Petitions are soooooo 20th century

I set up a petition here, and I’ll be sending the comments onward to John Podesta and Michael Strautmanis of the Obama transition team.

— Matt Stoller, Larry Summers At Treasury: A Fox in the Henhouse, OpenLeft

The first two replies to Matt’s post were

JoelN: Is it still possible to start new ‘MyBO’ groups?

Oly: I would like to see the netroots take up the anti-Summers cause as we took up the anti-Bayh cause.

When I made a similar suggestion later on Thursday in another thread, Matt responded by banning me.    So I went into a little more detail Friday morning in a comment in Melissa McEwan’s Action Item: No Larry Summers thread on Shakesville, talking about why social network sites are a good complement to petitions for stuff like this:

On sites like myBO, Facebook, and MySpace, it’s single-click for the people who are already members; you get additional viral effects; plus, everybody can see who’s signed on (as opposed to a petition where knowledge and the oh-so-valuable email lists are reserved for the people who set up the list).

Not only that, the media looooves stories related to social networks and new technology, so you’re more likely to get publicity — as Twitter Vote Report just showed so dramatically. When was the last time a petition got that kind of coverage?*

Imagine my delight when I searched Facebook and discovered I wasn’t the only one thinking that way.

Nancy Scola has the scoop in techPresident‘s Daily Digest:

Ivan Boothe, formerly with the Genocide Intervention Network, has started a Facebook group called “Obama Supporters AGAINST Larry Summers, Architect of the Financial Crisis!”

The group’s very well laid out, with a summary and links to some excellent critiques of Summers by Naomi Klein, Kim Gandy, and Dean Baker, as well as a pointer to the petition, so it reinforces the other effort.  Gotta like that.  If you’re on Facebook, please join the group by clicking on Join this group on the top right hand side of the page — and invite your friends by clicking on Invite other people, right below the group’s logo.  Pretty easy, huh?

There are some obvious next steps: highlight the Facebook group as well as the petition on the Media Consortium’s new Cabinet Newsletter,** get some action in the blogospheres, start tweeting about it.  More ambitiously, now might be a good time for Republicans against Summers to start up their own group, or for people to start something up on myBO, MySpace, and/or BlackPlanet.  All of these are likely to reach complementary audiences to the OpenLeft petition and the Facebook group.  Of course, at some point the negative energy needs to be turned in a positive direction (how long until somebody starts up a group for, say, Laura D’Andrea Tyson?) … but it’ll be a lot harder to unify on the criteria for a good choice, let alone the actual people, so it’s one of those occasions where starting with a strong rejection of an unacceptable candidate makes a lot of sense.

A great thing about Summers is that there’s so many reasons to be against him that the activism campaign is likely to spread down many different paths.  Most obviously this builds on the multi-partisan anti-bailout activism, which while it didn’t get reported in the press was pretty significant.  On top of that, comments about women’s intelligence and Africa as “under-polluted” mean that this is likely to get a lot of attention in the feminist, anti-racist, black, and women of color blogospheres.  So, while it’s always hard to predict, the conditions are good for something spectacular. Larry’s presumably a little nervous right now.

And man, what is it about progressives and online petitions?  Within a period of four hours Friday, a friend forwarded me Mormons Stole Our RightsNo tax credit for hate and then something from Rick Jacobs about Courage Campaign‘s Repeal Prop 8, and guess what?  Repeal Prop 8 has a Facebook group too, Mormons Stole our Rights is up on Facebook and MySpace

Update, November 11: I missed two of the biggest anti-prop 8 efforts, Join the Impact’s protests for November 15 and Stephanie Geffeller’s Re-open Prop 8 petition. See the comments for more.

Courage Campaign has used social networks very effectively in their campaigs this year, so it’s not surprising they’re approaching it this way; I don’t know anything about the people behind Mormons Stole Our Rights, but they appear to get it too.  Todd Beeton’s Turning Passion into Action on myDD sets the stage for Repeal Prop 8:

For three straight days, we’ve seen massive marches in the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco. This just doesn’t happen here. It’s amazing to watch take place but there’s a danger that this anger won’t be harnessed and converted into a longterm marriage equality movement.

There are marches in San Diego and elsewhere, too, on an even larger scale than September’s online anti-bailout actions around the country sparked by Arun Gupta’s call-out for a Wall Street Protest on Naomi Klein’s site.  In September, however, the online component focused mostly on, guess what, petitions: petitions from Bernie Sanders, CREDO Action, the Center for American Progress, the SEIU the National Taxpayers’ Union, and many others.***  Sanders’ petition got a lot of attention in the progressive blogosphere, about 50,000 signatures — but not a lot of press.

How much energy was harnessed?  Well, the people who ran those petitions can send a blast email to all their members; that’s about it, really.  By contrast, social network-based activism creates a lot of assets: connections between members, one-to-one communication channels, and discussion threads that can help organize and shape the future.

