Combatting Slacktivism with a New Way to Interpret the News

20161208_104531By Knight Team 1, Ellery Wong, Lauren Hoff, and Natalie Andrasko, with assistance from Josh Kramer

Requested Amount for Funding: $10,000

Expected Amount of Time to Complete Project: 6 months

Describe your Project:

This Knight News Challenge proposal is to create a mobile application which engages individuals with current news by providing them with opportunities for activism, volunteering, donations, and more.  The main goal of this application is to combat something which has come to be known as “slacktivism.”  Slacktivism includes passive actions, typically conducted online, such as posting opinions on social media platforms, which generally do not help individuals become actively involved in an issue, nor do they help the issue at hand.  In other words, this application will attempt to inspire a national community of not only informed citizens, but also of active citizens.    

This application will have a very user-friendly interface which will adapt to an individual user’s interests over time.  Opportunities pertaining to each news story, such as writing to a congressman, attending a local recycle-drive, or teaching English to local refugees, will be presented in a stack that is structured similarly to those in popular dating apps. The software will learn what a particular user cares about and will tailor the presented opportunities based on that.  Opportunities that a user cares more about will be towards the front of the stack.  There will be up to thirty opportunities displayed each day based on news volume.  If a user is passionate about environmental activism, for example, he or she would see opportunities related to environmental issues in the stack before anything else.

There will also be a sidebar on this app which will allow users to access opportunities specifically pertaining to several major categories: politic, health, environment, science/technology, world, and local.  Additionally, there will be a save feature so that users can look back at opportunities that they thought were interesting.  

In order to make using this application a part of individuals’ everyday lives, this application will send push-notifications to users every morning.  These notifications will encourage users to update themselves on the current news and to become more engaged with the news.

Still, it is inevitable that some individuals will opt to not receive notifications from this application.  In that case, engaging users on a daily basis will be more challenging.  We will combat this issue by implementing  a point system in which each day a user opens the app, he or she will receive a point.  Local  businesses and larger corporations, motivated by the prospect of publicity and association with activism and community service, will provide a small reward when a user obtains a set amount of points.  For example, if a user reaches twenty points, he or she could earn a free ice-cream cone at a local ice-cream parlor.  Furthermore, if a user reaches one-hundred points, he or she could earn a free dinner at a local restaurant.  Users could earn more points by attending activism events, volunteering, or making donations.  There will need to be a mechanism for the organizations and groups presenting these opportunities to input points for those who attend their events or make donations.

What unmet need does your product meet?

Our product works to address an issue that many people face of not knowing how to become further involved in issues they care about. There are hundreds of platforms people can get their news from, but very few that provide users with concrete examples and ways for readers to become more involved. When one logs onto the internet, it is inevitable that he or she will be exposed to news.  Our app will revolutionize the way news consumers react to current events by guiding users to complete tasks that will create positive change.

Our app will inspire people to become activists for the issues they care about, without feeling forced to become involved in anything they are not passionate about. Other activism platforms may guilt or pressure readers into becoming more actively involved in issues, but our app will simply provide users with opportunities to get involved in a no-pressure, fun, and interactive way. The opportunities will be personalized based on the user’s interests and split into easy to read categories, thereby simplifying the process of finding volunteer opportunities.

Interview four potential users of your product about this unmet need. Do not tell them about your idea. Just explore their need. What did you learn? Include names and contact info for interviewees and a few words describing each — age, gender, occupation, town where of residence. Go for variety.

Anna Kelman, 20, Junior at the University of Michigan studying Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience, Ann Arbor, MI.  I hate reading the news, it just depresses me so much. I want to get involved for sure but it is not something I am just going to do by myself.

Lydia Barry, 20, Organizing Fellow for Hillary for America, Palo Alto, CA.  Something that I’ve learned is that students are willing to help but what stops them is that they are too embarrassed to ask when they don’t know what to do.  The embarrassment of not knowing holds them back from acting on things.

