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.