Alex Steer

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Activism Programming Interfaces

797 words

There's an interesting thought in a piece in The Atlantic by Alexis Madrigal:

What an API does, in essence, is make it easy for the information a service contains to be integrated with the wider Internet. So, to make the metaphor here clear, Occupy Wall Street today can be seen like the early days of Nearly everyone accessed Twitter information through clients developed by people outside the Twitter HQ. These co-developers made Twitter vastly more useful by adding their own ideas to the basic functionality of the social network. These developers don't have to take in all of OWS data or use all of the strategies developed at OWS. Instead, they can choose the most useful information streams for their own individual applications (i.e. occupations, memes, websites, essays, policy papers).

The elaboration of the thought feels a bit overdone to me, suggesting various aspects of the movement as GET and POST calls, etc. - I'll let you read it and decide for yourself.

But the idea's stuck with me today, and has been elaborated by something completely unrelated, as so often happens. The something was Microsoft's announcement of the Kinect Accelerator program that it's launching to fund startups that take advantage of the Kinect user interface technology. This is an astonishingly smart piece of thinking from MS, who have continued to demonstrate that you can create far more value by incubating a technology platform than you can by just launching a product.

What's really nice about it is that it embraces the fuzziness - the hackability, if you like - of the Kinect concept. So many companies are fiercely protective, not just of their IP and their patents, but of their ideas about how people should use their products and services. (This is a hard habit to break - when you spend ages making something, whether it's an ad, an app or anything else, your first instinct is to be so protective when you release it that you want to shout, 'You're doing it wrong!', when you see how people respond to it.) What many companies treat as warranty-voiding behaviour, Microsoft supports, and is now backing financially. Good on them.

Which made me think. The one thing I keep hearing from observers of Occupy Wall Street and its family of protests is the idea that it's all very laudable, but if only they'd be a little bit more coherent. To use Alexis Madrigal's geeky analogy, if only we could see the underlying well-formedness of the API. If only it were making clearer calls.

I don't agree. Treating OWS as if it's a slightly dodgy hack of mainstream political philosophy, and therefore voids the warranty of serious debate, misses the point. Not the point of these protests, but the point of all protests. Protests exist to say, something's wrong, and to gather together a lot of people who agree with that simple sentiment. It's tough for smart people who care about quality of argument to hear, but protest isn't a mechanism for advancing a high-quality, well-defined argument. It's a device for amplifying the quantity of contention in a society: to make noise in the hope that others will make noise, and force a change. The mechanism for deciding which changes get made is politics, not protest.

Protests are platforms - designed to be extended, designed to be hacked. (The flip-side of this is that it makes little sense when the organisers of protest events disclaim all responsibility if they get turned into riots. You can't control a protest event, so you shouldn't imagine you can when you organise one.) They are not build for neatness, and insisting that they articulate themselves neatly means you end up hearing nothing, or a small something, when many discordant things are being said. That, of course, puts you at risk of being surprised by an unpredictable future.

There's an obligatory 'So what does this mean for communications?' note at the end, and this is it. What it means is that most 'movement branding' is getting it wrong because it still insists you can manage and 'own' social conversations. Getting it right means building a platform and letting people hack it, and not trying to own it. Of course, marketers and communicators also need to promote their own agenda, which is difficult in a platform. To do that they need to be good at politics, too - the art of advancing their own agenda while acknowledging the noisiness of the public sphere. Most marketers, even most advertisers, remain bad at that.

# Alex Steer (21/02/2012)