Nicholas Simon, 21, Founder of University of Michigan Chapter of GRID Alternatives Solar Spring Break, Bloomfield Hills, MI.  It’s hard to tell whether emails are really read, if they fully understand the content of the email, and if people appreciate an email in comparison to receiving a flyer from an actual person.

Karena Shell, 30, Manager of Volunteer Programs, Food Gatherers, Ann Arbor, MI.  Not necessarily for volunteering or donating, but definitely for advocating opportunities like “the new Child Nutrition bill is about to be passed, write your local officials to show your support today” or something along those lines.

How big is the potential market for your idea? Mention sources for any statistics you use.

The potential market for our app is very large and could include anyone interested in activism, being an informed and involved citizen, and/or volunteering for causes that he or she cares about. Additionally, businesses seeking to be socially responsible and to give back to their communities can use our app to advertise opportunities related to their causes.  Businesses will be required to pay an advertising fee in order to have their ads at the top of the suggested list.  Local businesses can also become more involved in their community by sponsoring the point system on our application.

How is your idea innovative — new or different from something already existing? Name your closest competitors.

Our idea is innovative because of its commitment to combating “slacktivism,” a phenomenon dominating today’s political discourse due to the nature of social media in which people voice their opinions online rather than actually taking steps towards making real change. Our app will revolutionize the way people view news by ensuring that users only see topics that they are truly interested in. Unlike other news platforms, our app will provide concrete examples of ways to get involved in the current events, politics, and social issues that the user cares about.

Our closest competitor, Ideal Impact, is similar in mission, but lacks the creativity and interactive quality we would bring to our app. This app will be colorful, interactive, and personalized– completely changing the way users consume news. It will present issues to its users in a fun way, allowing users to swipe left or right depending on if they want to learn more about the issue or not. The app will make finding volunteer opportunities easy for any user by simplifying the process for users who struggle to find volunteer opportunities with organizations that support their beliefs.

How will your idea be financially sustainable?

While this application will be free in both the Android and Apple app stores, it will still be financially sustainable.  One part of this financial sustainability will arise through paid advertisements on the sidebars of the app.  The point and reward system for users will generate high daily traffic to the application, thereby motivating advertising companies to invest in our app.  Additionally, while any relevant group will be able to advertise their opportunities through this application’s stack, those groups that are willing to pay to advertise their opportunities will be placed at the top of the stack.  Note that these opportunities will only be displayed at the top of users’ stacks who would potentially be interested in them.

Why are you and your team the right people to develop this project?

As current university students who have grown up in tandem with the development of smartphone applications, we are uniquely qualified in understanding how applications can be seamlessly incorporated into one’s everyday life. On an individual level, Natalie has experience in designing products that combine technology and public health, Ellery has experience in software design and optimizing the user experience, while Lauren has experience writing content that will motivate users to use the application.  Our diverse set of skills combined with our unique perspective on what succeeds in the application market is what will make our application a lasting solution to facilitating activism that will not just sit stagnant on the smartphone dock.  

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3 Responses to “Combatting Slacktivism with a New Way to Interpret the News”

  1. I wonder how much people will end up taking advantage of the opportunities for activism you present them with. Do you have an idea what these “opportunities” would be? e.g. Would they be protests, fund raisers, knocking on doors? Similarly, how would you find out about these opportunities? Would they be Facebook events you could dragnet? Would people submit them to the owners of the app then you would curate them? Could that lead to a conflict of interest? Just some things to consider.

    Additionally, I’m curious how big of a gap between having the information to participate in activism and actually participating in activism. Do you think the issue is that people don’t know what events are going on? Or is something else driving their slacktivism? There’s an app being developed called Ballot which has a pretty similar functionality but it allows the user to easily send emails to their elected representative about bills which concern them. I think that allowance in Ballot bridges the gap in a way that you don’t yet have in your project. Overall, it’s an interesting idea and with a little refinement, I think your app could go a long way towards combating slacktivism.

