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Help Design a Distributed Climate Protest
Alex Steffen, 13 Feb 07
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Worldchanging readers are smart people, with access to a lot of amazing people and information, so from time to time, we like to ask you to share your thoughts with one of our allies, helping them to think their way around a design challenge. (For one example of the results, check out Ben Saunders' Letter from Greenland.)

Now, Bill McKibben has come to us for advice on another design challenge. It's an interesting one, incorporating many of our concerns -- sustainability, networked activism, new media, social innovation, framing and messaging -- and we hope that you guys will share your best ideas and models for solving it with Bill here in the comments. Thanks! -Alex

Dear Worldchangers,

A month ago we launched this global warming campaign called I didn't know if it would work, because it's an entirely amateur effort without a big group behind it. But hey, it did work, and beyond our wildest imagining -- so far we have more than 600 protest demonstrations scheduled for April 14 in 46 U.S. states. (And all this without any conventional press yet--that should be coming soon, but so far it's been an all-web affair.) It's going to be among the biggest American enviro protests since earth day 1970, designed to put pressure on for the kind of policy change that would help raise the price of fossil energy and thus make every good thing we need to do a little easier.

But here's the question. In the spirit of the age, we've designed this be a distributed day of action -- not a march on Washington (too much carbon!), but hundreds and hundreds of local actions. By the end of the day we should have reams of great pictures, still and video, from around the country. Some will be truly wild -- teams of scuba divers holding underwater protests off endangered coral reefs, skiers coming down the dwindling glaciers of high-country Wyoming, people painting blue stripes on the someday tideline along Canal St. in Manhattan, hundreds of people in tricorne hats on Lexington Green, and so on almost literally ad infinitum. These actions will all be great by themselves, and have a real effect on Congress members in their districts -- but we want more. We want the whole to be much greater than the sum of the parts. We want to link them together somehow.

How to make that link happen is what we don't completely understand, both technologically and conceptually. We want to have an end product by evening on April 14 that will give this lovely cascade of images both a home on the web and a shot at being picked up by major broadcast media. So what should we do? How do we best make use of tools like Flickr and Youtube? How do we make the evening news need to cover this? Should we have a concert that night at some location in DC where we show the photos? What makes sense? In the spirit of design by community, we're radically open to suggestions. We don't have much money to pull this off, but we might be able to raise some, so think in terms of both economy and deluxe solutions. And thank you in advance!

Bill McKibben

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Gosh, I don't have ideas about video, YouTube and all that, but I sure hope that everyone who participates in the protests will head home with at least one compact fluorescent light bulb.

Posted by: David Foley on 13 Feb 07

I can't tell you what to do, but I might have hints. The whole idea is to have something even more "out of the ordinary", check out the book Purple Cow (by Seth Godin), maybe just something plain weird that all groups will have in common, maybe saying you'll fly midgets on kites or whatever. There's no sure strategy, just use your imagination and do something big, worthy, daring and creative. Have a trait in common, an object of symbol and make something huge. Write something in runes, tag things, use strange hymns (I once had a group of education rights activists sing mortuary chants during a protest...this was my first experience with that kind of stuff), give business cards with odd slogans to passers by.
It would be important for all groups to have something in common, but still having them being able to use it in their own contexts. Have something remarkable. A friend of mine once made a protest against life (being the main cause of death) and the protesters were dressed like pacman characters.

Posted by: Benoit Michaud on 13 Feb 07

In terms of ensuring maximum impact of the audio and video, I'd suggest partnering with Yahoo to do something similar to their time capsule ... a few months ago they enabled a space for people around the world to upload audio, video and text. Harnessing the help of a large corporation like Yahoo -- with their incredible online reach -- would help ensure the message gets out.

