Reflections: what I learned during my summer vacation

Apologies to my friends and relatives for being out of touch this summer….

Rather than going to the beach, I instead hung out in a variety of exotic online locales:, Wetpaint, Facebook, and the blogosphere (especially OpenLeft, Shakesville, Pam’s House Blend, and Jack and Jill Politics).  It was kind of a working vacation, engaging in and observing activism projects while thinking about the chapter on social network activism for Tales from the Net.   With the equinox and fall upon us, it seems like a good time to take stock.

Get FISA Right logoGet FISA Right‘s start as a group of Senator Obama’s supporters using (myBO) to put pressure on him, and then evolving to a “50-state strategy”, really highlights the power of social network-based movements.  We quickly became the largest group on myBO, and then Obama replied to our open letter* giving more details about his position on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) amendment than he had discussed with the press.  Even though he didn’t change his position, sometimes all you can say is “w00t w00t!”

At that point, we cracked the mainstream media (MSM) in a big way: The NY Times!  Time! Meet the Press!  And I did my part too: on Radio Nation’s Air America, mentions in a bunch of articles including the Washington Post and Wired, a brief snippet on CNN … fifteen seconds of fame 🙂

While the July 9 vote on FISA was incredibly disappointing, it was also marked continued progress for the pro-civil liberties forces — all the more impressive because in early July, I had heard from Washington insiders that they were concerned that as few as 14 Senators might vote against the legislation, and it turned out to be 28.  To be sure, Get FISA Right (GFR) was only one part of a larger effort, but we certainly contributed a new hook to the story, brought in a lot of new people, and were able to get significant mainstream media (MSM) coverage.  Yay us!

After the vote, we continued our momentum by working to influence the Democratic party’s platform, both in-person at the Obama campaign’s listening meetings and online as part of the netroots platform.  And Ari Melber’s early July prediction in Online Activists Keep the Pressure on Obama proved surprisingly accurate:

If Obama is not confronting McCain on other constitutional issues, for example, members could organize media or social network efforts to do it for him.

For example, running ads on Fox News and CNN in St. Paul during the Republican convention saying “During the past 8 years, the Bush administration listened to Americans’ phone calls and read their emails without a warrant.  If elected President, John McCain would do the same.”  That counts as “confronting,” right?  Our work with on these cable tv ads is also a good example of the kinds of creative approaches we’ve been investigating to try to get the word out more broadly.

The FISA battle’s far from over, and there’s a lot to learn as we’re gearing up for another round with a new administration and Congress early next year.   Fortunately, there were a lot of insightful analyses of Get FISA Right — including posts by members such as Ari Melber, Dawn Teo, Carlo Scannella, Ronit Aviva Dancis, danah boyd, Nancy Scola, Micah Sifry, and Sarah Lai Stirland.  This time, we’re writing the history and the coverage page of the GFR wiki are good places to start.  I honestly believe that if we play our cards right, a multi-million person campaign in February/March next year can be the tipping point in restoring our Constitution.  We shall see.

And …

It’s interesting to compare and contrast GFR to other activism groups, campaigns, movements, etc.  100,000 Strong Against Evan Bayh for VP (NoBayh) also had a surprisingly large impact for a relatively small (4000 people) Facebook/blogging campaign — at least according to DC-based reporters and the Intrade prediction markets, which documented Bayh’s fall from favorite a also-ran in just two days as the activism heated up.

Evan Bayh's stock price on the Intrade prediction markets

“Evan Bayh for Democratic VP Nominee” on Intrade Prediction Market

Until the tell-all books are written, there’s no way to know whether we actually had an impact on Obama’s choice; it’s quite possible that he had already come to the conclusion that putting the co-sponsor of the Iraq War resolution on his ticket wasn’t a great idea.  Still, at the very least we have a proof point that in the right situation a 4000-person Facebook group and about 20 blog posts can affect conventional political wisdom … and maybe, just maybe, we have an example of social network activism helping to decide a national political office.

GFR and NoBayh followed the same path: a flurry of initial posts in the progressive and technology-in-politics blogospheres, and progressive news sources like the Huffington Post and Air America led to people discovering and joining the group.**  [As well as the wiki pages where we listed our coverage, there’s also useful thread in NoBayh describing how people found the group.]  This in turn led to pickup by the blogs associated with mainstream media (MSM) outlets like the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, New York Times, etc.