    • Thank you so much for your comments, Roland. I agree that it is difficult to get people to actually engage in the activism opportunities, that’s why this app tailors the presented opportunities so carefully to an individual’s particular interests. Additionally, the game-like feel of this app and associated point-reward system of this app will make people want to engage with these opportunities more regularly.

      The opportunities will vary tremendously, and could certainly include protests, fundraisers, and grass-roots organizing, though there will be much more than this. For example, if there was a news article about increasing numbers of stray dogs in Ann Arbor, an opportunity would be for app-users to volunteer at the humane society, donate to the humane society, or attend a local meeting dedicated to raising awareness on this issue, etc.

      The app will allow organizations to post opportunities for activism, volunteering, or donation, etc. We will have employees verifying the legitimacy of these posts and likely reaching out to organizations and encouraging them to use our app. Ultimately anyone can post their opportunities on this app, though organizations that are willing to pay to get more publicity will have their opportunities displayed first in the stack. I think that reduces the chance of having any conflicts of interest. I may be understanding your question incorrectly though.

      Additionally, I think that one issue is that people don’t know what activism/volunteer/fundraising events are occurring and/or how to get involved. I also think that many people don’t really have an incentive to actively engage with the news and its associated opportunities. This app provides a user-friendly interface for individuals to learn about the opportunities in a fun and interactive way, which is also incentivized by the point system.

      I think that the “Ballot” app that you mentioned will be really interesting, though I think that our app is different enough that it won’t be directly competing with it. We may consider adding a function in which individuals can email their elected representatives as a form of activism, but our app will have a much more broad scope than that.

      Again, thank you so much for your comments and I hope that my reply has helped answer some of your questions. We will certainly be working to refine our app in the days to come!

  2. What a great idea to model this after a dating app, using the same kind of algorithm to show users the kinds of civic engagement opportunities they might like. Also, I like your point system as a way to create engagement with the app and the opportunities it’s suggesting.

    But it sounds like you are requesting far too little money to get this project off the ground, especially since you talk about employees seeking out volunteer opportunities. You also have no plan for marketing your app. How are you going to attract users, as well as volunteer opportunities? In addition, I’m not sure about what financial relationship this app will have to news companies. What is their incentive to share their product with your app for free? They need to drive people to their news sites to sell their own ads.

    I’m impressed by the range of people you interviewed. Did they say anything about any other potential competitors? Why does this not yet exist? What are the barriers? I’m interested in knowing a lot more about Ideal Impact. How did it gather a critical mass of users and volunteer opportunities to launch? How is it making money? How many users does it have? Would you hope to attract new users, or do you think Ideal Impact’s users would prefer your app?

    I’m not sure that I like the idea of users only seeing news that interests them. Doesn’t that contribute to the echo chamber where we all think that everyone else thinks the same way that we do? Shouldn’t we be exposed from time to time to topics that don’t already align with our interest? Users might enjoy a surprise or two every time they log in.

    You talk about volunteer opportunities and news stories somewhat interchangeably in this application. What if there’s a news story that doesn’t immediately suggest a related volunteer opportunity? How will you handle that? Also, with politic news, how will you handle balance in volunteer responses? How will you handle news involving private corporations that aren’t seeking volunteer help? For example, here’s a story about cereal company Kellogg’s pulling its advertising from the right-leaning news site, Breitbart: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38167910 What are the volunteer opportunities associated with that? Would you offer support for Kellogg’s as one of the volunteer responses?

    Finally, I like the way you’re thinking about financial sustainability. In addition, I wonder if there aspects of a dating app’s business plan that you can use as a model for your app’s financial sustainability. What can you learn from the way dating apps make money? I also wonder if there are partners who might be interested in working with you. The idea of increasing civic engagement is very popular. There are foundations that might give you grants or work with you on this project. Please take a look at my response to the Compact Impact team, which includes some links that may be useful to you as well.

    Again, smart thinking here on a very important problem. I hope you continue to pursue this idea.

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