Posted by: jv on 13 Feb 07

Have you all thought about having a contest for best ideas (like moveon did a bit ago, with their video contest, except broader) in terms of messaging and impact that don't require a lot of $$$? Nothing like a contest with some cool prize to get the buzz buzzing buzzier... a car? an eco-retreat, getting to hang out with Bill McKibben? Getting private tennis lessons from Andre Agasi?

Who knows?!?

Posted by: tawn kennedy on 13 Feb 07


Great concept. I'll be participating and rabble-rousing in some fashion too. After reading your post I remembered (my perception of) the power of a recent MoveOn petition where I took a photo of myself holding a sign that said what I wanted (out of Iraq). I remember thinking how that one thing transformed a list of names on a petition into people, real people with families, cluttered desks, tidy kitchens, sitting on motorcycles, you name it.

What is our leverage point? We want the media to pick this up why? To encourage action by other citizens? Politicians? Who should do what?

The reality is that everyone needs to be doing everything differently. It's amazing when you get to it. I'm sitting here reading the details behind Princeton's Carbon Mitigation Inititive "wedges" for reducing carbon emmissions. The first, for vehicle efficiency, requires the increase of average efficiency to between 40 and 90 mpg, depending on your baseline. The second wedge, for reduced use of vehicles, requires the number of miles traveled per year to be cut in half. There are 15 wedges.

This is the time to rethink everything and be positive. We can do this...


Posted by: Daniel N Smith Jr on 13 Feb 07

How about a web-page design that introduces the movement as a whole: using an intuitive (and reasonably minimalist) design to convey the large picture whilst getting images, video and text about selected "actions" at the same time. In short, use youtube & flickr for hosting, and integrate that into a showcase.

But how?

Well, the idea that popped out of thee tip of my pencil is as follows: The concept (as far as I gather) is to "showcase" the movement as a whole whilst still showing the individual highlights. I sorta sketched up a quick mockup to give an idea of what I'm babbling about:

So, to explain those wiggly lines ... basicly you have a clickable map where each event is a circle on the map (use some sort of state by state view for local detail of smaller events, perhaps?). When clicked upon , an info box loads and displays: (if available)

- a mini-documentary of each event. (with links to collections of videos from an event.) Youtube hosting and in-page integration makes this simple. :)

- A short text detailing whats happening / happened. (With links to webpages if possible)

- A series of flickr images detailing event highlights. (With links to pools of images from the event).

That way one can easily get a sense of scale, whilst still being able to see (and view) the individual event. (Under the "highlights section a circle with many points could show only the events that really stick out. Thus giving the press lots of food if they want it.)

Tech wise: Using youtube to host videos, with inline integration. Flickr & flickr pools to host images. A simple no-frills design should make it reasonably simple to make (hardest part should be the layout, really). Avoiding animations and other frilly bits cuts down the amount of effort needed to make the whole thing. Just a bunch of half way static pages should do the trick.

For adding content use tags / pool -slideshows to display images without need for manual editing (or too much of it). Youtube probably needs manual adding, as well as text - but, hey - each event could have a representative that edits the events page?

Anyhow, that's the basic idea. You asked for ideas and I gave you mine. :) Whether it's useful or not is debatable, but that's OK. :) I hope I make some sense ...


Posted by: Feileacán McCormick on 14 Feb 07

Hi Bill,

I like the idea of all the protest using the same slogan. But you could go further. Use the suggestion posted above by Dan and make it that everyone put's up a step-it-up logo on that day.

But how can you do that? - Post tutorials on your webpage or blog on how to make green protest signs with the step-it-up logo: like big stencils out of refrigerator card boxes, what you can use and how to do a nice poster, etc.

Make them downloadable and even add them a print of your logo with the correct proportions shown.

Let your visitors send their ideas, weird tutorials and even the finished sign's photo.

After the protest use flickr and youtube to get all those photos and videos together like it was said above.

Everyone will return home, post their photos and videos online go to your site (be sure to notify your hosting servive) and then: "mail-it-up" to the congress.

