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I just returned (ok, it was Thursday and I finally posted this on the blog now) from Demos, where they held an excellent discussion of social networking and social change. I would have blogged live but I much prefer to check my spelling and grammar on Microsoft Word and balancing a laptop actually on my lap, is well, awkward. So instead, I am semi-live blogging; coming to you slightly after the fact - but with hopefully limited grammatical errors and chock full o' analysis. Call it a compromise. Besides, I didn't have the network key to log on to the Demos network.
So grab yourself a latté and cancel all prior appointments, because we have a lot to discuss. Read on, after the break.
Allison Fine, author of MOMENTUM: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, likes to describe life as a series of "a-ha" moments - those periodic events which suddenly change your worldview and cause you to question what you previously had believed or thought possible. For her, this occurred in Kuwait in the spring of 2005, when Kuwaiti women - who had been struggling for years with no avail to attain the right to vote, to run for office and other political rights and freedoms - all of sudden won these rights and freedoms.
How did this happen - and why did it happen at this moment in time? Fine discovered that this was not a top-down initiative led by any particular organization, but instead an organic process of women emailing each other - sharing ideas and information. Coincidentally, the blackberry was the fastest selling device in the spring of 2005. Kuwaitis learned the democratizing power of social media and technology - "Email doesn't wear a skirt or a burqa."
Fine and moderator Micah Sifry, Executive Director of Personal Democracy Forum, treaded into the Readers Digest version of the evolution of technology, and more importantly interactive social media (blogs, TIVO, YouTube, etc.) but it didn't evolve much past plebian statements like "the internet is not a fad" or "[technology] is changing at a pace that is almost mind-boggling." I'll forgive them, since maybe some people still need to hear this.
However, I was more intrigued by Fine's critique of advocacy organizations in what she has termed "The Connected Age." It's hardly a new critique - but it deserves strong consideration; that advocacy organizations have become "over-institutionalized" - in that barriers have been built between institutions and the communities they are supposed to be working with. That is, too often we speak in terms of "organizing the community" rather than "organizing with the community." Rather than building relationships, organizations often come to the table with their own preset agendas with little emphasis on feedback. This devolves to where community members often feel like window dressings, and donors feel like ATM machines (i.e. almost like in a filibuster; fundraisers keep on talking until donors are forced to open their checkbooks).
So if the system is broken - the question becomes how do we fix it? Fine's fundamental point is counterintuitive - the more you let go the more power you gain. The roles of institutions must change, while within institutions we must shift power and let go from our grasp what we often consider proprietary information - i.e. membership lists, media lists, etc. Fine describes herself as a "recovering proprietary thinker" and understands how difficult this move is. On the micro level, the non-profit advocacy world is filled with ego - as individuals often find power and pride in expertise and knowledge, as a tradeoff to supposedly larger salaries in the private sector - and thus loathe giving this up. While on the macro level, we have taken a lot of the language, ideas, management strategies and hierarchies, etc from for-profit companies but on the downside we have also taken the lack of transparency, secrecy, and shielding of information. Fine argues that we must move away from this. For example she brings up as an example a fellow advocate who objected to the suggestion that she give away her media list. Yet, Fine pointed out that anybody can go out and find the contact information for all of the reporters at the New York Times - but no one could recreate the relationships that the advocate had built with the reporters.
Still many social justice organizations cling to the idea of protecting their identity and claim a right to control over ideas and dialogue. (An unregulated blog - god forbid!) However, Fine's worry is that this takes the form of knee-jerk censorship and damage control- whether it's deleting blog posts, or the very public outcry over dissent at the ACLU.
Indeed there is still much to be said for the free-wheeling nature of internet discourse. In Stacy Schiff's recent dissection of the Wikipedia phenomenon in a recent issue of The New Yorker, Jimmy Wales, the founder of the hugely popular internet encyclopedia, "admits that...It can still seem as though the user who spends the most time on the site--or who yells the loudest--wins." All is not lost however; rather expectations of expertise and truth have changed. Schiff writes:
Curiously, though, mob rule has not led to chaos. Wikipedia, which began as an experiment in unfettered democracy, has sprouted policies and procedures. At the same time, the site embodies our newly casual relationship to truth. When confronted with evidence of errors or bias, Wikipedians invoke a favorite excuse: look how often the mainstream media, and the traditional encyclopedia, are wrong! As defenses go, this is the epistemological equivalent of "But Johnny jumped off the bridge first." Wikipedia, though, is only five years old. One day, it may grow up.
To back up a little bit, before we delve into changing the power structure, Fine offers this definition of social change: engaging people in meaningful conversations and getting them to act. Therefore, the primary responsibility of an organization becomes building strong connections and relationships with the people who share the ideas and values of the group. I find this definition of social change passable, but simplistic. I would add that if we are to truly change society, we must engage society - not just individuals, acting as individuals, but truly joining together in discourse- engaging dialogues (not just close minded shouting matches a la Crossfire), forming communities, building coalitions, building movements. Individuals may ignite new ideas and social change - but it takes a movement to sustain them.
Still some may question whether movements are still necessary or if the concept is outdated. As Fine's example of Kuwaiti women earning the right to vote shows, amorphous phenomena can reach critical mass with an end result of social change. I don't think however that the two concepts are necessarily separate though. As Ruth Wooden, Demos board member and former president of the Ad Council, commented during the discussion, "[much of the problem is that we are still] using new tools in the old ways."
I do not think a movement has to be hierarchical or institutionalized. What we think of as mass movements today can mesh quite well if we are speaking of "flattened out organizations as distributors rather than definers of information," as Fine mentions. Indeed, the immigrant rights movements developed organically - with half a million people filling the streets of Los Angeles - to the surprise of just about everyone, including the traditional advocacy organizations. Rather than being planned from above, the rallies and marches in LA, Chicago, Washington, New York, and other cities were as much a product of being talked about by Spanish-language radio DJ's and on internet discussion forums including MySpace.
Speaking of new ideas that work, it only took about 5 minutes into the Q&A portion of the discussion for someone to mention Howard Dean's campaign. As Fine mentioned, what made Dean's online presence so successful was the use of the Meet-Up tool. This allowed online activists to meet other individuals in their local area. It cannot be stated more plainly; nothing substitutes for meeting people and having real conversations and building real relationships. The Kerry campaign made the mistake of refusing to use Dean's network - instead insisting on using its own top-down, more traditional system. Consequently there was a lack of critical dialogue and the Kerry campaign wasted a unique opportunity to capitalize on Dean's popularity.
At this critical intersection of online and "on-land" activism, the question becomes how to build off of each technique; how to harness the efficiencies of online organizing and maintain the depth of on-land relationships. No one said change is easy, and we would make a critical mistake to assume that social media are the be-all, end-all of the future of activism.
Yet, it would be hypocritical for those of us in the progressive movement to advocate for pluralistic grassroots democracy that is people-centered, yet continue with blinders on to build our own silos and institutional hierarchies that mirror the centralization of power that we decry. As Jurgen Habermas wrote in Legitimation Crisis, "This [elitist] democracy makes possible prosperity without freedom...Political equality now means only the formal right to equal opportunity of access to power, that is `equal eligibility for election to positions of power."
If we take Fine's critiques seriously - and I suggest we should - we must look within; to ourselves as activists and our advocacy organizations as a whole - to think seriously as to what our roles are and how we can adapt to "The Connected Age" rather than hope that social media adapts to our goals - as an opportunity for people to reclaim the ability to exercise political power and self-determination. Our attempt at constructive social discourse and social change will only succeed in so far as we break down the walls towards equality. If anything, democracy is an active sport and we are still learning the rules.