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[berkman] The MoveOn Effect

David Karpf [twitter], an assistant prof in comms at Rutgers U., is giving a Berkman Tuesday talk on “The MoveOn Effect: The Internet’s Impact on Political Activism.”

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

David begins by noting that in 1999 he was the exec dir of the student arm of the Sierra Club. He ran into a guy early on who was doing e-petitions, which seemed ludicrously doomed. The guy turned out to be one of the founders of MoveOn.org.

David points to the recent Malcolm Gladwell article as an example of the pushback against the idea that the Net can change politics. But, David says, we’re looking at the wrong thing. We’ve been looking at e-petitions and weak ties. As Gladwell says, change takes more than that. David points to other recent nay-sayers, who say that we new elites the same as the old elites. “Clicktivism” doesn’t really change anything, says Micah White. But we’ve been ignoring the substantial organizational change that’s been going on.

David points to a set of organizations, including Progressive Change Campaign Committee (found Aaron Swartz is in the room), 1 Sky, Act Blue, Fix Congress First, Organizing for America, Campaign for America’s Future. and Daily Kos. The big changes are coming at this organizational level.

MoveOn is his main example. Found in 1998, founded by the couple that created the flying toasters screensaver. They emerged in 2002-3 as a vocal force in the anti-Iraq-War movement. They have 5M members — a member is someone who receives their emails. “MoveOn has changed the meaning of membership.” They raised $90M in the 2008 election. 933,800 volunteers volunteered 20M hours in the ’08 elections. They have 200+ local councils, 32 staffpeople, and zero offices.

They are not just doing emails. They do offline events, including house parties to deliberate about what their national agenda should be. They sponsor get-out-the-vote calls.

He also points to PCCC. It was started in Jan 2009, so you can’t explain it as first mover advantage. 450K members. $1.3M raised in 2009. Fourteen staff. No office space.It was built initially around the Norm Coleman-Al Franken contest. Instead of setting up an e-petition (as the DSCC wanted), the PCCC set up a donation system that had people donating to the Democratic Party every day that Coleman didn’t concede the election that he had lost. Since they have continued to take bold progressive stances.

Theda Skocpol in her 2003 book Diminished Democracies said that we need to look at the displacement of cross-class membership federations by professionally-managed advocacy. We’ve moved from membership to management. That changes how we Americans participate. Bruce Bimber found that this was a technologically-mediate transition. Membership in the 60s and 70s moved from going to meetings to writing checks (“armchair activism”) because managing massive mailing lists became affordable by non-profits.

David identifies three ideal types of organization. 1. MoveOn is hub-and-spoke. A core staff sends out emails. 2. DFA (from the old Dean campaign) is neo-federated. A national org has affiliates. DailyKos is an online community of interest that also holds annual f2f meetings.

David sees three broad shifts over time. Up through the 1960s, we had cross-class membership federations. 1970-2000s we had single-issue professional advocacy orgs. Now we have Internet-mediated issue generalists. The most important change to explain this has been in funding, from membership dues, to patrons, to online + patrons. A group like MoveOn is sustainable because it has (1) zero-cost scaling (costs about the same to send 5M emails as 5 emails), (2) A/B testing (tuning by seeing the effects of variations in the email), and (3) headline chasing (targeted, timely appeals).

Meanwhile, the old revenue streams are collapsing. “Prospect direct mail” is in freefall because people aren’t opening their snail mail if they don’t have to. Most people under 65 are paying their bills online. Also, targeted fundraising appeals yield money that cannot be used to organizational overhead. Existing advocacy orgs have high overhead costs.

To research this, David created a dummy gmail account and signed up for 70 progressive advocacy groups. In 6 months, he got 2,162 email alerts. About 250 were fund-raisers. Msgs from newer orgs asked far more often for money for specific campaigns, as opposed to asking for general support. The old orgs are applying their old techniques to the Net. The new groups are relying on small donations from many people. There were 202 requestes for e-petition signatures and 85 calls for direct action. MoveOn in the past 6 months sent out as many requests for local action as e-petition. After that it was to call Congress or donate to campaigns.

Overall, the Net’s effect on activism is not clicktivism. It’s not just asking for weak-tie petition clicking. They call to action. This is a new form of organizing. We’re seeing a generation shift here: the old orgs’ sunk infrastructure costs can’t transition to becoming a network org. This is disruption theory a la Clay Christensen. The revenue streams of the old orgs are beginning to collapse. This new type of advocacy groups, with their new types of membership and ways of interacting with their members, is undermining the old orgs. The Internet skeptics generally are missing this.

Q: How does this reconcile with what the Tea Partiers are doing? And how about the Republicans?
A: I did this research before the Tea Party. So, why aren’t there the same sorts of groups for conservatives? They’ve tried to create their own DailyKos, MoveOn, etc. Why is Red State no where near the scale of DailyKos? It’s due to out-party incentives. A Republican organizer said that it’s because it’s more fun storming the castle. The out-party is more likely to adopt the new technology. At the party network level, the new technologies that enter political campaigns are brought in by new political consultants. (See Amy Sullivan: Fire the consultants.) The Dems got new consultants after losing to Bush, and they brought in new tech. While the Reps were winning, they were continuing to use the old consultants. One the Dems gain control, the Tea Party starts. We need to figure out how big the Tea Party is new social movement activism, as opposed to TP as meme.

