Do we lose impact by moving online?

I was reading an old issue of Intelligent Life recently – seriously, that thing has been on my apartment floor untouched for months – when I came across this fantastic article about Video Volunteers’ India Unheard.

Video Volunteers tells otherwise unheard stories by putting cameras in the hand of people in poor and marginalized areas. It gives them training video journalism and puts them in a position to use video to inspire action.

It goes like this: find someone with something important to say. Put a camera in their hand and teach them to use it. Ensure that the resulting films are screened in relevant communities, be they urban slums or rural villages, and that the audience is suitably galvanised. And be sure to document any change with a second film, the “impact video”. These are some of the most compelling films made by Video Volunteers. Correspondents get hold of government officials and show them, on camera, some injustice that they have the power to undo—their discomfort growing as they become more accountable and realise that denial is no longer an option.

It really is an amazing story and the community correspondents seem to get some real tangible results in their communities. I don’t think there’s any arguing that it’s a fantastic program.

This is where I start vacillating.

As I was reading the article and all the quotes about the impacts of the videos I kept thinking about how that model could be applied to global problems. I’m a big picture guy, what can I say; local issues and politics just don’t hold my attention the same way that global catastrophes do.

The problem, at least as I see it, is that the impact of these videos is that they are local. To a large part these videos seem to work on shame. The targets are shamed and face the consequences of that shame in their day to day lives since the problems are local. It’s hard to not address a problem when you are forced to see the impacts of that inaction and answer for it. When you don’t get that immediate impact or when you can pawn off the responsibility I’m just not sure that it works as well. Shame just doesn’t translate outside of the community level. Things become faceless at that point.

This is a bigger problem too when you’re trying to organize on a grassroots style campaign on a large scale. The tactics that work small scale often don’t translate well. The aspects of small scale grassroots campaigning that is appealing can often be a detriment as you scale up. Think of some of the problems that Occupy encountered.

Does that mean that tactics used for grassroots campaigns lose their effectiveness as you move away from the local? What would happen if we adjusted this model to account for YouTube and a global audience?

Well, it wouldn’t work. Or at least not consistently. I just can’t imagine people in the West – not to single out one group – caring about local concerns halfway around the world. I could see it happening occasionally but not on any sort of consistent basis.

But I don’t think that means that this model would not work if we abstract it out enough. It’s a matter of tactics versus strategy. While the tactics of the India Unheard campaign might not work the overarching strategy would. It’s an issue of framing. I don’t think that it’s a surprise that you can’t scale up a project that much without making adjustments.

So shame won’t work but what about positive emotions?

Saying that shame is the big driver of the Unheard India videos doesn’t really do it justice. That may be the initial driver but the success of those campaigns and the screening of the videos creates a real sense of empowerment and makes the overall campaign viral. The videos, outside of their original purpose, do 3 important things:

  1. they empower the viewers;
  2. they act as a teaching device, showing people a model the emulate; and
  3. spreads the idea and principles behind India Unheard.

To me, that seems to create a very powerful feedback loop.

So how would you apply that globally or nationally? It would take two different approaches. First you would emulate India Unheard and follow their model for tackling local issues. On a national/global scale you could then shift the focus towards highlighting successes and demonstrating how small (relatively speaking) actions can have real impacts. You’d curate the videos and create a campaign based on showing the power of the “common man”. Step two would be doing some napkin level math to quantify the impacts that everyone collectively has had to demonstrate how small actions can add up.

At least that’s my take. I love to hear yours. Let me know in the comments below.