Written by An Xiao Mina, with support from Anqi Li, Noemi Lardizabal-Dado, Jane T. Uymatiao, and Marek Tuszynski. All photos courtesy Kiri Dalena.
Recently, Access invited us to Manila to speak on a panel and present a workshop at their first RightsCon Southeast Asia event. It would be one of the few panels focused on creative media, and we knew it would be a great opportunity to present Meme Lab.
We explored Meme Lab, a facilitated workshop to develop memes for civic engagement, in venues like the ACLU’s Conference and Lobby Day and in smaller classrooms. But RightsCon was a unique opportunity. Where else but in the so-called selfie capital of the world could we explore how creative engagement online can foster civic action and expression?
The Civic Beat joined legendary Philippine blogger advocates Noemi Lardizabal-Dado and Jane T. Uymatiao from Blog Watch, Tactical Technology Collective’s Marek Tuszynski and Access’s Anqi Li, who organized the panel. As we prepared a few months prior to the event, we realized that, after a short introduction from the panelists, we didn’t have a lot of time for the workshop. In previous iterations, Meme Lab had taken up to 6 (yes, 6!) hours, but RightsCon panels typically only last 1.5 hours.
Counting presentations from the panelists,
the workshop could only be about 45 minutes.
We realized that it would be important to have something structured, designed to be rapid, and facilitate creativity. I’d been exploring human centered design methodology at Meedan (where I wear my product designer/manager hat) via the Luma Institute, IDEO, and Google Ventures. I thought it would be time to break out the post-its and timers and develop laser focus for this particular iteration of the Meme Lab workshop.
The Spaghetti Method
The event, by many measures, was a success — standing room only at one point — , and we wanted to share the steps we took. Now, it’s important at the outset to note that developing a stellar social media campaign requires a lot of time, thinking, and effort. This is especially key when developing a campaign for human rights work and social advocacy.
But the point of the workshop was relaying and practicing the method we wanted to impart on participants something I call the “Spaghetti Method.” The name comes the phrase “throwing spaghetti on the wall” and seeing what sticks.
Creativity, as I’ve learned over the years, requires putting your ideas out there, seeing what sticks, iterating, and testing the results.
Working with post-its, markers and limited time settings can accelerate this process. We adapted the method to mimic the experience of throwing out ideas onto the social web and seeing how people respond.
So, without further adieu, here’s how the panel and workshop went.
We started with a presentation from Noemi and Jane on #EpalWatch, from my research on #BlackLivesMatter and #UmbrellaMovement and from Marek’s work on targeted hashtag campaigns.
You can download our slides and talks here, but here are the major takeaways we wanted to share:
Noemi and Jane
- Select a hashtag that can draw emotion out because emotional reactions to a hashtag spur people to action.
- If the hashtag involves photos, create a gallery.
- Test, test, test. Check if the hashtag has been used before for purposes you may not want to be associated with. Check who has used it and in what way.
- Know when to use a tactical hashtag versus a strategic one. For one-time or short-term events like a rally or demonstration, hashtags with a date are fine; but when you expect a long-drawn-out advocacy, drop dates and make the hashtag a catchy call to action.
- We write hashtags on paper signs in protests now because we recognize the critical blend of online and offline.
- Affective activism is a critical part of online activism, and the emotional affirmations of our work shouldn’t be ignored.
- Iterate, iterate, iterate. Digital culture is like oral culture written down.
- Aim for the “sweet spot” that moves the unconvinced into supporters. Hashtag campaigns are not typically effective for opponents.
- Check out womensrights.informationactivism.org for more resources.
Spending 20 minutes going through real world examples from our research and experience served an important role: inspiration. These talks gave a great framing for the workshop, and we made sure the examples were relevant to our audience.
Step Two (5 Minutes):
Quick Intros and Decide a Topic
Main takeaway: Focus quickly as a group, then move forward.
We provided very focused topics at the beginning: internet shutdown, internet censorship, and net neutrality. That way, groups didn’t have to spend a lot of time deciding on a topic and could focus on the ideation.
With an international community, we wanted a topic that most participants would be familiar with. (Remember, the point here is imparting the method, but in a focused workshop with a single organization, we might spend more time deciding on specific topics to build a campaign around).
While the talks covered art and memes, we decided to focus our workshop on hashtags, given the limited time. Working on hashtags requires just pen and paper and little artistic skill. We also set the simple (and unfortunate, in my opinion) rule to only use English. If we had more time, we definitely would have done selfies and memes too, experimenting with camera angles and cut-outs of magazines.
Step Three (5 Minutes):
15 Hashtags in 5 Minutes… GO
Main takeaway: Create an artificial deadline to stretch creativity
Post-its and markers came out! As we scanned the room, we realized attendance was nearly double what we expected. We were planning to have 30 attendees, but it turned out to be closer to 60! We quickly broke up the groups into 6 rather than 3, and fortunately we had enough post-its (15–20 per person) to go around.
In an ideal setting, everyone would have markers and walls to work with. Thick black markers make the hashtags more easily legible from a short distance, and using wall space makes it easier for everyone to gather around. Plus, it’s fun to stand. But the post-its weren’t sticking on the walls of the hotel, so we improvised with table space instead.
I broke out the timer and laid out the epic task ahead: we’ll make 15 hashtags in 5 minutes. But don’t worry, these are only for you.
That means one hashtag every 20 seconds, and one hashtag per post-it note. Now, 15 is a lot, and I gave helpful, tongue-in-cheek hints, like “Add an s to a hashtag you’ve already made”. This idea is a common one from design sprints, but wetook particular inspiration from Jake Knapp’s articulation of “Crazy Eights”. The rapid ideation forces the brain to work quicker, like being on deadline, and sometimes in the exhaustion, good stuff starts to bubble up.