Just put a form in your site where people can choose:

1. text - 3 or 4 versions of a letter to the congress;

2. photo - choose a flickr photo from your group (ex:by adding photo url)

3. name - sign your letter


Then that night you can get all the videos, photos and musics you collected, select the best, and have a team ready to do a where-the-hell-is-matt kind-of video (see and deliver it to the networks so they show it first thing in the morning.

Hope this has been usefull and whish the best to your campaign!

sergio vieira

Posted by: sergio vieira on 14 Feb 07

I have a couple ideas.

The first is from the kids in London who have lately started setting up mobile raves wherever and whenever they please by tuning in to the same station on their mobiles. Protests should be fun - even if we are deadly serious we need to make them fun to attract people and also to enjoy ourselves so we do not burn out too soon. Music goes a long way towards this goal and if everyone across the various protests was listening to the same station that was also broadcasting pep talks... it might help tie things together nicely.

My second point is that we should use the same tricks that corporate marketers use on us to get a message across. Symbols are very powerful - which is why they spend loads on plastering there logos everywhere to sell us stuff. Choose a simple powerful logo and get people to make signs, stickers, t-shirts, themselves with the equipment at home. Ask people to take pictures of the logo in as many prominent places with the protests as possible - this is like sergio's idea - post all the images on Flickr. Also ask people to send the images to their representatives in Washington by post.


Posted by: jody on 14 Feb 07

FM's concept is a good one and can build on the idea of Jody's and Sergio's. The idea of coordinated music made me think of Improv Everywhere's MP3 project. Basically, they get a bunch of people to download an mp3 file containing both instructions and music. Everyone starts to play the mp3 at the same time and whole crowds of people start performing synchronized actions. I suppose you could do it by time zone.
Improv Everywhere had groups of people sitting in Central Park in a meadow (not necessarily together) stand up and go through a whole series of actions in unison. Imagine this distributed across the country and within a city.

I think the idea of a strong logo or symbol is key. Everyone could have a "One Step" sign with the upwards arrow sign on it. Add photos of each individual to Flickr and you've got something similar to the Sorry everybody website.

The mp3 instructions can include whipping out this sign and taking the picture. It could also include video taping something or someone for YouTube. (I'm lacking in inspiration for that aspect, I'm afraid to say)

Posted by: Trenton on 14 Feb 07

I concur with Jody's logo comment - let's take it one step further - have the groups form the logo and/or associated text from the people in the group, dressed in clothing that's mostly in the appropriate colour (close enough to read in a photo) and have a photo taken by a group member from an appropriately semi-aerial spot. Some might want to get video of them forming it; they draw the logo and text on the sidewalk or other surface with chalk, and form up.

That way, there's no significant material wastage or litter after the fact, but a nonetheless powerful meta-message is created - that people's collectively-directed actions, individually voluntary and coordinated can create a new, powerful image/reality/paradigm.

Posted by: Gerard on 14 Feb 07

This is a great idea Alex. Having lots of local activity really spreads the movement out and creates the feeling of local connectedness. If people will be recording the event in picutres, audio, and video, I think there's a very simple solution to your goal of having everyone feel a part of something larger:

have them tag their submissions with your campaign name: stepitup07.

Then, your website can:
show how many pictures and videos of the event were made
link to a flickr slideshow of all the pictures of the event
link to the youtube search results that show all of the videos of the event

In addition, look at sites like and as other ways to "spread the word" about your campaign.

Good Luck!

Posted by: Matt Wakeman on 14 Feb 07

Tie it together with a virtual protest that people can join online in real time. Brand the hell out of it. Emphasize that we're talking about the future everyone has to live in. Engage non-activist groups- the activist world puts off a lot of regular people wh feel strongly about the issue but are not comfortable with fringe groups like the anti-globalization people who piggyback their economic protests onto other issues. Stay focused. Tha's here a strong brand identity (like Worldchanging) helps. It keeps everyone on message.

