Get FISA Right: Paging Clay Shirky

Wow, what a weekend. Friday, the Get FISA Right campaign was on CNN a couple of times (including a brief clip by me on American Morning that also got picked up internationally and a great discussion of Obama & Get FISA Right Activism by Ari Melber on CNN headline news where he challenged the left/right media narrative) and in TIME magazine. “That’s mainstream media, right?” I kept asking people; everybody reassured me the answer is yes. Over the weekend Laura Flanders talked with me and Ari on Radio Nation; and I heard we were discussed on Meet the Press today. Wow. Or did I say that already?

The overall situation is still what I described in my OpenLeft diary on Friday: now what? I’ve got my opinions of course; so do others. The discussion process over the next few weeks as we decide should be really interesting. See the Vision of the future thread on the discussion board for more, including my summary of the discussion so far and current thinking — and add your thoughts in as well.

There’s lots of other great stuff on the discussion boards, including planning for an organized attempt to influence the platform, meetups, and other activism ideas that may or may not pan out. There’s also a thread about the discussion of the direction of the email list, and that’s where Clay Shirky comes in. If you haven’t read his essay A group is its own worst enemy, now would be a very good time.

The underlying challenge here is how to have a meaningful discussion with our 23,000+ members on the site. The email list got overwhelmed about ten days ago, and people started unsubscribing rapidly. That means that they’re still members of the group, but we have no effective way of reaching them. As a result, the effectiveness of our digging and similar efforts started to decrease. After about 20% of subscribers had left in a day or so, we introduced moderation; that stopped the bleeding, and we got much grateful mail from people as a result. As always, though, when moderation gets introduced in a previously free-flowing forum, others are unhappy.

We didn’t do a great job of communicating the decision; and the listserv software on is extremely buggy, and so some messages get through that shouldn’t and others are rejected without any notification to the person sending them. [See Micah Sifry’s excellent post for discussion of other challenges of doing activism on myBO.] We asked for volunteer moderators, and a few people signed up; however, we’re ridiculously understaffed for real-time moderation of a huge list, and so everybody’s tired. Mistakes get made. Cynical people on the list leap to the conclusion that it’s the Obama campaign trying to censor things … no matter how many times we say that we haven’t gotten any pressure from the campaign, and in fact have received encouraging signals, they don’t believe us. We send the moderation guidelines out regularly; volume is so heavy that many people don’t read them.

There’s also an unstated question of “who put you in charge?” The group was started by Mardi, who appointed her friend Mike Stark as an admin. A couple of weeks ago Mike added me and several others who had been helpful on the list; since then, we’ve expanded the circle in the time honored way: identifying people who were doing a lot and asking them if they wanted to do more, and asking for volunteers. A couple of us are very experienced with stuff like this; others aren’t, and are learning on the job. This will probably sound familiar to anybody who’s been in a similar situation.

There are a couple of differences here. First of all, we’re under a media spotlight — talked about the rate of email on the list in their post-vote wrapup, and plenty of other reporters are following along. That makes everybody tense. Secondly, there are a lot of people in the group who don’t seem to understand that we’ve defined ourselves as a group of Obama supporters, and so think that they should be able to post anti-Obama screeds, exhortations for a “revolt in Denver”, or reasons that people should vote Nader.

We certainly respect the opinions of those who have decided to drop their support for Obama over this, and I’ve encouraged people to form their own groups elsewhere to advocate these viewpoints. However, it’s really not appropriate on In my view, the campaign deserves incredible praise for letting us continue to operate on the site — in one of the quotes that didn’t make it to the air in the CNN interview, I said something like “it looks like their rhetoric is real”. It’d be really uncool for us to abuse this hospitality. Is there room for a broader discussion? Very definitely. It shouldn’t be hosted on, though; and we haven’t even decided whether this is something Get FISA Right wants to sponsor. See the discussion thread here for more.

Email lists are very problematic for large groups in general; another Shirky essay Group as User: Flaming and design of social software, discusses some of the reasons why. Even more importantly, when information’s on a discussion forum or blog, it’s easy to link to them in blog posts or send a link to somebody who’s not in the group (a person who might want to join us, a reporter) and let them see what’s going on; that’s much harder with an email discussion thread, unless you do a lot of editing. So one of the things we’re trying to do is shift conversations to the new discussion forums on

Which of course encounters a lot of pushback. “There’s almost nobody there.” Well yeah, not yet. “It’s harder to use than email.” Opinions vary; after two weeks of 1000+ messages a day in email, I disagree. “You’re censoring us.” No, we’re an activism campaign trying to get a useful channel to communicate with our members.

For those who knew me at Microsoft, this might well seem familiar. I spent over a year trying to move people from an email list to a group blog/wiki discussion format, and did several experiments which gave pretty clear evidence that people using email were less effective at collaborating. Many others have reported similar results. This isn’t saying that email is bad — we’re planning on setting up a discussion list using mailman or Google Groups, and we’re encouraging people to sign up for a low-bandwidth email announcement list on There’s some things it’s great for. It’s just not ideal for everything.

Overall, I’m optimistic. Signups for the new email list are higher than we expected; our internal goal for the first week after the vote was 1000 people, and we’re already over that. That’ll give us a channel to communicate with our members, complementing the 2000+ person Facebook group, without overwhelming them with 500+ emails a day. We’re also seeing some great discussions in the forum; the quantity may be low so far, but the quality is much higher.

The software under the forum, by the way, is phpboard. We’ll probably outgrow that and need to move to something else, ideally with community moderation. Maybe we’ll use Slashcode, the software that runs Slashdot; in Clay’s closing plenary at Computers, Freedom, and Privacy this year he talked about how different software made sense for different situations, and characterized Slashcode as appropriate for large and long-lived groups. I think we’ll be both, and so the “karma” (aka reputation) and meta-moderation functionality will be important. We shall see. For now, though, please check out the discussion forums on and join in.

And, while you’re at it, reread A group is its own worst enemy one more time.