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The Electronic Activist

Can digital organizing work in the real world?

by Joan Hamilton

Published in the September/October 2008 issue of Orion magazine



Art: Stephanie Syjuco

THE MESSAGE on my screen says, “Welcome to the human network. When we’re all connected, great things happen.” On a sunny day in May, I am sitting in a large windowless conference room in Silicon Valley, eager to hobnob with the most computer-literate do-gooders you can imagine. About three hundred individuals from nonprofits, tech firms, and foundations have gathered at round tables. Most of them have plugged a laptop into one of the tables’ power-strip centerpieces and are tapping away. The balding business-suited man on my right looks too engrossed to be bothered with chitchat, as does the artsy woman with big black glasses on my left. Even when speeches begin at the podium, they keep heads bowed, fingers tapping. We are in the room, and we are not. Have I entered a society of cyborgs? This is the annual gathering of NetSquared, and we are all wired—not wired for fun or profit; we’re wired for good.

As a former editor of Sierra magazine and longtime environmental reporter, I once would have been skeptical that Silicon Valley could teach me much about how to make a difference. But today you have to know your way around cyberspace to cover (or practice) environmental politics, because that’s where a good share of the action is. In his book Assault on Reason, Al Gore called the Internet “perhaps the greatest source of hope for re-establishing an open communications environment in which the conversation of democracy can flourish.” That’s expecting a lot from what is, after all, just another communications medium. But some activists have even higher hopes. They see electronic tools as a way to rouse people from their civic slumbers to participate in that democracy. Up until now the Internet has been a Platte River of political organizing in the United States, nurturing human connections a mile wide and an inch deep. What I and many others at NetSquared wanted to know was what would it really take—electronically or otherwise—to strengthen those connections?

THE POPULARITY of the latest “Web 2.0” social-networking sites, where people can do more than just read or listen, has inspired new thinking. “People are looking to make sense of who they are and what role they play in society,” says the tweedy, salt-and-pepper-bearded conference organizer, Daniel Ben-Horin, who is co-CEO of a nonprofit called CompuMentor. “For a long time that meant, ‘I am a Republican or a Democrat or a socialist or a capitalist.’ Now there is a post-ideological idea of collaboration emerging. People are sensing that collaboration and openness, transparency and sharing, should be the guiding principles. People look at the Middle East and say, ‘Us versus them—it hasn’t worked, has it?’ The impulse to share and collaborate would have come along even without the tools, but the tools make it possible to act on that impulse.”

Electronic tools—computers and cell phones—have already helped people work together to tackle tough problems in developing countries. In 2005, Kuwaiti women used BlackBerries beneath their burqas to lobby successfully for the right to vote. Last year in China, construction of a chemical plant was suspended after cell phone and e-mail messages about its dangers spread throughout the 1.5-million-person city of Xiamen. Electronic organizing is said to have played an important role in recent elections in the Philippines and South Korea.

A slender, dark-haired man dressed in a colorful poncho at NetSquared, Jaime Bejar, showcased Yankana.org, which is helping nonprofits in Ecuador set up and improve websites and online networks. “People in countries like ours want to be heard,” Bejar said. As proof, he pointed to Ecuadorians’ use of e-mail and cell phones to foment demonstrations in 2004 that led to the downfall of a president. “The president had to leave,” Bejar said. “The Internet can change the political environment of a country. It’s a powerful tool.”

Bejar calls Silicon Valley “the Disneyland of Tech,” a phrase that reflects the way most people in the United States are using Web 2.0 tools: for entertainment. Millions of Americans enjoy trading pictures and quips on Facebook and MySpace, but those sites are mostly for socializing, not activism. The epitome of social-networking banality is Twitter, a popular site that encourages users to broadcast their activities and thoughts in messages of 140 characters or fewer. The result is offerings such as “Considering putting on pants,” “Not going to bed,” “Punching myself in the head.”

Ben-Horin sees electronic tools evolving differently in different places, depending upon the urgency of local problems and the strength of local communities. “In the United States, the socializing part of social networking is predominant,” Ben-Horin said. “We like to talk, and we’re exploring different ways of communicating about not necessarily very much. But in the rest of the world, there’s no need to simply converse online—offline communities are much stronger.”

Many of the groups at NetSquared hope to use online tools to make U.S. communities stronger—and to fuel social change.

A group called WiserEarth has set up a “community” for people who care about a sustainable planet; Genocide Intervention Network is a community for changing the world’s response to mass atrocities; Stop Family Violence, a community to help battered women. After several decades in which members of nonprofit groups have been asked to do little more than send money and write an occasional letter to their congresspersons, something potentially more engaging is afoot.

HARVARD PROFESSOR Robert Putnam helped raise “community” to its current buzzword status. In his book Bowling Alone, Putnam argued that time spent staring at TV, movies, and, yes, our computers has left Americans with less time for family, friends, clubs, and social gatherings. By 2000, Americans’ interest in public affairs and voting had shrunk by 20 percent and 25 percent respectively over the course of just a few decades; participation in party politics was down by 40 percent. Putnam linked these declines with a decline in “social capital,” the nonmaterial wealth found in strong, caring communities.

Disheartened by the election of George W. Bush, a few left-leaning nonprofits shifted their focus from national politics to community-building work—hoping to construct an invincible movement from the ground up. Electronic tools were making it cheaper and easier than ever before to reach people. And with Bush running national affairs, working in local communities seemed the clearest path to a brighter day.

