What’s theÂ best simple action you canÂ take to address a particular social problem?
I wishÂ there was somewhere that reviewed attempts to solve social problems, everything from activist campaignsÂ to government programs.Â You’d go to this site, look up “homelessness” or “education” or “AsianÂ tsunami”Â or “criminal justice reform” and get a recommendation for the most effective thing you couldÂ do right now, and if possible a button to do it or at least sign up to do it.Â The actions would be intentionally lightweight, like donating $10 or ten minutes of your time or pledging to vote a certain way. Think of a sort of Consumer ReportsÂ for social campaigns.
I’ve been calling this hypothetical civic information/action organization “How Can I Help?” because that’s the question it seeks to answer.
This is an ambitious idea, but there are working modelsÂ to draw from. GiveWell is an organization whose sole purpose is to rate charities. They answer the question, “where should I give my small donation to do the maximum amount of good?” Of course this depends on what “good” means, but GiveWell has been carefulÂ in choosing and communicating theirÂ values. In fact the organization is a model of thoughtfulÂ and transparent research, with one of my very favorite blogs and a top-level “mistakes” section.
I want to expand on this idea. GiveWellÂ makes only two or three recommendations,Â typically in the area of global health. But there’s also a good argument for taking care of the people and placesÂ where we live. What we should care about is a complicated question, andÂ has no objective answer. But if you’re willing to say that something specific should change, thenÂ you can start to ask seriously how to get there.
How Can I Help wouldn’t needÂ to dream upÂ new solutions. Lots of organizations are already working on all sorts of problems, bringing forthÂ a flood of reports and campaigns and proposals.Â But you and I don’t necessarilyÂ know about all of the proposals and attempts and actors around any particularÂ issue.Â TheÂ difficult problem from the user’s point of view is not finding information about possible solutions, but selecting between them in an intelligent way. This follows aÂ now-standard online mediaÂ pattern: the aggregator. It’s the same logicÂ that drivesÂ Yelp, Google News, and Rotten Tomatoes.
So: Imagine a site thatÂ continually reviewed theÂ hugeÂ range of proposals from theÂ huge range of actors who might seek toÂ address any particular social ill, and maintained aÂ fewÂ topÂ recommendations for each cause.
Lightweight civic action
I think it’s important that theÂ recommended actions be very lightweight. Â I’m inspired in this by two recent posts on civic engagement. Anthea Watson StrongÂ focuses on the personal costs and benefits of any kind of political action. SheÂ argues thatÂ if we want a lot of people to be involved, we either have to make it very cheap and easy for them to engage or elseÂ give them some expectation of a big payoff. Ethan Zuckerman divides civic actionÂ along two axes: thin to thick, and symbolic to impactful. In that language, what I’m proposing is in the thin and impactfulÂ quadrant.
I’m focussing on “thin” or low cost actions because I feel the opportunities for “thick” engagement are well covered.Â The whole Internet is just dying to give you information on whatever concernsÂ you, and significantÂ causes often haveÂ dozens of organizations who would love you to get involved. And I’ve focussed on “impactful” because, again, the Internet is already really good at symbolic or expressive campaigns like turning your avatar green or sharing aÂ video. Expressing oneself is important, and has consequences — it’sÂ how we learn that we are not alone, and it can focus public attention or create new language (Occupy Wall Street “did” nothing, but now we all know what “the 1%” means.)Â But if you’re after more concrete results,Â it’s not enough that yourÂ time and money go to a good cause; we needÂ resources flowing to efficient and effectiveÂ causes. This is especially important if you believeÂ that most efforts to helpÂ are ineffective, as I do.
Figuring outÂ whereÂ an individualÂ could actuallyÂ do some goodÂ with a small donation of time or money is not easy. It requiresÂ askingÂ questions about the effectiveness of many different possibleÂ solutions, of course, but you also have to askÂ who is already working in that space, what they’re doing, andÂ what the bottlenecks are. Raising money won’t help if lack of money isn’t the thing holding back progress.
So the question thatÂ this hypothetical organizationÂ must answerÂ is “What can anyone do right now that is both easy and plausibly effective?” This is not an easy thing to answer, nor is there a guaranteed solution: for any particularÂ issueÂ thereÂ may be no clear way for an individual to contribute without getting deeply involved, and that’s a valuable answer too. And merely knowing the answer isn’t enough: the organization mustÂ communicate it,Â showÂ all of the analysis that led to it, and continually update that analysis as learning happens and as newÂ opportunities arise. Producing good recommendations for civic action is a major ongoing research and communication task.
Don’t be authoritarian
Offering easy, vettedÂ ways to contribute to social change isÂ an ambitious goal. Maybe even an audacious goal. Â For a start, it’s not at all obvious what a “social problem” is. AndÂ why should anyone believe aÂ self-appointed authority?Â These issues make me think that How Can I HelpÂ needs to be more plural and participatory thanÂ the typicalÂ media organization.
First of all, social problemsÂ don’t define themselves. There isn’t some obvious master list of what’s wrong with a community or a country, and not everyone will agree on whetherÂ any particular thing is a problem.Â In many cases, deciding on the problem is the problem.
