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March 20, 2014

Behavior rules change in digital age

Digitization is forcing a rethinking of the rules and mechanisms for civil society; without active engagement, the rights of individuals and democratic freedoms may be at risk. “Digitization has already changed almost everything we know,” said Lucy Bernholz, head of the digital civil society lab at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, in a March 5 lecture at the University Club.

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons from the spheres that digitization has already changed: music, movies, schools, health care, how we share bikes, how we respond to disasters. But we haven’t really paid a lot of attention at a policy level, and not even necessarily at a practice level, to how we as individual citizens use our time, our wisdom, our money, our digital talents, our digital networks, to make something happen in the public sphere, and how we’re going to continue to do that for the long term,” she said in her talk, “Inventing Digital Civil Society,” part of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs philanthropy forum lecture series.

Civil society — the use of private resources for public good — can’t escape the changes brought about by the rise of digital media. “Understanding how it is we adapt and adjust our practices from analog civil society to the digital age is incumbent upon us. It’s only going to become more of what we do,” Bernholz said.

That doesn’t mean that one is going to replace the other, she said. “It will augment, it will expand, it will change, but it will not replace.”

Rules are lacking right now. “We really need to get on board with thinking about the ethics, the codes of practice and the rules,” she said.

Jumping the hashtag

As an example of the power of digital civil society, Bernholz recounted how eight people, spread across the United States, expressed their displeasure at the decision of breast cancer charity Susan G. Komen Foundation’s board to quit providing grants to Planned Parenthood.

“A group of people sitting on their sofas all over the country, with no paid staff, no central organization, no single media plan, no clue what it was they were actually trying to do, wound up redirecting tens of millions of dollars of health care funding,” she said.

The NFL and the foundation were using “#supercure” as a Twitter hashtag during Super Bowl XLVI.

(A hashtag uses the # with a search term to identify tweets on a particular topic.)

The protesters monitored Twitter during the game, retweeting messages with the #supercure hashtag with their own “#takebackthepink” hashtag to redirect #supercure followers to other breast cancer awareness pages, dubbing it “jumping” the hashtag.

“These eight people contributed to an enormous change. This small group became a big group and the big group made that change happen. Komen changed its policies and reinstated the money,” she said.

“#takebackthepink is an example of an entirely digital voluntary action to change a public decision to make a public benefit happen. That is digital civil society,” Bernholz said.

Merging analog and digital

Libraries are a classic example of civil society: free, accessible and supported by tax dollars, philanthropic funds and volunteers. They’re also among the most rapidly digitizing entities.

While we want to have libraries and authors, technology raises questions and potential problems for both: If books can be digitized, why is there any need for multiple copies? And if digital books can be borrowed from a distance, why are library branches necessary?

Yet libraries are leading the charge toward digitization of resources, Bernholz noted, citing them as good examples of the need to make the digital and analog worlds complementary.

“We are inventing this,” she said. “If you’ve texted a donation, if you’ve made a donation online, if you’ve shared information on your Facebook page or Twitter or through a text message to organize people to do something, you have participated in inventing digital civil society.

“We need to figure out how to make sure that this continues to work so that we can have analog libraries and digital libraries in our communities, so that we can have digital museums in our communities, so that we can have digital education and our schools in our communities, so that we can add digital protests to our football games.”

Keeping up with the times

While the Komen foundation board acted within the existing rules, it found itself pushed back by people it thought of as supporters, who in actuality were loyal to a cause, breast cancer research, not to an institution, Bernholz said.

“The institution had to work really hard, really quickly to adjust to the reality that in fact the governance mechanism it operates under — the board of directors that’s supposed to be its voice to the public and (the public’s) way of holding it accountable — was in fact not up to the task, given the way the public could communicate with the organization.

“Every single nonprofit in America is in this same exact position … and we don’t yet have the right kind of governance mechanisms, the right kind of communication mechanisms, the right expectations or even the right skills to make sure, in fact, the system works in an aligned way, not in one that involves so much conflict.”

A treacherous spot

Using the seashore as a metaphor, she said: “Think of analog civil society as land-based and digital civil society as water-based. Analog civil society runs on time and money. Digital civil society runs on time, money and digital data,” she said.

While there are established rules on the analog side — structures like 501(c)(3)s and rules on making donations — they don’t exist for digital civil society. “The place where the water meets the land can both be beautiful and rather treacherous. And that’s where we are right now,” she said.

The issues

“We need to make sure that we can all access the digital spaces in which we want to take action,” she said. While the meeting places of the analog age — town halls and village greens — were publicly owned, digital meeting places are under the control of private companies: social media networks, telecommunications companies and Internet backbones. “We’re operating in a different environment,” she said.

“We also need to make sure that our rights as private citizens are protected when we act in those digital spaces.” While corporations and governments are among the more vocal participants in setting rules for the use of digital spaces, “there are very few voices advocating for those rights in those spaces,” Bernholz said.

“We also need to control how our personal data are used by others in these spaces,” both when data are given voluntarily or when data are taken without an individual’s fully informed consent. People don’t read the terms of service on websites. Nor do they consider that they may want to own — or get back — the information they give, she said. “We don’t know what it means to donate our digital data,” be it our email address or our DNA, Bernholz said.

“Many of us shortcut all of the thinking about donating something to an organization because of the structural trust and integrity that we see in that nonprofit brand or that nonprofit corporate structure,” she said, noting that the lines are blurred in the digital space where it’s harder to know which entities are nonprofit.

“We need to re-understand where that trust is going to live and how we’re going to be assured of it in our current age,” she said.

“Civil society needs to engage in inventing the rules that are going to guide it,” she said. “We need to answer the question of who owns the data. We need to know what rights we have as data donors and how those rights are going to be protected. … We need to know how we are going to pay for all of this,” she said.

“We need to get active and participate in these conversations because they’re happening now. These rules are being set by omission, for the most part. Commercial corporations and governments are setting the rules and leaving us to operate in the margins,” Bernholz said. “We need to get active in this conversation.”

Lucy Bernholz
Lucy Bernholz

—Kimberly K. Barlow