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Hommage to Tarkovsky's _Stalker_, a bronze statue representing a Roman notable, Museo di Santa Giulia, Brescia, Italy.
Gurus are not enough: A call for organizers and organizing in social media


Gurus, mavens and experts convey information -- the way things are. Organizers cultivate leadership and facilitate exploration of a vision -- a way to see how things could be.

Gurus, mavens and experts convey information – they tell you the way things are.

Organizers, conversely, cultivate leadership and facilitate a community’s exploration of its vision – they offer a way to see how things could be.

Naturally, we need an accurate picture of how things are before we can strategize ways to improve them, and so it’s important to continually listen to and learn from the experts, taking from them relevant information and measuring it against our own experience and knowledge. But folks involved in social change – online or offline – can’t stay there. We have to be willing to step up and do the difficult organizing work that leverages our knowledge and experts’ data into something larger: a movement.

Community organizers are a natural fit for “web 2.0” – the movement from one-way broadcasting on the web to two-way coversation and connection. I want to expand the definition a little bit, however, and suggest that online organizing goes far beyond the professional, experienced organizers.

One of the defining aspects of web 2.0 is social organization. People are constantly presented with their social circles in visual media: Facebook news feeds, MySpace top friends, Twitter updates, etc. In short, more people can see their network, in a much more literal way. This is especially true for young adults (currently Millennials) who might have social networks scattered across wide geographic areas and are less firmly rooted to a specific place through vocational, familial or other commitments.

Communities at the margins of society have always had a more visceral understanding of their social networks, which are often the sites of social change planning and strategizing – consider the role of black churches in the US civil rights movement, or gay bars and bathhouses in the early Stonewall era of the gay rights movement. So I don’t want to suggest that this phenomenon of a community visualized is necessarily new for everyone, but I think it is new for many folks in the mainstream of society.

The online “social web” – social networks and social media – allows people to organize their social connections, not simply to put them in order, but to connect and collaborate with others. Evite invitations and Facebook events are clear examples of this, as is Wikipedia.

Increasingly, the social web is teaching everyday folks how to be community organizers.

It’s usually gurus, however, who get – or take – the credit for this transformation. On the contrary, I see it as a much more grassroots bubbling-up of organizing skills. Everyone has the ability to organize and inspire others; the current tools are simply making those skills more visible.

“Organizations and societies,” wrote Bruce Kokopeli and George Lakey, “do need leadership, but they do not need leaders.”1 They argued for a shared value of leadership, in which many individuals took responsibility for the direction of a group, but didn’t invest the institutional power in a single person to call the shots. A critical part of this feminist approach relies on cultivating leadership among more and more individuals. Everyone has a stake, and everyone has a say.

While there are particular challenges putting that theory into practice in an organization, the good news is that movements, particularly those engaging in online social change, are particularly positioned to take advantage of this approach.

The fact that more people are organizers, and that everyone can exercise leadership, does not mean that there is no role for the full-time organizer. Indeed, the “professional” organizer becomes more important than ever, passing on stories and lived experience, and sharing a pedagogy for cultivating new leadership. What fades away is the positioning of some people within a movement as “experts” to whom everyone looks for direction.

Paulo Freire calls such an approach “co-intentional education,” in which each person is both teacher and student. Those with more experience may seek to inspire or ask questions to further dialogue, but as a way to further develop strategy rather than dictate to or control the masses.

Attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects which must be saved from a burning building; it is to lead them into the populist pitfall and transform them into masses which can be manipulated. … [T]he oppressed must see themselves as women and men engaged in the … vocation of becoming more fully human.2

This may seem like heavy or strident language in the context of online petition drives or peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns. But my goal is to push social change organizers to look toward the larger picture. What sort of movement do you want to build in the long-term? What role do people play in that movement – is it a passive one of letter-signing and donation-giving, or an active one of working from the ground up for lasting change?

Want to support online organizing? Help promote a panel at SXSW 2010: Vote for us by the end of Friday!

Ivan Boothe is part of a proposed panel for the South by Southwest Interactive conference, “Connecting Communities for the Common Good: Owning Online Organizing,” along with Ben Rattray, founder of; Peter Corbet with iStrategy Labs; Sally Kohn of the Center for Community Change; and moderated by Kari Dunn Saratovsky from the Case Foundation.

We need your help to get this panel on the schedule! Please consider voting for the panel at SXSW (quick registration required). Additionally, please leave a comment on the panel’s page. Voting accounts for only about 30% of the decision to include a panel, so we want to demonstrate support for discussion around online organizing with your comments.

If you’re not familiar with the process, here’s a step-by-step guide to voting from the Case Foundation. There’s no limit to the number of panels you can vote for, so check out Beth Kanter’s list of nptech panel proposals and share the love!

Social marketing experts are adept at building brand loyalty, or encouraging the formation of an identity around an issue. They know how to sell the idea of “social good” to the public at large, using people’s goodwill toward a cause as a way to market to them through a given company, and increase donations to a partner charity. Well-known examples of this are the RED campaign and Starbucks' Ethos Water.

Online organizers turn a skeptical eye toward “social good” and social marketing. It doesn’t mean such projects aren’t worth exploring or learning from, and it doesn’t mean that everyone involved is a charlatan simply out to make a buck. But selling people an identity, even a “good” one, is fundamentally different from organizing for social change. Freire again: “Conviction cannot be packaged and sold; it is reached, rather, by means of a totality of reflection and action.3

Movement building also goes beyond electoral organizing. Folks working for social change often form common cause with those organizing around a political candidate, and there is of course much to be learned and shared between the two practices. But whereas elections are centered around a single charismatic leader, a fully-engaged, vibrant social change movement consists of both shared vision and shared leadership. Elections give people an answer, while movements ask people a question – and then encourage them to speak for themselves.

Instead of selling or giving supporters a solution, then, online organizers are involved in cultivation. There are pieces of both social marketing and electoral organizing present in online organizing, of course, and experts in these fields can be a useful source of data, but we should be wary of replicating these other models when it comes to leadership.

There is a developing praxis being explored by numerous thinkers and strategists in online organizing. For sociological analyses – stories and experiences – danah boyd is indispensible. Clay Shirky, Allison Fine, Valdis Krebs and Howard Rheingold explore the power of networks of individuals, while Beth Kanter, DigiActive and Debra Askanase provide concrete case studies of online organizing in action.

What’s your experience? Who are online organizers with whom you share successes and strategies? Please offer your wisdom in the comments!

Like the idea of discussing and strategizing about online organizing? Please vote for – and even more importantly, leave a positive comment on – the online organizing panel proposal for SXSW. The deadline is the end of the day this Friday, Sept. 4, so don’t delay! (More information above.)

  1. Kokopeli, Bruce and George Lakey. Leadership for Change: Toward a Feminist Model. New Society Publishers, Santa Cruz, Calif., 1985. Available from Training for Change↩︎

  2. Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum International Publishing Group, New York, 2004, pp. 65–66. ↩︎

  3. Freire, p. 67. ↩︎

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