Hacktivism: Lean Startups for Change

I recently wrote a guest post for Mashable about Hacktivism: Lean Startups for Change. Let me know if I’m talking about you.

(my original text below)

Hacktivism: Startup Mentality for the Non-Profit Sector

A young hacker is holed up alone in his apartment. His face is lit by a laptop screen, monitor split between a live video stream and a text editor filled with code. Fueled by Ramen Noodles and caffeine, he codes away through the night, monitoring the latest hashtags on Twitter, never a few seconds behind the newest exploding meme, instantly transmitting the latest news to others in his social graph.

This is a scene that is played out in the rooms of countless hackers and their “lean startups” around the world. Only for the past few weeks, it could have just as easily described an entirely new, organic, philanthropic phenomenon: Hacktivism.

Hacktivism is the use of hacking and the startup mentality to tackle and support social good. Here’s a look at some of the minds behind hacktivism and ways that it is helping causes worldwide.

Welcome to the Hacktivism Era

I was invited to Washington, D.C. for the Tech@State: Open Source event hosted by the Office of e-Diplomacy at the State Department. Rather than besuited C-SPANers, geeks from around the world had descended on D.C. to intermingle with practitioners of statecraft. It was also unusual for another reason — a hemisphere away, a million Egyptians had descended on a main square in Egypt and demanded of their government and the world that their voices be heard. A couple of hours into that Friday morning, they got just that when Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down after 30 years.

In a cosmic coincidence (the event had been planned for weeks), I was on a panel two hours later discussing the political implications of new media with people like Habib Haddad, one of the many volunteers involved with the AliveInEgypt initiative and recently vindicated friend of Wael Ghonim (the Google employee who had, until very recently, been incarcerated). The panel also included Katherine Maher, ICT program officer at the National Democratic Institute, and Mark Toner, deputy spokesperson for the State Department.

Consider the propagation of organic efforts like AliveInEgypt. When Internet activity had been shut down in Egypt, volunteers from Google and Twitter launched international lines that one could call to leave voicemails that would then be tweeted out with location hashtags. The creators of AliveInEgypt set up a crowdsourced translation service to take those mostly Arabic voicemails and convert them to text in as many languages as possible in the Twittersphere. Loosely organized, geographically dispersed, and entirely volunteer-driven, hundreds of people contributed.

This Visualization of the Egyptian Twitter Sphere helps put into context the various efforts. Its designer, Kovas Boguta, called me a few days before I went to D.C. saying he wanted to do something useful for the Egyptian cause. We discussed what was possible over the phone, and three days later I was showcasing his #Egypt visualization on a big screen at the State Department.

Another interesting example is the OpenMesh project. It’s a virtual collaboration with the objective of developing a communication solution for when Internet and/or mobile communications are shut down as they were in Egypt recently. Among the many options being explored are ad hoc mesh networking solutions that enable peer-to-peer communications.

These are just a few examples of how entrepreneurial creativity has been unlocked over the past few weeks to respond to a higher cause. Blekko launched a new slashtag on Egypt; others are creating Gov 2.0 apps. I suspect countless ideas and plans are hatching in cubicles everywhere.

A New Kind of Activism

The events of the last few weeks have clearly galvanized a new kind of lean entrepreneurial activism. It’s enabled by the same drivers as lean startups: Free software, pay-as-you-go data centers and social distribution channels. But these entrepreneurs aren’t trying to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. What drives them is the desire to effect change, a sense of digital empowerment and an intuition that we are at a unique moment in history, one where generational transfers of leadership are at stake and increasingly possible.

Underlying much of this energy is an unprecedented global solidarity among people traditionally separated by thousands of miles of physical space and cultural artifacts. It’s forged by a very visceral empathy that comes with directly shared images and personal connections that today’s technology enables. Tens of thousands of people followed the unfolding saga of Ghonim’s capture and redemption on Twitter and Facebook. They saw what he saw and read what he was thinking. They watch. They connect. And then they want to do something about it.

Make no mistake, these people are entrepreneurs. They are agitators, opportunists, and catalysts for change. They measure success one follower at a time. I for one, think it’s time to get behind them. Let’s start activist hackathons, organize Startup Weekend “.gov Edition,” and engineer for a higher cause. We just might start a new kind of revolution.