Consider someone who comes toÂ How Can I Help and searches for “taxes are too high.”Â Should theyÂ learnÂ the name of the advocacy organization that most effectively lobbies for lower taxes? Or is the problem really something else? Perhaps this person is having money problems, so better wagesÂ or cheaper health insurance would be just as good to them. Maybe this person feels that the government is wasting public money, so what they really want is accountability and efficiency. Or maybe they have specific ideas about the scope of government, and the things that should and should not be collectivized. Similarly, do we understand the huge increase in America’s prison population to be about poverty,Â racist policing practices, or farcical drug laws?
It may not be possible toÂ frame a problemÂ definitively, but it should be possible to figure out what assumptions the answer depends on.Â In trying to solve any complexÂ problem you’ll need answers to prior questions, many ofÂ whichÂ cannot be definitelyÂ decided. Some prior questions will be empirical questions where the necessary information is just not available, while others will beÂ questions of values where there is no general agreement. Instead ofÂ arbitrarily picking one scenario, it should be possible to document howÂ different answersÂ to these unknownsÂ lead to differentÂ courses of action.
But who should define these alternate framings, and who gets to influence the final recommendations?Â You could doÂ How Can I Help as a traditionalÂ media organization, Â by hiring a small number of smart peopleÂ to research and write. But involving usersÂ in the process hasÂ multiple benefits.
First, you might get better answers. Diversity is helpful forÂ finding good solutions and even more important for defining problems. There is emerging evidence that crowds beat experts for political prediction problems — and recommending an effective course of action is most definitely a prediction problem. You’re predicting that the recommendedÂ action willÂ have aÂ betterÂ effect than allÂ available alternatives.
Participation is also important for scaling. If this model of reviewing and recommendingÂ actions works, people might want not want toÂ wait for paid staff to get around to their issue. Maybe the process thatÂ generates this type of knowledge could be made self-serve, something that a group could apply.Â I’veÂ written before on the need to leverage participation in journalism if we want a lot of journalism to be done, which means it’s not only an egalitarian concern but a business model issue. Unfortunately, participatory journalism has proved difficult to systematize.
But the best reason for participation is that it’s not enough to produce good answers. People have toÂ trust that they are good. How Can I Help must generate not only knowledge but legitimacy, and there is no better legitimacy than the sense of ownership.Â There are places on the internetÂ where the user community feels like it’sÂ theirs, where the administrators tread lightly and take fairnessÂ seriously. We all know when someone is playing dictator; it’s important to get the platform’sÂ embedded constitutional principlesÂ right.
There is aÂ balance to be found here. GiveWell is a mostly closed institutionÂ and doesn’t have to suffer trolls, but it is vulnerable to the charge that it’s just a bunch of technocrats telling us what’s best.Â Reddit is a mostlyÂ open model with millions of users who love and defend the space they have created, but it doesn’t generally produce sophisticated research. There is a huge unexplored space of design variations between open and closed.
ConnectingÂ information to action
Like many people, I got into journalism because I wanted to make a difference in the world.Â It’s clearlyÂ important to have accurate, timely reports of what’s happening, but modernÂ hopes for journalism go well beyond mere information. When we talk about trying to measure the effects of journalismÂ or concepts like solution journalism, we’reÂ talking about making change in society. But journalism isn’t really set up to do this. There is a huge taboo against becoming too specific or effective, lest a news organization be seen as “activist” or “taking sides.” (I’m not necessarily saying this is wrong, just that it structurally precludes certain things.)
Other endeavorsÂ are unabashedlyÂ all about change:Â activist and advocacy organizations, charities and philanthropies, the NGO and development worlds — not to mention government social programs.Â Many of these organizations also produce information.Â But they go beyond mere information because theyÂ try to getÂ people to do some specific thing, whether that’s “sign a petition” or “donate money” or “show up and helpÂ us dig trenches.” Action isÂ powerful. But theseÂ these sorts of organizations might not be the most trustworthy sources of information, because they’ve already committed to a solution. There’s a basicÂ conflict of interest here. You knowÂ they’re trying toÂ sell you something.
So journalists are charged with producing accurate information yet theyÂ areÂ reluctant to recommendÂ specific actions. Meanwhile, activists and advocates are all about action but the information they produce may not beÂ trustworthy. There is a huge disconnect here! How do we connect trustworthy information to informed action?
TheÂ core concept of How Can I Help — Â an independent review ofÂ everyone who claims to be working on a problem andÂ the effectiveness of their proposed solutions — is one possible response to this dilemma. I don’t know ifÂ it counts asÂ journalism or advocacy or what,Â but I don’t particularly care (seeÂ also Adrian Holovaty’s classic answer to “is data journalism?”)
Now that I’ve started thinking of the interplay between information and action, many other problems withÂ journalism seemÂ clearer. I’ve always been frustrated at the way investigative journalists choose whichÂ stories to cover. News organizations tend to put resources into issues that are both little known and highly offensive.Â A journalist who goes deeply into climate change is not producing “news” because everybody already knows about the problem, while a great storyÂ that moves no one getsÂ no attention, has no effect, and silently disappears. This model is broken. TheÂ dualÂ frame of “our job is to bring newÂ information to light” plusÂ “it is someone else’s responsibility to decide what to do” prevents journalism from directly addressing the most obvious, pressing, ongoing issues.
Without information we cannot know what to do. Without action we do nothing. I am interested in connectingÂ the two, and I think it may take newÂ kinds of organizations to do that.