to create empathy, through stories that are intensely human and deeply empathic.

3) What are you trying to change? That is, what impact do you want to see and create?

It is through the loop of Issue-->Engagement-->Action-->Change that effective cultural movements move. And media (social, journalistic or arts-based) can be used at every step of that equation.

To a certain extent, the question of what you want to change should really be question number 1, every time you set out to create a movement or a program or an intervention. In the two frameworks I've been co-creating, Transmedia Activism and Modeling Global Change, we've based the frameworks on the core value of putting the social change issue first. It's important to build your platforms to both create and demonstrate impact. Institutional funders and individual donors alike would rather contribute to and participate in initiatives that make a difference and do it well.

If you can show your impact-- whether through a powerpoint presentation, a good Facebook Causes page or Twitter campaign, or a good narrative-- you're more likely to succeed in keeping attention and obtaining resources that will sustain your efforts. The use of narrative and storytelling, whether in video, photo or text form, or through personal interactions, bolsters qualitative success metrics and impact measurement, and puts a human face on change efforts and successes. (After all, what are we working towards if not a positive shift in the way lives are led and social conditions met?) Social media offers a day-to-day alternative to annual reports, press releases and grant reports in showing direct impact in a consistent, immediate way. Hope Phones, for example, has been using Twitter to good effect in the mHealth movement, showing how mobile phones contribute to assisting community health workers efforts. Using social media to present not only the issue (and not the "ask") but for donor engagement (the "thanks") and the impact can help maintain participation in the movement and may also keep effort and messaging anchored in the "change" part of the equation.

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