Saad Khan is a hacktivist and Partner at CMEA Capital. He’s a seed and early stage investor in companies like Blekko, Pixazza, Jobvite, and Evolution Robotics. He blogs at SaadWired and conversates on Twitter @saadventures. If you’re a hacktivist, reach out to him — he wants to help connect all of you.


14 thoughts on “Hacktivism: Lean Startups for Change

  1. Indeed. As I am building a new Social(ly responsible) network, I say bravo. It’s time to start putting all this energy, intelligence & technology to the better good. Every time I get rejected by an incubator, investor, or other program I wish there were more avenues/opportunities for such endeavors. Godspeed.

  2. We hacked into the $60 billion (USD) carryout/delivery pizza industry by making one of the world’s most popular and unhealthy fast foods a little better for you. That model re-skinned with a healthier pizza (all natural, less processed, whole food ingredients) is helping to demonstrate, by example, that fast food can be part of the solution for the global epidemic of obesity and chronic disease attributable to diet. Over 400 stores in development in about 16 months. Almost entirely through social media. Hactivism is for real.

  3. Thank you for bringing visibility to this Saad! Technology is such a powerful tool, we need more technologists focused on social impact, not just profits.

    I think one of the key questions here is role models, particularly of technology companies that are focused on social good and still making a profit. We need to eliminate the stereotype that doing good and doing well are mutually exclusive. Companies like Causes, GoodGuide, and Change.org are blazing the way here, but their visibility in the broader technology space is still limited.

    And as my co-founder and I are discovering as we go through the fundraising process for our eco-friendly shopping startup, the majority of investors don’t “get it” when it comes to businesses that emphasize doing good as equally important to profits. The more we can build awareness of this as an equally or more-legitimate model to a profits-only focus, the better off social entrepreneurs and the world will be.

  4. This post gives me so much hope for the future. I’ve seen people argue that the current generation of students are too apathetic and wrapped up in their computers and technology to really connect with people.

    What I’m hoping is that ideas like hactivism and the events in Middle East have shown generations what’s actually possible with this technology and people connecting over continents.

    Love it. Love it. Love it.

  5. Hey…good article.
    One comes to my mind right away – but that’d be a very big project, a very inspiring one with a very noble end. I hope this sounds like a challenge:
    RBE = Resource Based Economy. It’s about time!
    It doesn’t have to be ZG-style, but there are many good ideas.
    I think consciousness is growing, but it could definitely need some tech-help.


  6. I’m with T there. Changing governments is easy (yeah, sure) compared to changing the way we live to fit in with the constraints we would need to learn to live with.
    The high-tech lifestyle, in particular, goes both ways: on the one hand, when it’s a constant hunt after the latest and greatest gadget, it’s unsustainable in the extreme (not to forget the whole issue of energy use for data centers, etc.). On the other hand, my notebook replaces writing implements, books, TV, travel to meetings – any number of more-consumptive things. And what better tool to start using with alternative (I vote solar) energy than something that has its energy storage built in, anyways…

    (I hope I’ll get around to writing more about these thoughts on my http://www.beyond-eco.org – “the ecology of happiness” soon. Mentioning that not to self-publicize as much as to seek connections, if anyone’s interested.)

  7. Awesome!

    Bringing awareness to results, effects and the linkages of how good people can drive more of them is among the most noble pursuits.

    Keep up the good work. Cheers!
    Rob Hanna

  8. A great article! I’ve been in the marine conservation, coastal resource management and development sector for 10 years. I can see a tremendous opportunity for applying “Hacktivism” to lower the barriers to improving our world, and driving public engagement in the issues. So much so that I’m learning my way through Ruby on Rails as we speak (I’m not a coder). I’d love to connect with others who share similar visions and motivations.

  9. This article brings to light something that I’ve been participating in for the last year with things such as the Drug War, Wikileaks and my own day to day job. As well as my future business plans.

    You would be surprised to know the amount of change one person can make by simply studying search habits, some basic website building knowledge, and a small marketing budget.
    I myself found a great way to promote local charities in the area is to target local colleges and highschools through facebook advertising with two campaigns: One to appeal to students and one to appeal to Teachers and Parents.

    One makes it seem cool and trendy, like a relief effort. The other is more honest, saying that it teaches empathy and helps people who actually need it.

  10. yuyu, I will say: Tell him to find a job ASAP now. If he really gets laid off one day, he can spend some time ( 1-2 monhts) finding a job like me.No Chinese keyboard.

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