Q: What other structural differences have you seen how progressive organizations behave and conservative ones?
A: Think of DailyKos vs. Red State. The puzzle is: What do we do with our crazies? Their are extremists on both side. On the left, we identify crazies as 9-11 truthers. DK bans 9-11 truthers because Markos Moulitsas “didn’t want his site to appeal to the nut jobs.” The right has been more tolerant of its crazies, e.g., the birthers. Few of the big conservative blog sites are open to bloggers. And, usually, you need to register to be able to comment. One site only allows one hour of open registration every few months because they’re worried about comedy sites like Wonkette coming in and trolling.

Q: Fox tried to come up with a half hour show like The Daily Show but it was horrible. Why is the Left funnier?
A: Colbert: it’s because the left has reality as a straight man.
Q: Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are purposefully funny/humorous.
Q: Beck and Rush call themselves rodeo clowns to deflect criticism from the Left.

Q: Deval Patrick’s first campaign was beautiful: Green roots, net roots, etc. But he hasn’t governed the way that he ran.
A: [missed the answer. sorry.]

Q: Do you see one of your three ideal types becoming the paradigmatic one?
A: As Clay Shirky says in his Thinking the Unthinkable: Nothing will work but everything might. We will see the collapse of a major non-profit within the next two years, and then this will get the same attention that the newspapers are getting now. For now, multiple models. Which wins depends on how the tech develops, but if I had to bet, I’d say the neo-federated is promising because of the rise of mobile phones.

Q: [me] Why believe these new orgs have any effect except raising money? Has an epetition ever changed anything?
A: The aim of an epetition is to take a first action, which engages people. But compare the effect of MoveOn etc. to organizing ten or twenty years ago. Everything pales against the Civil Rights Movement, but that may be the wrong comparison, because it’s the one time that everything came together and mass action worked. A million-signature petition can make a diff, even though that’s 0.03% of the population. E.g., DailyKos leads to the YearlyKos event that helps build a movement. The Drinking Liberal local events have led to people running for local offices. This is an improvement over how it was ten years ago. It enables the small percentage of people who want to be engaged to be engaged more successfully.

Q: What’s the role of professional management? And how about bringing in new, young activists.
A: Political scientists talk about the interest group explosion in the 1970s. Skocpol’s point is that these new groups were of a different kind: from membership to professional-managed advocacy. When we think of online activists, we tend to think of young people, but the rooms are actually filled with people in their 40s-50s. There’s a generational lifecycle thing going on: there’s a spike of activism when people are students, and rise in 40-50s and on. Zack Exley talks about the tyranny of the annoying: in the old movements, the people who take over are the ones who want to pound the table and be a committee of one. Thanks to the Net making it easier to engage locally, it makes it easier to avoid the tyranny of the annoying.

5 Responses to “[berkman] The MoveOn Effect”

  1. Great article! I would like to offer a correction: You say “the rooms are filled with people in their 40s-50s.” Active in MoveOn.org at the ground level for two years, I have seen that the rooms and the rallies are filled also with a good number people in their 60s, 70s and some in their 80s. It is multi-generational. Go to the the website and look at the photos of previous events; the only generation missing are those in their 20s. Where are they?

  2. Why is the scope of this conversation America only? One need only look around the world to see considerably more effects that counter Gladwell’s latest publicity-seeking.

    Perhaps the best example is Avaaz.org, that has had substantial influence in effecting trans-national policy change, demonstrating how there is no “virtual-vs-real” divide: that both physical and cyber experiences are collectively reality, and activism, social awareness, and moves to action transcend this stubborn but persistent perceptual dichotomy.

    Dismissing so-called clicktivism (and other, similar modes of passive participation) ignores its potential emergent effects in a complexity model of social change. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, “how many petitions must one person click, before s/he gets up off his/her chair?”

  3. Interesting. From a different angle. Is the rise of the “unbeliever” threatening all religions equally? Wither that is the Church or Rome or the Sierra Club or the two party system. Most voters are independents now. Bill Marhr is good friends with Ann Coulter. 15-20% of the population admits that they are atheists outright. And so on down the list.

    Skeptics abound everywhere because information has been set free. Are long term orgs with political spins just shop fronts that attract a few mixed people to one current cause and then they move on to another org for another cause they support? With no regard to right or left, liberal or conservative?

    “Those that are first will later be last” played at warp speed where everybody sounds like a chipmunk.

    MM @shooteyeout

  4. I have been impressed with PCCC. They target specific Congressional dirty tricks while they’re in progress, and get the word out quickly enough to stymie them in specific instances. The speed of the web is obviously what makes the difference.
    What I take away from this is that online networks increase the surface area between the government and the people.

  5. […] also get a quicker overview by checking out the power point, or check out David Weinberger’s liveblog of the […]

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