Several years of experimentation followed, with a group called MoveOn.org in the forefront. Created as a response to the Republican Congress’s impeachment proceedings in 1998, MoveOn promotes “people-powered politics.” With a simple website and a staff of only twenty, mostly working from home, the organization has built a list of 3.2 million supporters who can respond to its e-mail alerts with the click of a mouse. It has also struck fear in the hearts of politicians it has targeted with its clever campaigns, and raised oodles of cash. In the 2004 election, it raised $32 million for campaign work, while its nearest nonprofit rival raised less than $1 million.

Under MoveOn’s electronic umbrella, millions of people can take part in civic life on a weekly or sometimes even daily basis. They can participate in small ways, by signing a petition, or in larger ways, by writing slogans, concocting ads, even helping set the organization’s priorities. Signing a petition may not be as satisfying as debating a neighbor in the town square. But if the petition makes the news or prods a change, the people who signed it might well feel a frisson of hope. 

How far that frisson will carry them is the question. For all MoveOn’s accomplishments, the ties that connect its members are diaphanous, with no tug of obligation. If the organization sends an e-mail asking ten thousand people to hold a house party, only about ten are likely to say yes. In my experience, that’s about as many as one well-connected community activist could deliver in two hours with a phone tree. At NetSquared, one chat string’s comments summed up the group’s challenges:

akrasne: you want to get stuff to people who don’t yet care, but ought to

suzboop: danger is you become moveon in spam filter

suzboop: I am guilty of trashing my moveon emails

agenthandy: me2

akrasne: me3

agenthandy: how do you get people to care?

agenthandy: a question I’ve heard asked all day

So more experimentation is in order. “People do care,” said MoveOn cofounder Wes Boyd, when I confronted him with the chat question. “That’s not the problem. America’s great strength is that there are so many good-spirited, smart, resourceful people. The problem is, what do you do when you care? That can be difficult in a time when you’ve got a president who seems incredibly resistant to any advice.”

The Sierra Club has taken a different path to promoting activism—one with its own strengths and weaknesses.

The organization started out with the strong connections of a group of Californians interested in exploring and protecting the Sierra Nevada. Today it’s a national environmental group with 1.3 million members and supporters. The majority are checkbook activists, but thousands still see the organization as a “club.” People know each other. They brave the outdoors together on overnight trips. They attend slide shows, potluck dinners, movie nights, and committee meetings. They lobby their elected officials and recruit other people to their cause using the slow and steady Cesar Chavez method of organizing: one person at a time, door to door, face to face. This gives the Sierra Club some strong interpersonal ties that MoveOn lacks, but not the numbers it needs to turn the country around. “If we don’t get bigger, we aren’t going to solve problems like global warming,” says conservation director Greg Haegele.

Lately, wisely, the Sierra Club and MoveOn.org have been mirroring each other’s strategies: the Sierra Club is amping up its participation in the digital world, while MoveOn is spending more time on the ground. The Sierra Club has set up an e-mail network of 700,000 people so that it, too, can rally folks with the click of a mouse. Meanwhile MoveOn is tapping into the power of onland communities by setting up 250 “councils” to stage face-to-face events once a month. As MoveOn director Eli Pariser told Mother Jones last summer, “We’re still just beginning to figure out how you take online energy and turn it into effective, offline action.”

ONE OF MANY E-MAILS MoveOn sent last fall was an invitation to an anti-war demonstration held by the MoveOn council in my hometown. It was part of “Operation Democracy,” the organization’s experiment in blending online and onland communications. I clicked “yes,” and over the course of the next week I received three e-mails and a live phone call urging me to come. I showed up at the busiest intersection in downtown Berkeley right on time.

Some eighty demonstrators had assembled by a subway station just as a stream of neatly coifed and dressed commuters started coming up the escalator. We looked like commuters, too, until we pulled out our costumes. Half of us tied “bloody” (paint-smeared) bandages around our heads and walked across the street carrying green posters representing the $1 billion that our congressional district was paying for the Iraq war. On the other side of the street, people dressed as teachers and doctors and even windmills held signs explaining what $1 billion could buy: Head Start for 118,000 kids, health-care coverage for 409,000 people, renewable electricity for 1.8 million homes. Every so often, those of us with the war money walked across the street and offered our billions to the people with the better ideas. Berkeley is a legendarily anti-war town, so it was no surprise when pedestrians gave us the thumbs-up and people in their cars honked and waved in solidarity. The woman next to me, who had jauntily tied her red bandage around her straw sun hat, said, “I like all that honking. It makes me feel connected.”

After forty minutes or so, we put down our signs, and a tan woman in her thirties picked up her guitar. As we sang “I ain’t gonna study war no more,” an elegant silver-haired man played percussion on a trash can. I asked the lady in the straw hat if she had ever been to a demonstration before. “Only at my church,” she said. One wild-eyed woman tried to stir things up by shouting, “Off the sidewalk and into the street!” But there were no takers. This was a law-abiding crowd.

After the group dispersed, I talked with Loren Rodgers, a friendly, bespectacled public-policy graduate who volunteers for MoveOn in his spare time. He explained that MoveOn has two groups now, the “impulse activists,” who will occasionally click for the cause, and the “community builders,” the kind of people who came to this event. “I do it because the country needs it,” he said. “But I really do it because it makes me feel good. I like going to these events. I like interacting with these people.”

I asked Rodgers if our demonstration was likely to have any effect on the war. He said no, not by itself, but together with hundreds of events taking place on the same day all across the country, month after month, who could say? “It’s so easy to be cynical,” he explained. “If you start saying things like ‘There’s hope for the world,’ ‘You can make a difference,’ you sound really uncool. When one person is willing to do that, it’s transformative for that person. When one person does it and sees other people around him doing it, it’s socially transformative.

“It renews your faith not just in yourself, but in other people.” 

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Formerly editor-in-chief of Sierra magazine, Joan Hamilton is a freelance writer and editor based in Berkeley, California.

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