Posted by: Martin Edic on 14 Feb 07

i think what ties it all together is less an image and more a possitive action. imagine 100 people each planting a tree on the lawn of city hall. i think that could create some press, espically if it happened in 46 states. granted, it probibly isn't legal but it would still be really cool, espically since it relates to the message.

Posted by: erik on 14 Feb 07

Bill et al...

Here are some suggestions designed to:

1. Give the day's events higher immediate visibiity

2. Give it a 'shelf life', so it doesn't end with the last protest

3. Achieve broader 'distribution', beyond the base of participants

First: approach google for help creating a 'moving' mashup. This would entail the creation of a map of the continent showing the 'spread' of protests as each goes 'on line'. Think 'world clock', showing daylight progressing across the planet...but in this case it will be protests Lighting Up The Fight Against Global Warming.

Second: work with artists/cartographers to make a 'stunning' poster capturing the impact of the protests spreading across the country. This can be distributed digitally as a downloadable screensaver or personally-usable logo for peoples' emails or blogs. With appropriate credit, google may be interested in helping enable this.

Third: immediately begin a campaign to follow the day of protests. The artwork can provide a nice bridge--a sense of leaving the land in an 'afterglow'--a consciousness-raised state you need to keep it in. After Step It Up, you could call this A Step A Day.

Each of these ideas has a number of jumping off points. But I agree with previous commenters that engaging a large scale sponsor (or several) would enhance feasibility as well as media potential--and along with that, political impact.

Best wishes,

Larry Grob

Posted by: Larry Grob on 14 Feb 07

First of all, you need a Facebook group - an official one created by someone at so you can control content. It will grow like nothing you have ever seen, and while not everyone may take personal action on April 14th, it will generate publiciity and awareness. "1 Million Strong for Barack Obama" has gotten a lot of press recently, although it is currently at 273,000ish, and there are 96,200 members of the group "Americans for Alternative Energy - it's a good way to reach people.

Secondly, April 14th is a Saturday - which means that minutes on most cell phones will be free. I suggest that your website include links to numbers for elected officials so we can blitzkreig our representatives' voicemail! Also, at the protests themselves it would be great to have tables set up with (charging) cell phones, and a list of representavives so people can call and leave messages. This will require getting the data on numbers and districts, but cell phone minutes would be cost-free. Many environmental websites have pages set up where you can enter your address and get a list of all your reps and their contact info and hound 'em to your heart's content - perhaps you could link to one of those or request a mirror site?

I very much like the idea of a map on your home website which links to local protests and allows people to view (and upload) pics and videos on Flickr and Youtube. Makes sense to me.

And . . . I think we need a chant. Like "Make Love, Not War" or "1,2,3, 4 we don't want your f-ing War" only it could be more like "1,2,3 Plant a Tree" Or, um, something better than that. I will ponder.

Also, any protests that can incorporate singing should do so - maybe blast Yellow Taxi and encourage people to sing or simple hymns or something - music has a strong impact, and the media LOVE to cover ordinary people voluntarily singing in large groups, because it's so unusual.

Hope this helps, I will keep thinking.

Posted by: Lisa Smith on 14 Feb 07

I think you want to create a ssammedia event. ssammedia = massmedia, but with the mass bit going the other way, i.e. the masses produce the content, set the agenda, manipulate public awareness. With clever and simple design, it should be possible.

1. you do not produce content.
2. you do not store or distribute content.
3. you do not edit or select content.
4. you make it easy for content to be produced and distributed.
5. you make it easy to identify content with your campaign.

1. tell people to video & photo their event. Ask them to make the media catchy - funny, stunty, daring, provocative - something people will email around the office.
2. give people instructions as to how to format their media. supply a logo, and ask people to place it on the top left corner of photos or video, and on the middle frame of the video.
3. instruct people to upload the media to flickr, youtube, metacafe, etc. using a common tag (stepitup2007).
4. provide a form, where people can announce their media. This form will:
a. ask for names, email and other contact details, text description and links.
b. verify the email (send a message with a coded url etc.)
c. automatically post the information to 10 major news networks. In many cases, all this needs is to send an email or an http POST request. e.g. -
d. log the submission to a webpage.

