Cross-posted on Oxdown Gazette and Pam’s House Blend
The Voter Suppression Wiki is a non-partisan hub of information and action around efforts to suppress votes in the 2008 U.S. elections. For more information, please see our strategy and talking points, Baratunde Thurston’s launch post on Jack and Jill Politics, and my series of posts on Liminal States. If you’d like to get involved, please introduce yourself, check the help wanted, roll up your sleeves, and jump in!
With only three weeks to go until Election Day on November 4, it’s time for the Voter Suppression Wiki to start shifting to action mode. Our challenges at this point are pretty typical of nascent activism groups: building a large enough community and getting enough visibility to have an impact, linking up with partners and allies, getting good communications channels in place, and learning to work together effectively.
We’re doing pretty well on all of these fronts, actually: with over 100 people involved we’ve got the core of a community; we’re expecting more press attention later this week; and we’ve had initial discussions with allies like SourceWatch and their Election Protection Wiki, Twitter Vote Report‘s grassroots election-monitoring plan, and CREDO action’s SMS-based Immediate Response Network. There’s also been a lot of good discussion on the wiki in threads like How can we do better at getting the word out? Still, tempus fugit; so now’s a good time to start moving things forward more quickly.
A good place to start is with the hoary, but crucial, observation that our biggest asset is the people involved — and their diverse skills, connections, experiences, and perspectives. But just who are “we”? In aid of this, I’ve set up an Introductions page on the wiki with threads where people can introduce themselves.*
Introduction threads serve several purposes: breaking the ice, conveying information, building community. There’s also the important psychological aspect of signing up for something publicly and saying “count me in”. Different people like to introduce themselves in different ways, so I set up several different threads.** My guess is that as people participate, both the words and images will really highlight the wiki’s diversity.
Another useful technique in moving to action is the help wanted page. As Clay Shirky describes so well in Gin, Television, and the Social Surplus, wikis are great at aggregating small contributions from lots of people … but how the heck are the people suppose to know what contributions will be must useful? As is so often the case, a simple real-world analogy points out a plausible answer: help wanted information, letting people see for themselves what needs to be done and decide where they’ll be most leveraged — and to suggest other areas where help could be useful.
The help wanted in turn links to several pages where feedback is particularly valuable — in other words, people can help by participating in the conversation. Top on the list is the planning and strategy page, because I think it’s in many ways the most important page on the wiki. This page has a couple of purposes: to let everybody know our best thinking about the current strategy is so they can make better decisions; and, just as importantly, to improve the strategy by getting more people’s perspectives. There are already several good examples of this, with great ideas about partnering with community technology centers, digging, and working with state blogs and community newspapers; the resulting strategy is going to be better than any of us would have come up with on our own.
I first started experimenting with wiki-based planning and strategy with the Ad Astra project when I was at GM of Strategy Development at Microsoft. Even though it’s still difficult for me to overcome my perfectionist aversion to sharing in-process work that I know is incomplete, it always, always, always has worked out well for me. Once again, diversity is a key here: I have blind spots and my knowledge is limited in a lot of areas; I’m a geek so I naturally tend to approach things from a techie perspective; and so on. It’s easy to sneer at the “wisdom of the crowds” phenomenon, but in situations like this my experience is that at really works — and Scott Page’s The Difference and other work in cognitive diversity presents powerful models for why. So if you’re skeptical, please suspend your disbelief temporarily and give it a try.
From a learning perspective, wikis’ automatic versioning history is extremely useful for strategy pages. For example, I — or anybody else — can go back to Get FISA Right’s strategy from the beginning of July or mid-August, and see how we were thinking about things at the time. What changed? Which assumptions were or weren’t valid? What can we do better next time — i.e., now, with the Voter Suppression Wiki, or whatever other projects people are working on? A week from now, the Voter Suppression Wiki strategy is likely to have evolved significantly; how will today’s version look in retrospect?
This kind of introspection is very important for net movement projects. Understanding what’s working and what isn’t let’s you make better use of your assets; looking at the past gives insight into the likely future if nothing changes — and helps identify ways of doing better. Other examples of this are the How can we do better at getting the word out? blog post/discussion thread combo, This time *we’re* writing the history on Get FISA Right’s wiki, and the series of analyses of information flow through the blogosphere and mainstream media (MSM) across multiple activism campaigns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)***. We learn by doing; but we learn a lot more effectively by looking back at what we’ve done and thinking about it.
One thing to point out is that even though I’ve focused on a wiki-based project here, some of these techniques are very easy to apply in other environments as well. Introduction threads work well on blogs or threaded discussion forums, and yes even Facebook discussion boards; Google Docs or spreadsheets could work for help wanted pages and strategy documents; and so on. Personally, I like wikis (in case you hadn’t noticed) and think that Wetpaint’s discussion threads and social networking elements (friend relationships, compliments, etc.) make it particularly effective for involving people and building community; your mileage may vary. So if you’re thinking of applying these lessons to another activism project, please don’t feel constrained by the technology.
The Voter Suppression Wiki, however, is very definitiely wiki-based. So if you’d like to experience a wiki-centric project first hand, please, get involved! Introduce yourself page, check out the help wanted, and jump into the discussions on the planning and strategy page and elsewhere … and invite your friends!
* One for the lessons learned department: we didn’t do this early enough with Get FISA Right, which led to the questions about “who put you in charge?” that I mentioned in Paging Clay Shirky
** I chose threads because they’re the easiest way for people to participate on a Wetpaint wiki, and because they show people’s avatars.
*** and reveal important insights on topics like who picks up stories from who, the role of “MSM blogs” and the gaps between the progressive blogosphere and the black, feminist, LGBTQ, and social computing blogospheres