Putting the “Community” Into Online Organizing

Note: My apologies for the long absence. Life has been hectic these past six months, as I’ve taken on a new role at my organization and am working hard to elect Barack Obama this November. Post-election, I’ll be getting back in the swing of things.

For years, the nonprofit sector thrived online. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, campaigns and activist-oriented nonprofits–frequently strapped for cash–seized on the early promises of the internet. Through email and websites, they could cheaply communicate with supporters, drive contributions, and activate tens of thousands of members online.

Online petitions drove much of the nonprofit internet revolution. MoveOn.org was founded on it. The anti-Iraq war movement thrived on it. Supreme court filibusters, Downing Street, and Tom DeLay came and went, all with the backdrop of huge online petitions. That was then.

This is now. I was talking to my mother yesterday. She receives MoveOn.org emails, but admits she no longer reads them (and she’s not the first person to tell me that). Apparently, she signed an online petition last week related to the $700 Billion Wall Street bailout. I asked her what she thought would happen after the petitioner received enough online signatures. She didn’t know. I added, “You know, online petitions are really just a cheap ploy to collect more email addresses.” She responded, “Yeah, I know that. I figured that was what it was for, but I did it anyway.”

Which makes me wonder, is this really activism? Am I “organizing” if I’m merely trying to capture your email address? (And your friends’ email addresses, as well?)

For years, online organizing was about growth. It was about amassing a large enough list to do real damage on the hill, or to raise a significant amount of money in the next urgent campaign. Let us not forget that, in the early days, members of Congress actually responded to our emails, and appeared to consider them when taking position on a bill.

But now, there’s a glut of email. Every organization is scrambling for our attention. Every campaign and nonprofit has an online staff of 10 or 20, sometimes even more.

As a community organizer in Hartford, Connecticut several years ago, I spent seven hours a day knocking on doors in some of Hartford’s most dangerous neighborhoods. In a typical day, I could have conversations with one or two semi-interested people, and if I was lucky, I’d convince them to sign up to financially support the organization. One time, though, I met a couple, Carlos and Luisanna, who claimed they “had been waiting for a visit from someone like me.” They showed me the bullet holes in the side of their home, asserting they lived in a place “more dangerous than Baghdad,” and asked what they could do. These people were ready. Ready to roll up their sleeves and organize their friends and neighbors to affect real change in their community.

I wonder, with the glut of email and the changing contours of the social media environment, is it possible that small, targeted online organizing trumps the 1,000,000 member email list?

Would you rather have a list of 1,000,000 online “activists” like my mom? Or 50,000 community activists like Carlos and Luisanna?


One Response

  1. […] critiqued online petitions – and our obsession with big numbers – previously on this blog. But Clay’s screed begs rebuttal. Online petitions are a […]

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