Text Messaging for Activism and Social Change

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Short Message Service (SMS), AKA Text Messaging, is an often underutilized tool which is super practical for efficiently and interactively engaging with a large audience.

Why Text Messaging?

  • SMS is one of the most widely adopted, most direct, and baseline forms of communication available
  • 92% of US adults have at least one active phone, 56% of which are smartphones (Voice, Text, Data, Web, Applications, GPS)
    • The other 44% are basic phones (Voice, Text, Limited or No Data)
  • SMS does not require consistent network coverage (unlike for Voice) to send or receive messages--it will wait until coverage becomes available again
  • Extremely useful for immediate updates and alerts because users often check messages as soon as received


  • Interaction can be automated with an SMS service
    • All services 1) Send/Receive individual messages to members of large group, 2) Allow management of contacts and groups which are both importable and exportable, 3) Read keywords to perform automated rule-based (if...then) actions.
  • There are tons of services available which are extremely affordable (or free*) for different scale use and different capacity needs.
*Free as in services' monetary cost, not equipment or time - setup, troubleshooting, or maintenance
  • Services can be run using your personal phone and data plan* (with or without a proxy number), or an entirely virtual phone on the web
*Different mobile carriers have policies against mass or automated messaging, so check your Terms of Service before doing this!
  • CSCA (Common Short Code Administration) manages short-codes, just like ICANN manages URLs- A short code is not required (like URLs) but it makes it easier to remember and identify your service than ten-digit number (Just like you would still be able to access a website from its IP address instead of it's domain name)

Best Practices

Don't let the ease of communication alienate your supporters, always respect your constituents':

  • Consent
    • You have an ethical and legal obligation to only contact those who have given consent to be contacted by your service, and to provide easy instructions on how to opt-out
    • You can send one message to contacts to instruct them how to opt-in [SMS and Email fall under CAN-SPAM act]
  • Content (and Frequency)
    • You should send only content with short-term significance (ex:'Come show support for ### by attending demonstration tomorrow in Oakland city plaza!'), keep messages as short and clear as possible ('Reply with FIGHT to receive ### updates'), and keep messages infrequent to those who have not opted in for more frequent messages
    • Although possible, don't ask for donations via text (unless you are as reputable as the Red Cross doing something like disaster relief), instead bring them to an event and get them engaged
  • Privacy
    • Don't share contact's personal or contact information without consent, avoid group messages unless otherwise appropriate, and protect your own personal information

Examples of Use

Jordan used TeleRivet (discussed in the next section):

  • To engage participants at a Speed-geeking event with GIIP (Global Information Internship Program) at Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History on GIS Mapping and SMS Services. Afterwards, participants texted in and it added points over a live map as 'check-ins'
  • For Oakland protest- Paper sign-in list imported to service, participants had option to include cell phone number to receive updates at event, service was used to update participants, and at the end participants were given instructions to opt-in if they wanted to continue to receive updates of future events

Red Cross used keyword to fund-raise in collaboration with cell phone companies for disaster relief

Money transfers and payments through SMS common in many African countries

Agricultural market information systems in India (Reuters Market Light)

Neighborhood wildfire warnings

Tools Discussed


  • FrontlineSMS - Only requires basic coverage - Free to Use
    • The software can be run on a personal computer (no internet required) with connected basic phone/GSM modem (USB/Bluetooth/Serial)
    • Especially useful for communication in developing nations
  • TeleRivet - Requires Data connection - Free to Test or Monthly fee
    • Web-based service and mobile-web application for Android phones
  • Gather (by MailChimp) - Requires Data connection - Need to purchase 'packs' of messages
    • App-based (iPhone or Android), Integration with Mailchimp contact lists
    • Intended for use at individual events, contacts (unless opted in to subscribe to future messages) and service's number expire to maintain privacy
  • Cel.ly (Celly)
    • App-based (iPhone or Android) Group-messaging for individual causes, organizations, events, schools, etc.


  • Tropo, Clickatell, Twilio -
    • More appropriate for at-scale consistent organizational SMS communication, rather than individual events


Social Source Commons Text Messaging for Social Organizing Toolbox