Design patterns for public activism

By Andy Oram
December 30, 2008

Programmers know the impact that design patterns (a concept invented for architecture but imported into software engineering) have had on designing and coding. Could patterns have just as strong an impact on people taking action in their communities? That's the thrust of the patterns published at the Public Sphere Project.

Culled from the research of hundreds of participants, the Public Sphere patterns are meant to help activists around the world shape and promote their work. The most fleshed-out patterns are now published in the book Liberating Voices! A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution by the initiator of the project, Douglas Schuler.

Being an activist is much more complicated today than it was in the past, even as the Internet and digital technologies make it cheaper and easier to get people working together. What constituencies do you reach out to? How do you prompt people to talk together constructively? How do you get the attention of the media, and use the new media? What social forces exist in your area, and how can you expect them to react to what you're doing?

Those are just a selection of the many issues covered by the Public Sphere patterns. Go to any page, and you'll see a summary of thinking in that field, references to leading models and thinkers, and links to related patterns.

The project is still young, and some patterns are much more thoroughly researched and described than others. The search system is useful, but any project as broad as this one can be taken in only by a long period of diligent reading. Grasping the scope is made harder by the authors' tendency to name projects after phrases that have gained currency among practitioners but mean nothing to outsiders. This pattern languages is not for dilettantes--but neither is social activism. People who want to make an impact always have to make a commitment.

I've know Doug Schuler for many years and worked with him on projects for Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. When he started this project, I didn't understand what he was aiming at and felt disconnected from it. My reaction was a common one. But now that the book is released (with an in-depth introduction to the concepts) and the web page offers so many concrete examples, his achievement offers an immediate appeal for anyone who visits the page.

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