Online organizing is a myth

Early online actions relied on the ability of organizations like MoveOn to jam up the means of communications for politicians and their offices. They did this by  flooding email inboxes with countless emails. This was the online equivalent of locking yourself to the office door; slowing down and stopping the actual function of bureaucracy. It was digital direct action utilizing political power.

direct action gets the goods

This strategy made sense for the times, it was late enough in email’s development as a common means of communications that people in government and corporations were using Blackberries to stay connected to their inboxes, and it was early enough in email that no one was ready for what it would mean to receive thousands of emails all at once. It was a time when center/left activists were leveraging technology faster than corporations and electeds.

The technology also allowed a small group of people to direct a large amount of people in taking low-fear and zero repercussion direct actions. Most real world direct actions take a deep level of trust among the acting group and are not directed in a top down manner because of the high level of risk for the actors. It was innovative.

A couple of organizing adages come to mind:

Time, place, conditions. Direct action gets the goods.

But now the same action does not have the same impact. Electeds and corporate heads have safeguarded their means of communications; a few thousand emails is no longer an issue.  There’s an app for that.

Organizing vs. Campaigning 

I find Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman’s, of, 2013 talk at the Personal Democracy Forum crucial for understanding what online campaigning is and isn’t these days. Taren says, “The fundamental mission of an organizer is to empower other people to make change. The fundamental mission of a campaigner is to set their sights on a change they want to create in the world, and go out and make it happen, whatever it takes.”

MoveOn et al. are no longer direct action organizers, they are campaigners.


But if MoveOn et al. aren’t organizers why are they adopting traditional organizing tactics? Doesn’t the frame of campaigning open them up to so many ways to make change?

Let’s look at how it works (from the user end) –

I get exasperatingly long and cited emails from MoveOn et al. imploring me to sign a petition. These petitions often aren’t petitions of the law (think of low level political wannabes collecting signatures to get on the ballot, or restauranteurs collecting signatures to get a liquor license). The MoveOn et al petitions are for communication purposes only. The petitions register people’s joint opinion that thing x is bad or thing y is good, and then MoveOn et. al.  use the petition to exert political or moral pressure on targets, usually they involve the press.

This is the adoption of traditional organizing tactics and applying them to online campaigning.

Early online actions actually stopped government from functioning even if only for a little bit, by shutting down the means of communications. It was not a blind adoption of a tactic but a tactical innovation on the strategy of direct action organizing in new medium. It embraced the new medium and still leveraged the tried and true political power to interrupt, the power to be ungovernable.

Power? What power? 

The elevation of the tactic of petitions to strategy also signals a shift in orientation to the existing power of government and corporations. This strategy accepts the legitimacy of the state and corporate structure and simply tries to appeal to people in power to make better decisions. This is no longer the direct application of economic or political power (including the power to not be governed). This is the use of moral power – the planting of a moral flag and generating support for that position up and down the ladder of power. Sometimes the petitions model taps into the true distributed opportunity of the internet to shift culture.

Why does any of it matter?

If we don’t actually understand the role of online campaigning and the power it can leverage then we will confuse tactics, strategy, power, and impact. Growing from this entrenched misunderstanding we will not effectively leverage its strengths and supplement its weaknesses with other strategies.

We should not think of online organizing as a form of direct political power,  rather we should see online engagement as a means to shifting culture and leveraging moral power. If we see online engagement in this way we quickly see how sticking with petitions and earned media as primary tactics is missing out on the opportunity of the internets.

For true innovators and experimenters in the online engagement as culture change opportunity we can look at a group like 18 Million Rising. The Asian focused organization relies less on emails and petitions and more on social media to engage audiences that far outsize any email list to address cultural problems of anti-Asian racism, labor rights in Asia, and proactively push for new Asian cultural icons. (Check out their awesome Gap prank for an example of creative online action towards media attention that doesn’t only use petitioning). 

Again, the organizing maxim of time, place, conditions seems apt here.

But what of digital direct action?  Since government and corporations have figured out how to tighten up security, there seems to be no legal options for online direct action. Even groups like Anonymous, which utilizes illegal collective action to shut down the website of offending institutions, are not directly stopping something from happening. Their acts remain, for the most part, symbolic and head into the realm of culture change.

There must be a way for digital direct action to continue.  From before the time when workers in the Netherlands would throw their sabots (wooden shoes) into the gears of looms, stopping production and giving us the term sabotage, there has always been attempts to take direct action in order to directly exert economic or political power that rivals bosses and governments. Maybe it is foolish to think that powerful digital direct action will come from social movements, or people I know, as opposed to dispersed networks of black hats.

Time, place, conditions.








3 thoughts on “Online organizing is a myth

  1. As someone steeped in decades of face-to-face organizing and direct action, I found this very constructive and helpful in my efforts to educate myself on newer online models and what they can achieve. Thank you. I’m still struggling with one question, though – If anyone has thoughts or suggested reading on the following question, I’d sincerely welcome any guidance:

    How can online and face-to-face organizers and campaigners better collaborate and learn from each others’ strengths and methods?

    I mean no disrespect to anyone’s activism, organizing or campaigning. But I sincerely believe we can all be strengthened by learning from each other’s wins and innovations. In my experience, direct action mobilizations and face-to-face campaigns can focus too narrowly on shifting one target at the expense of that broader discursive and normalizing work, which is essential to drive systemic and lasting change. I was very struck by your articulation of the potential to really move people on that level online, and I’m going to hold onto that insight and actively try to learn about that amazing aspect of online mobilization.

    But I have also seen too often that online organizing can prioritize a quick hit without taking accountability for the impact that intervention has on the mobilizations and strategies that pre- and post-date the online moment. Efficiency and measurable outcomes are definitely important, but I worry we’re skipping an important step if we’re not honestly assessing those outcomes in light of their full impact, even beyond what we’re able to measure or raise funding for.

    Or maybe I’m not really talking about an online/offline dichotomy, but about the distinction between campaigning and organizing? Yes, campaigning enables you to use a different range of tactics and to measure a different set of outcomes, and in some cases it may be the most efficient route to a concrete goal, especially legislative goals which are not my expertise. But shouldn’t there be some baseline “do no harm” obligation beyond that lens? Maybe mobilizing large numbers of people isn’t the most efficient way to achieve the goal you’ve set out, but if you win your measurable outcome by means that actively disempower people or actively empower elites or corporations over people, shouldn’t you also be accountable for that outcome? To take a reductive example because I’ve gone on too long: are the successes of the Civil Rights Movement (and the work it still needs to do) measured by the policies and concrete changes it effected? In some sense, yes – those are concrete and life-changing impacts. But we’ve also seen in less than a generation how quickly policies can be gutted and evaded, and the older I get the more I believe the legacy of movement and empowerment and cultural change is every bit as important, if not more so.

    Anyway, if anyone can suggest examples of collaboration and learning between these different methods/venues/structures, whether online and offline or organizing and campaigning, or has any reading they might suggest, I’d be seriously grateful for any tips. But either way, thanks for informing and sparking my thinking – and here’s hoping we all keep our eyes on the prize, and that the prize keeps growing to encompass all that we can envision.

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