Sabrina Ford

May 17, 2007

The MyBLOC Jump-Off:

Ever looked at the jumble of sleazy personal ads, bad basic layouts and suspicious corporate forces behind MySpace and thought to yourself, “This ain’t me!” Turns out a lot of folks feel that way, and, more importantly, an innovative group of them have put their heads together to make something more authentic. These same folks know that technology may be the next frontier for a new generation of social activism.

But technology intended to connect young activists needs to be culturally relevant and user- and value-centric, and support face-to-face organizing.

That’s according to ibrahim abdul-matin, 30, a technology organizer at the Movement Strategy Center, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization that supports young activists in the development of networks and alliances. This rubric is the result of matin and his colleagues’ experience conceptualizing and developing, a social networking website for young activists of color, as well as his overall organizing work.

“I document the progressive youth movement, and I help create technology tools to keep the youth activists and organizers connected,” said matin. “We’re trying to do some thinking around what social and racial justice organizations should be looking for in technology.”

MyBLOC, the first website of its kind is the byproduct of the BLOC (Building Leadership, Organizing Communities) Network, a group committed to youth-initiated social progress. Generational Alliance, a collaborative of organizations, including the Movement Strategy Center, supports another first–a national database of youth organizations and organizers, the Future 5000 project.

Both sites are part of the Movement Technology Collaborative, which also includes the Youth Media Council and TUMIS, the design firm that built all three sites.

In the age of MySpace and Craigslist, young people are accustomed to going online for just about everything–getting information, meeting new people and connecting with friends. MyBLOC and Future 5000 are now using Web 2.0 to organize a movement. These organizations face the challenge of developing web tools in such a way that doesn’t simply mimic those popular sites but addresses the specific needs and culture of young activists.

Kat Aaron, 29, is co-director of People’s Production House, a media justice organization working with young people in New York. PPH provides media training to young people who want to create an independent media that speaks to and reflects their culture and concerns. Due to the nature of PPH’s work, myBLOC is a particularly attractive alternative to MySpace.

“It’s complicated,” said Aaron. “A lot of the young people we work with are on MySpace, but they’re also very cognizant of the political and regulatory issues of using a hub for young people owned by News Corp. and Rupert Murdoch. They’re kids, but they’re well-versed and they know who Rupert Murdoch is.”

Whether or not her student’s peers know who Rupert Murdoch is, they certainly know MySpace. This, said Aaron, is not likely to affect myBLOC. Facebook, Friendster and MySpace have already proven that people are willing to belong to more than one social-networking site. Besides, myBLOC offers what MySpace doesn’t–an online experience free of intrusive advertising.

“It’s important for young people to have a space to communicate with each other where the motive is not profit.” said Aaron, “If the goal is to facilitate exchange, then that’s a very different goal than trying to see how many eyeballs you can get on an ad.”

Also, because myBLOC users have common interests and goals, it is a much more focused user experience. “For us the opportunities for connection that someplace like myBLOC affords is very important to us,” said Aaron. “For people who are organizing about issues of national relevance with a very local focus, it’s a nice opportunity to connect with people who are doing similar work.”

Aaron points to the Allied Media Conference‘s new website as evidence that the use of Web 2.0 to connect organizers and activists is catching on. This year, participants have created individual profiles as a way to connect in the months leading up to the June conference. “It’s a great way to build momentum and have a more horizontal exchange of information, rather than us just sending out information,” said Aaron, who is on the conference’s advisory board.

Youth Call The Shots

Matin explained that the idea for myBLOC first came out of a 2004 meeting of youth organizers. “What do you guys want?” asked matin, wanting to understand how he could help the groups organize and communicate. Matin said MySpace came up, and someone suggested creating a MySpace profile. Matin told the story, “But somebody was like, ‘Why don’t we have our own MySpace?’ And folks were like, ‘Yo, how do we do that?'”

So matin set out to learn how to do just that. “We went around the country asking people what they wanted this to be–that’s the user-centric piece it started from the user,” said matin, referring to his rubric for technology tools for youth activists. “You build and create the internet out of ideas. They’re your planks and wood.”

The value-centric piece, matin explained, is about being clear about your motive. “If you are going to use the internet, you have to be sure what your values are, because if you get involved with other people’s values, it’s going to be a failed experiment.”

Future Forward

Jessamyn Sabbag, 27, director of Future 5000, explained the site’s own user-centric development. Future 5000 is an evolution of the 2002 book Future 500, a resource for anyone interested in youth activism. The book was the first of its kind and provided profiles of organizations, analysis and interviews with activists and organizers. In the five years since the book was published, many organizations have come and gone. Sabbag said Future 500, while still a valuable resource for information, is in many ways out of date.

That won’t be the case with Future 5000, “The organizations own all their own profiles so that the info doesn’t get out of date,” said Sabbag. “If you meet the basic requirements, then you can set up a profile.” The long-term goal for the site is to have 5,000 profiles; Sabbag said there should be at 700 by the end of the year.

Matin explains the “supports face-to-face organizing” and “culturally-relevant” pieces. For the face-to-face component, myBLOC is a source of information–the site posts news provided by WireTap, rather than entertainment–no music, film or TV pages. With this structure, myBLOC isn’t trying to see how long it can get users to stay online; instead, matin said, he would like users to log on, get the information they need and then go out and do something with it.

Sabbag expressed the same hope for her project. “Future 5000 is not trying to take the place of face-to-face organizing,” she said. “Its primary function is to support movement building.”

Using the analogy of a politician trying to decide how to reach young people of color, matin explained that it was important that all of the developers involved in building were people of color. “Would that politician use a more traditional campaigning strategy, or does he hire a hip-hop street team?” asked matin. “The street team is going to know how to reach the people.”

This, matin said, is the culturally relevant piece. That’s why it was important to matin to get coders who could relate to the needs of the user. “There’s not a bunch of white, progressive social justice types saying, ‘we can figure it all out for you,'” he said.

Future 5000 puts the user at the center of it all by allowing each organization to own its own profile. Sabbag sees the site as a facilitator. “We want to be a tool,” she said, “by connecting the youth movement for change. The site is a one-stop shop. It’s cohesive and collaborative.”

Sabrina Ford is a California native who holds a B.A. in journalism from San Francisco State University. As a student, she became active in the Bay Area Black Journalists Association, first as student representative and later as secretary. Ford is now at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and was this year’s winner of the Black Alumni Network scholarship.