One of the things that’s going on is that the use of new technology becomes an interesting hook for a story.  “Everybody knows” that social networks are important in this election — there have been dozens of MSM articles since Linnie Rawlinson’s May 2007 Will the 2008 USA election be won on Facebook? — but thus far there haven’t been a lot of concrete examples other than fundraising and phonebanking on myBO.  Plus the general theme of “change” and “grassroots power” fits well with the themes for the election.

Another important factor is the transparency: reporters and potential members can see for themselves who else is in the group and what’s being said.  The NoBayh Facebook group featured a diverse set of prominent bloggers and authors as administrators and officers — and people noticed it.  Siobhan Gordon of the The Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire similarly reported on the message volume on the Get FISA Right mailing list in the aftermath of the July 9 vote.  This transparency effect is particularly powerful in a social network environment, where you actually seeing pictures and other information about the people involved … oh, so that’s Atrios.

It’s interesting to compare these with a couple of more recent examples of social network activism.  The Sarah Palin is NOT Hillary Clinton group is now over 25,000 people — bigger than GFR — and has a great wiki, but still virtually no attention from the progressive blogosphere or MSM.  The even larger Women against Sarah Palin blog is now over 150,000,*** and even though there was a high-profile story by Julia Hoppock on ABC’s Political Radar blog, there’s nothing I can find in the progressive blogosphere.

Why haven’t these Sarah Palin groups gotten as much attention?  It certainly seems like a timely story!  The easy answer is that the groups haven’t done anything substantive yet; but neither had GFR and NoBayh when we started getting press, so I don’t think that’s the only thing going on.  The most likely possibility is that the “big blogs” of the progressive blogosphere play a key structural role in getting media coverage for these kinds of efforts; since they haven’t kicked in here, the story hasn’t caught on … yet.

The gulfs between the progressive blogosphere and others is certainly a challenge for blog/social network activists.  First of all, there’s a lot of anti-Facebook and anti-social network sentiment — Paul Rosenberg’s We’re So Lame on OpenLeft discusses this in more detail. The One Million Strong for Barack group on Facebook (and large pro-Obama groups on sites like MySpace and BlackPlanet) continue to be invisible.  There are over 700,000 people in the One Million Strong group Facebook alone, and after a lot of success in the primary, we’re getting steadily more ambitious: an online convention, an upcoming moneybomb, targeted phonebanking.  However, you wouldn’t know it to read the blogosphere.  It’s kind of amusing to hear bloggers use the same kinds of dismissive comments about social network sites that people were making about them a few years ago, but from an activism perspective it’s very disappointing.

There’s also a huge gap between the (primarily-male) progressive blogosphere and the feminist and womanist blogospheres.  Another summer project of mine, mutual guest-blogging on Open Left, was an attempt to build some bridges by increasing diversity; unfortunately, it hit some snags and is currently on hiatus.  Ah well, can’t win them all.  Still, this is another crucial issue to address for activists moving forward. The same’s true of the distance between the (primarily straight, primarily white) progressive blogosphere and LGBTQ-o-sphere or anti-racist/immigrant rights bloggers, and the disdain so many progressive bloggers show for seniors — as well as high school and college students.

Another major challenge is finding ways to harness the energy of these large groups.  As danah boyd points out, Facebook groups are typically “identity groups”: people join to show affiliation and interest, but it’s not easy to convert that to action.  Facebook’s communications mechanisms are very difficult: frequent messages to the entire group cause people to leave, and in any case once the group gets over 5,000 or so you lose the ability to send a message to all members.  What additional structures can help a group like One Million Strong for Barack have more impact?  myBO’s functionality is even more limited, as Micah Sifry discusses in Can We Talk?  Will They Listen?

The problems seem solvable — Get FISA Right has been somewhat successful at using a wiki, a Google Group, and a discussion board to coordinate actions — and so I expect this to be the next major area of investigation.  It’s very likely that in-person meetups will play a key role; as well as the Dean campaign’s meetups and MoveOn’s house parties, danah boyd’s ballot party and the “privacy salons” that Deborah Pierce and PrivacyActivism have been experimenting with for several years are possible models.