Let’s face it: in a time when there are 200,000-person viral email campaigns, multi-million person protest groups on Facebook, and viral videos reaching 20-million-plus people, petitions have to rack up mighty big numbers to even have a chance of mattering.   By contrast, Ari Melber described Get FISA Right‘s strategy back on July 7: “fan the flames of coverage by making the novel outreach approach a story in its own right”.   Sure enough, it worked: with 23,000 people we were all over the mainstream media.  Ditto this week for Twitter Vote Report, with 10,000.  And let’s not forget #dontgo and 100,000 Strong against Evan Bayh, which got into mainstream media blogs with only a few thousand members by emphasizing the Twitter and Facebook angles.****

Social network sites are hot.  Many journalists and MSM sites are looking for stories to show that they get it.  The overall narrative of social network activism, including disaster relief and Voces Contra Las FARC, is a powerful one.

Petitions are boring.

And just in case anybody’s forgotten, we just came out of an election where youth activism was hugely important.  Guess where kids today hang out?  Facebook. Twitter. MySpace.  Not blogs.  Not email.

A couple of other important sites for the Repeal Prop 8 and Mormons Stole our Rights folks to focus on are myBO, BlackPlanet, and Eons.  Reaching out to Obama supporters looking to build on their success is a no-brainer; starting to engage now on BlackPlanet and Eons is critical for making progress reaching out to demographics which supported Prop 8 in 2008.  Also important: linking up more effectively with other new efforts like the Repeal Prop 8 TV campaign (started by Brendan of as well as existing “No on 8” groups on Facebook, MySpace, and all these other sites … and of course continuing to coordinate with on-the-ground activism and new efforts.  A lot to do … but you can see the possibilities.

I certainly don’t mean to imply that social network activism is a panacea: the technology bases are all problematic, and as danah boyd points out, it’s challenging to convert the identity group to an action nexus if one doesn’t already exist.  On top of that, many people aren’t members of social network sites — and for reasons I’m very sympathetic with, such as Facebook’s creepy and Orwellian vibe and horrible privacy practices.  For that matter, a lot of people just plain prefer email.  So petitions are a valuable complement to these other mechanisms.

But they’re not the only game in town.  Instead of a petition, what about a blog post with a signature thread, so everybody can see who’s signed on and what they’re saying? It’s just as easy to sign on as a petition; there’s much more value.

And in any case, when you’re thinking about an activism campaign, think of how to incorporate social network sites.  There are plenty of good resources out there.  For myBO, Micah Sifry’s Can We Talk?  Will They Listen?, Carlo Scannella’s Nomadic Democracy, and Mike Stark’s Why progressives should keep organizing on — all from the early days of Get FISA Right — are the best I know of.  For Facebook, the Wired How-to wiki and the Computers Freedom and Privacy wiki are decent starting places.

Of course, the best way to learn about activism is to engage in it. So, if you’re on Facebook, please join the Repeal Prop 8 and Obama supporters AGAINST Larry Summers groups — and invite your friends. And you hang out elsewhere (or you’re not an Obama supporter but similarly oppose Larry), start up your own group and learn by doing.

It’s 2008, for heavens sake.  What are you waiting for?


Facebook graphic from AJC1’s flickr site
licensed under Creative Commons

Thanks to Adriel and Ryan for the title!

* probably, with there 250,000+-signature petitions, although these days it seems like their ads and events like the  “Fossil of the Day Awards” at Bali are what’s really driving the media attention.  Update, 10/11: oops.  Courage Campaign got coverage in late October for launching their petition to the Mormon Church to stop funding Yes on 8 — here’s the AP story.

** as I wrote the first draft of this, the #2 story on Cabinet Newsladder is Beth Dozoretz’ Larry Summers: The country needs him, a reaction to NOW’s opposition to Summers added to the Newsladder by none other than Max Bernstein, of Max and the Marginalized and 100,000 Strong Against Evan Bayh fame.  I still haven’t seen the petition anywhere on the front page — surprising, in light of James Boyce’s front-page OpenLeft post from Thursday inviting people to try Cabinet Newsladder out.

*** okay, it’s not just progressives.  Moira Herbst’s Bailout Outrage Races Across the Web in Business Week from September 25 is an excellent roundup of the first round of anti-bailout activism, and Micah Sifry’s More plutocracy, or the rise of people-powered politics? on the Huffington Post is a good retrospective.

**** It doesn’t always work of course.  The largest anti-bailout Facebook group has a little less than 4,000 people, and No Blank Check for Wall Street clocks in at about 900, but with so little discussion of these anywhere in the blogosphere there wasn’t any way to generate media interest.  On the other hand, if half of those 50,000 people from the Sanders petition had joined on Facebook as well, we quite possibly could have played the “bigger than Get FISA Right” card and been off to the races.  Oh well, maybe next time.  For more  on the successful pro-drilling activism campaign #dontgo, please see the links in the footnote of Reflections.