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What online activism can learn from community organizing


Online activism didn't come out of nowhere. The methods and tactics of online activists are drawn on social change movements of the past.

Online activism didn’t come out of nowhere. The methods and tactics of online activists – be they individuals or international nonprofits with hundreds of staff – are drawn on social change movements and community organizing strategies that have been tried, experimented with, failed, tweaked, and tried again, long before the Internet existed.

Yet there’s often a disconnect between what’s seen as online activism – referred to as “slacktivism,” sometimes accurately but oftentimes sloppily – and community-based social change. And that’s what I’m covering today at the 2010 Nonprofit Technology Conference, along with Debra Askanase and Amy Sample Ward, in a session called Bringing Community Organizing Into Online Campaigns.

The idea of community organizing has always been weighted with both political implications and social context, and so one person’s interpretation of what “counts” as community organizing – and what its implications are – will vary from the next.

For my purposes here, I’m using community organizing as the idea that individuals have more power to create change by coming together than by acting alone. Community organizing empowers these individuals, creates long-term change and challenges the structure of power.

Previously I’ve argued that with the rise of “web 2.0,” everybody is learning how to be a community organizer. The principles of how to mobilize friends and neighbors around a particular issue – whether it’s a social cause or a hot party – are being learned every time someone creates a Facebook event.

So I think it’s reasonable to look at how traditional, on-the-street community organizing can inform purposeful online activism. Once we move beyond the “blast all your friends with a link to a petition” phase, there are concrete strategies to which we can turn. And many of those strategies are drawn directly from a century or more of social mobilization.

There are five primary ideas in which traditional community organizing is rooted: movement-building, strategy, community accountability, going where the people are, and cultivating leadership. There are more principles and strategies to be sure (and you may disagree whether these five are at the top), but I see these as having the most to say to online activism.

Community organizing is based on long-term strategy. “Empowerment” – that is, facilitating the realization among individuals and communities that they have the power to effect change – is not something you expect to occur overnight.

How this relates to online activism: Every action should be pointing people toward a greater goal. It’s straightfoward enough to get people out to a single event, or taking a single online action. But cultivating those individuals so they see their action as part of a long-term campaign is something that takes…

I’ve written before about the fact that social media isn’t about doing less organizing, it’s about doing it better. A theory of social change is critical to an individual or organization engaging in online activism. Will signing this petition against the war put pressure on elected leaders to alter policies? Will this upcoming rally (or “virtual march”) demonstrate a community’s growing power – or is it “busy work” for supporters who haven’t been asked to do anything in a while?

How this relates to online activism: Too many nonprofits, unfortunately, seem to engage in token actions that don’t move things forward as part of an overall strategy. And even when a given action is a part of a strategy, nonprofits are often vague about communicating that to supporters. Exactly how will calling this legislator advance a critical piece of legislation? Is there a chance the bill will actually pass? If not, there could be other legitimate strategy to build public support for it – things are long-term, remember? – but organizations must be clear to supporters that “victory” in this case won’t be a new law, but, for instance, 10 vocal new supporters in Congress.

Community organizers are often derided as rabble-rousers, troublemakers, or professional activists who dupe people into following them. But true community organizing isn’t about swooping in and ginning up outrage by telling the locals to fight the man. It’s generally approached as much more Freirian – taking direction from and being accountable to the local community. Organizers bring their experience of tactics and strategy, and may serve to inspire people that they do have the power to make change. But the causes around which communities organize should come from the community itself.

How this relates to online activism: Technology is too often seen as a strategy in and of itself. But the Internet and social media – like fax machines, phone trees and the printing press before them – are simply tools, able to be used tactically to great effect, but only when part of a larger strategy. Focusing on the tech divorces a campaign from its community, and leaves the online organizer in the role of the “expert” – “I’ll show you how to use Twitter to clean up your city!” – leaving little room for a community to actually control the direction of a campaign.

Remembering that the community’s long-term strategy is paramount – and being willing to listen, discern and collaborate with that community – will help keep the people whose lives and livelihoods are on the line actually in charge.

Social change happens in communal spaces – not always public, but nearly always intimate to the community as it exists. Workers’ homes and pubs in the labor movement, black churches in the US civil rights movement, gay bars in the gay rights movement, and college campuses in numerous student movements attest to this fact.

How this relates to online activism: Rarely will it be effective to create a private “walled garden” social network that you have to convince people to join and become active on. Different communities are on different social networks online – and it’s important to know where your constituencies are – on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter or somewhere else. The places where a community is most active socially are most likely to be the places where it’s most effective to organize. If you’re organizing in a sensitive environment, you may have to establish some level of privacy around your campaign, but only after you’ve already engaged people where they are.

This is an area to which traditional community organizing aspires, but doesn’t always succeed. The temptation for a “charismatic leader” to emerge and indefinitely control the direction of a social change campaign can be strong. Participants may initially be relieved that they don’t have to “take the heat” when things get tough, and can look to their leader for direction.

Yet time and again we’ve seen movements collapse when the leader – having captured power within the movement or had it thrust upon him or her – burns out or becomes unable to continue. Increasingly in the past half-century, social movements have attempted to make their approaches more sustainable by cultivating leadership, bringing people from the margins into the center and mentoring and encouraging emerging leaders.

How this relates to online activism: Seek to put yourself out of a job. The best online campaigns are the ones that are self-sustaining. Encourage those who are taking the most action to begin to brainstorm new ideas and actions for the campaign. Reward people who are doing the most recruiting, and make them feel that they’re a part of the “core” of the organizing.

For nonprofits – and I know this will be hard to hear – stop pretending that you’re the only organization active on the issue. Support your members who become active in allied groups and consider working in coalitions early and often. Not only will this cement your supporters’ dedication to the cause, it will build the identity of a long-term movement, rather than a limited “card-carrying member” view of participation.

Below, I’ve embedded the slides of our presentation, which goes beyond the things I’ve discussed above and includes an exciting interactive workshop component – so if you’re at NTC, please do stop by!

And as I wrote awhile back in a similar discussion on Beth Kanter’s blog:

The old model of nonprofit/social change theory is that the organization has the power. You sign up with an organization in order to have an impact; the organization mobilizes its supporters successfully based on their numbers but fundamentally the strategy is coming from the top.

The new model of social change embodied in the social web is the wisdom of the network. The power isn’t inherent in the organization though they may act as the catalyst. In this case people become part of the organization as part of the process of having an impact. Indeed, many of the most effective supporters may be “outside” the organization on paper. The value comes from the network rather than the membership.

So in some ways, the dynamics of social media is actually driving us toward more sustainable, honest organizing, in which advocacy groups can provide expertise, training, resources and education, but it’s the grassroots that is mobilizing to effect change. Looked at this way, a lot of day-to-day online organizers have already taken up the best parts of offline community organizing – and it’s on the “professional activists” to catch up.

I welcome any thoughts, comments or ideas. How do you see community organizing informing – or being separate from – online activism? What examples have you seen of successes or failures?

Ivan Boothe is a social change scholar with a degree in peace and conflict studies. With hundreds of hours of training in community organizing and years of experience in real-world social change, he’s excited about the ways in which social media can, when used strategically, amplify the ability of activists to change the world.

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