Now what?

Comedian, activist, Obama supporter, and Jack & Jill Politics blogger Baratunde Thurston has launched The Voter Suppression Wiki…. Of note: Baratunde reports that the wiki is drawing on the lessons learned from the innovative Get FISA Right effort that we’ve often covered on techPres in the past.

— Nancy Scola, Wikiing for a fair fight

It’s hard to convey how much we’ve learned — and how many assets and techniques we’ve developed — over the summer. There’s an emerging set of best practices: appoint multiple administrators early, set up a wiki or a web site very early on to supplement the group, take advantage of events to help propagate virally, expect to mix-and-match technologies, use social networking as a hook to interest the media.  Get FISA Right, along with MixedInk’s work on the Netroots Platform, showed that collaborative writing on the web can be effective even with diverse groups who didn’t previously know each other.  The coverage pages and  statistics from Get FISA Right and NoBayh provide interesting baselines: from the early growth numbes, it was that Sarah Palin is NOT Hillary Clinton was likely to become larger than the others — but the visibility was dramatically less.  And so on.

The lessons are applicable to a lot of different challenges.  Can third-parties campaigns and their supporters leverage a social network/blogging campaign to break through the news blackout and get some coverage?  How best for the Obama campaign’ to leverage the nearly-200,000 women in the “opposed to Sarah Palin” groups?   And so on …

One topic I’ve been thinking about a lot is voting rights.  The One Million Strong for Barack group put a lot of effort into  “Know your rights” work in Texas and other states; are there ways to take that to the next level?  And I’m on a working group on “e-Deceptive campaign practices” (a follow-on to the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy panel that Lillie Coney of EPIC organized) … are there ways to use social networks to help get the word out?

A wiki, saving democracy? discusses a concrete step: the non-partisan Voter Suppression Wiki.   The environment’s very different than that of Get FISA Right, but some of the challenges are similar: how do we get coverage of the issue and what people can do?  Can we use the blogospheres to help involve people?  How to alert people when they need to act?   Encouragingly, there’s over 50 people already signed up for wiki with bunches of good contributions, and some solid initial blog coverage — both in the progressive blogosphere (Burnt Orange Reports, digby’s Hullaballoo, myDD) and more broadly (BlogHer, The Slant Truth, Vivir Latino).  Between now and the election, I suspect that this is where a lot of my time will be going … and after the election, it’ll be one more source of learning for next year’s Get FISA Right activism.

Summer vacation’s over, so I’ll be shifting much more into “writing” mode on Tales from the Net as we try to complete our draft by the end of the year.   As well as the chapter on activism, I’m also working on one on online party planning, wheee!  Still, I’m sure I’ll be continuing to hang out in these online vacation homes, and stay in touch with the people I met there … somehow I have a feeling that the fall will be at least as exciting as the summer.

Stay tuned!


* and to my former colleagues at Microsoft who were involved with the open letter to Ray Ozzie, and CFP attendees who were part of Dear POTUS ’08: see, this open-letter-on-wiki thing really does work

** By contrast, working directly with Congressmen and other prominent supporters, the pro-drilling #dontgo movement charted a very different course — largely skipping the blogopshere and moving directly to MSM coverage soon after it started on Twitter and Qik.  Nancy Scola’s Forget Bill Numbers, Follow the Hashtag, Mary Katherine Ham’s Just Go to Don’t Go, Eric Odom’s Is #dontgo an “Astroturf” Movement?, and Myrna the Mynx’ Political Activism on Twitter: The Story of #dontgo describe the history, including a “counter-insurgency” by progressives attempting to disrupt communications.  As usual, it’s hard to know how much of an impact #dontgo had; at a minimum, it seems to me that by seeing conservative activists using new cellphone technologies far more effectively than progressives in aid of the highly emotional “drill baby drill” issue, it must have been tremendously energizing.  More broadly, it would be interesting to understand more about the connections between #dontgo, National Review Online’s The Corner, and the Draft Sarah Palin for VP campaign.

*** As Nancy Scola comments on techPresident, “Email might not have the sex appeal of, say, Twitter. But it still, in 2008, has considerable power.”