DO NOT use any scheme that requires you to do any manual work or store (or deliver) any content, you will collapse.
The automation form simply form bypasses the work that every submitter could do for herself. i.e., instead of them searching the sites for upload links and email addresses, you do it for them. In the end, you are only a conduit.
You could use or similar to create a user-ranking site for submitted media.

Posted by: Yishay Mor on 14 Feb 07

Worlchangers -

Blog it!

Digg it!

spread the word..

Posted by: Yishay Mor on 14 Feb 07

Friends--many many thanks for these highly useful ideas! Keep 'em coming--we've already started incorporating some of them. And please feel free to sign up on to put some of them into action in your local area!--thanks, Bill McKibben

Posted by: bill mckibben on 14 Feb 07

YEAH! Many thanks for everybody's insight. The team here at Step It Up headquarters really appreciates it.

A number of you have suggested a unifying message, which is right in line with what we've been thinking. we want it to be simple but specific, and we've settled on "Step It Up Congress! Cut Carbon 80% by 2050." Whaddya think?

And thanks, FM, for the tips on interface and the useful sketch. I wouldn't be surprised if the interface we settle on borrows a bit from this blueprint.

As for a Facebook group, we've got one. It's new, but growing: you can check it out at

We all like the idea of user-ranking submitted media...we'll see where it takes us. And we're starting to put together a guide to making banners/stencils. And better use of maps is crucial. Great ideas, all of them.

After April 14th, we're following up with a week of lobbying and accountability for Congress. And you can be damn sure this day of action is going to be musical--it already is. Check out the song "Step It Up"--you can listen to it on our front page, the music player is in the sidebar along the side.

So keep the ideas flowing--the WorldChanging collective braintrust is one of the most valuable tools on the Internet. And please do get involved in your local action--this thing's going to be huge, but it needs to be bright green in every sense. Let's make it happen..

Posted by: jon warnow on 15 Feb 07

I went to sign up for an event in Boston MA and found numerous events. Hurray I said. Then, I looke d closer. There were multiple unorganized events which I think will make it far less likely for any good events in Boston. I like the idea of many events throughout the day if they are all different (1 rally, one cleanup, one flashmob, etc) but i would suggest that you look at some of the events and ask the organizers to delete them or...welll.. Step it up a notch. If the Boston Common Chain Rally organizer reads this. Please contact me. Thanks! This looks great!

Posted by: Michael Baskin on 16 Feb 07

I went to sign up for an event in Boston MA and found numerous events. Hurray I said. Then, I looke d closer. There were multiple unorganized events which I think will make it far less likely for any good events in Boston. I like the idea of many events throughout the day if they are all different (1 rally, one cleanup, one flashmob, etc) but i would suggest that you look at some of the events and ask the organizers to delete them or...welll.. Step it up a notch. If the Boston Common Chain Rally organizer reads this. Please contact me. Thanks! This looks great!

Posted by: Michael Baskin on 16 Feb 07

Hi Bill & StepItUp folks!
The distributed nature of this event is very exciting! I have another suggestion for a unifying theme: ask everyone to wear green.
It's simple, it's easy, and it will add continuity, as well as make the event highly visible to anyone seeing it, news, passers-by, whomever.
This is the color we have taken on to represent our hope for a different future - let's make it literal.
So, wear a green shirt, hat, face paint, whatever, but wear green.

Posted by: justus on 21 Feb 07

I just see a visual result...

A composite screen - maybe donated in Times Square and ten other locations - with nine sixteen or twenty-five videos depending on resolution going at the same time, from all these sites, and each changing to another site when one video ends.

Posted by: John H. Beck on 21 Feb 07



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