Step Four (2 Minutes):
Edit Down to 3 Hashtags
Main Takeaway: Take a step back and self-edit before sharing
Remember that part about not sharing the hashtags you’ve made? Well, it was a white lie: we did ask participants to show at least 3 to their small groups. But it was a quick shift from an ideation brain to an editing brain.
We asked participants to then spend 2 minutes going through their post-its again with fresh eyes and figuring out which ones they liked the best. After working for 5 exhausting minutes to develop 15 hashtags, this is a welcome step. (And of course, if they came up with a new idea, they could always write it down on a new post-it).
Notice that we’re a little over 10 minutes into a group brainstorming session, and people haven’t interacted with their small groups. That’s by design: in many brainstorming sessions, especially when a group of strangers is meeting for the first time, the loudest, most outgoing voice often gets their way. Having solitary work time means each person can really explore cool ideas, ideas that they might keep for the future.
Groups then put all their favorite post-its together, giving them something like 30–45 to work with.
Step Five (5 Minutes):
Analog Likes and Favs
Main Takeaway: Get your ideas out quickly and see what sticks with nonverbal gestures
Now, the group comes together to share ideas, but no words are exchanged yet. Rather, we asked participants to quietly look at all the hashtags and start putting dots on the ones they like. The goal here is to develop a top 3–5 of the list.
This faving process helps weed out the hashtags that don’t have resonance with the group, and lets the more popular ones float to the top. This is an important method to understand: once you put your ideas out on the web, seeing those favs and likes on your short tweets and posts is a critical way to gather feedback.
Though the dots are visible to everyone, individuals are less likely to be influenced at this stage by others’ passionate arguments or by knowing who the hashtag came from. They can simply respond. This technique is as effective in grade school campaigns (remember getting a gold star?) as it is in creative sprints.
Getting a top 3–5 should be as simple as counting the ones that get the most dots. It can be painful to remove others, but at this point, we tell participants not to throw away their other hashtags but to keep them. They might resonate in another context with another group.
Now, participants are dying to talk to each other, and this is the time to do so. Now, with a group of strangers coming together, it’s usually hard for folks to open up to each other. But we’ve found that this long exercise of silence together gets people excited about sharing their thoughts, which they’ve been keeping to themselves this whole time. And remember, just because they were silent doesn’t mean they weren’t communicating: groups are often smiling, laughing and dotting this whole time.
In ten minutes, we ask small groups to do the following:
- Identify the single hashtag they’d like to present to the big group. This is harder than it seems, and we emphasize here that none of this is a final commitment. It’s one iteration of many, and it’s more important that the group find one that they generally like.
- Develop 1–2 sentences to explain the strategy they’d use to get the hashtag out there. Will it be a photo campaign? Will there a performative gesture? How about posters and t-shirts? Who should be leading the distribution? Often, the hashtag itself suggests the method.
- Identify a leader to write the hashtag on the easel boards and explain the strategy. This one is usually easy — there’s normally at least one extroverted time willing to present to the larger group! With more time, we’d let more groups speak, but in this time frame, it’s a lot easier to
This is a tall order in 10 minutes!
In a workshop with more time, they’d have more time to explore alternatives. And here’s the beauty of the exercise: participants do have more time, just after the workshop and when they connect via the web.
And finally, it’s judgment hour. But not really. To be honest, in such a short workshop, this is really just iteration one of what would be a longer method of multiple iterations and attempts to collaborate, get feedback, and learn from the results.
I like to remind people that powerful, viral hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #UmbrellaMovement are part of a long series of iterations and experiments online. As Kenyatta Cheese has noted, the internet is a space for iteration, and this workshop is designed to mimic that experience at a smaller, faster scale.
But the basic point remains: get the ideas out there, and help your community collaborate and iterate with you.
At this point, we have six beautiful hashtags on the easel boards, and the leaders represent their small groups by talking through them (as we wanted to create a safe space for experimentation, we’re not sharing the hashtags here). Feedback came quickly, and we asked participants to respond with compassion and collaboration in mind.
Consider questions like this:
- Does the strategy match the content of the hashtag?
- Are there images and gestures that we could add to make it go viral?
- What’s the best platform and audience? Who are the best people to share it out?
- How does your choice of platform change your strategy? What are users’ habits on the site?
- Does the hashtag already exist? Could it be miscontrued as another meaning?
- Is this a hashtag to rally the base or help change minds?
So let’s go back to the basic question: can you design a hashtag campaign in 1 hour? The answer is yes… at the very least the seeds of one. Developing a proper campaign takes work and research and practice and iteration — that’s worth another post and workshop entirely — , but planting the seeds of the idea can be done quickly and swiftly.
As we observed, the process helped create some great hashtags, and it helped a large group of people from different parts of the world to select key topics for the region (censorship, for instance, was a top concern). Through practice, we were able to refine the core message of the campaign, and the time limitation forced participations to give their initial and frank opinions. This is good for creativity, especially at the ideation stage.
The goal of the Meme Lab was to provide a spark that attendees could bring back to their organizations: rapidly iterate, rapidly collaborate, and rapidly test the ideas. In an ideal world and in later stages, each step, especially the ones where we vote on and research the hashtags, would get a little more time to develop. This is important when developing civic engagement strategies online.
But by writing this process up, we hope to share this method with other civic organizations eager to improve their engagement online. It’s a start, and we hope it gets those creative juices flowing!