Social Movements 2.0

On September 27, 2007, the world experienced its first virtual strike.
In response to a wage dispute, IBM workers in Italy organized a picket
outside their company's "corporate campus" based in the 3-D
virtual world of Second Life. According to a report in the
Guardian
,
workers "marched and waved banners, gate-crashed a [virtual] staff
meeting and forced the company to close its [virtual] business center to
visitors.... The protest, by more than 9,000 workers and 1,850 supporting
'avatars' from thirty countries," included a rowdy collection of pink
triangles, "sentient" bananas and other bizarro avatars.

While the strike was playful, it was also buttressed by careful planning
and organization. Workers set up a strike task force, developed
educational materials in three languages and held more than twenty
worker strategy meetings. The hard work paid off.
According to Christine Revkin
of the UNI Global Union, which was involved in the
strike, the online protest led to new negotiations and a better deal for the workers. Twenty days after the initial protest the Italian CEO of IBM, Andrea Pontremoli,
resigned
. (Here's a video from the strike.)

Stories like this offer a glimpse into the powerful potential of the
emerging Web 2.0 world, a place where workers and others use social
networking tools to quickly reach across national and workplace borders,
outflank bosses and politicians and wield collective power. But right
now, the type of virtual solidarity seen in the IBM strike remains more
promise than reality. People are willing to sign petitions, donate
money, trade information and join in political discussions online, but
translating these activities into solidarity built on trust and a
willingness to take economic or physical risk on another's behalf is
exceedingly rare.

As a result, political action online has been largely relegated to
electoral politics and tepid humanitarianism: it's been great for
raising money for tsunami relief and mobilizing voters, but pretty
flaccid when it comes to wielding social movement power. (One exception
is organizing around highly repressive regimes, where workers, students
and others have successfully used mobile phones, Twitter, etc. to
organize escalating protests and to free jailed activists.)

This tension around the pros and cons of online organizing has spurred a
healthy debate in the social movement community. Earlier this year
Eric Lee, the godfather of the online global labor movement, posted "How the Internet Makes Union Organizing Harder," an article that drew
a flurry of responses. More recently
community organizers in the United States have been
debating on DailyKos
the merits of an article that appeared in the
Christian Science Monitor, entitled "Real Change Happens Off-line,"
written by Sally Kohn, senior campaign strategist at the Center for
Community Change.

As labor activists we have been experimenting with online strategies for
more than a decade, spurred by our work in the 1990s building a large but
informal network of contingent workers, and now running Global Labor Strategies (GLS), a
resource center for the global labor movement. We come to the problem as
longtime chroniclers of social movements interested in the underlying forces at
work online, how these forces can help or hinder social movement building, and
how they challenge existing union and social movement structures.

What's New and What's Not

Social networking is not new and not about technology. It's not about
MySpace, Facebook or YouTube; instead it's about what all of us do
every day: kindle and expand networks of friends, family, co-workers,
etc. In the political context it's about finding and building
communities of interest, linking common struggles and acting
collectively. Facebook and other online social networking tools are just
a new way for people engage in this age-old activity.

But at the same time, the online universe is not simply another place for
people to congregate, circulate a petition, debate politics or mail out
a newsletter. Nor is it simply a new technology like cable
television--merely bringing more channels into the home. Instead, the web
is increasingly looking like the invention of the printing press, which
radically changed the lives of even those who could not read, by
spurring the Protestant reformation and scientific revolution.

During the past several years, the Internet has evolved from its
first generation as a static information portal (e.g. websites) to what
is now referred to as Web
2.0
, marked by the explosion of user-generated
and interactive content. According to Clay Shirky, author of
Here Comes
Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

and
one of the best chroniclers of the social implications of Web 2.0, this
communications revolution promises to be the "largest increase in human
expressive capability in history." There are five reasons why this
revolutionary electronic space is especially relevant to the future of
the global social movements:

1. Group Formation: New social networking tools,
ranging from Facebook and Twitter to e-mail and listservs, make forming
groups--and hopefully social movements--much easier. Every time
organizers knock on doors, hold a community meeting or organize a
protest the primary goal is to
entice individuals into group activity; they hope to transform isolated
actors with little social power into a powerful collective force for
social change. The problem is that group formation has always been very
hard to do.

What is new about tools like Facebook is that they make more varieties
of group formation possible. Now, totally on their own, millions of
people are finding others who care about the same things they do,
whether it be around oyster farming, workplace complaints or radical
politics. What the web has revealed is that there were thousands of
these latent groups that for hundreds of years were never able to form,
because it was too difficult for people to identify others with similar
interests and too difficult for them to efficiently communicate when
they did. So now even the most transient and marginalized sectors in
society can potentially form support and sharing networks. Thousands
from the homeless community, for example, have gathered online to share
their stories and swap survival strategies, often posting from public
libraries.

At their core, social movements are about group formation, and suddenly
the tools exist to make it much easier to bring people together. In
practice, we might begin by helping ordinary people access and learn
how to use these tools and enable them to uncover their own latent
groups--groups that may well not fit neatly into narrow organizational
agendas. Social movement activists might also spend more time
trafficking where people are already gathering online, such as within
the Obama social networks, and practice getting in the middle
conversations and shifting debates.

2. Scale and amplification: With a single keystroke,
social movements can now push information out to millions of people and
lift up marginalized voices into national, and even global, spheres.
But scale
increasingly does not just mean trying to reach the whole world,
especially as it has become increasingly difficult to break through the
online noise. Scale is also about surgically communicating with
discrete sets of readers. At GLS, for example, rather than targeting the
global labor movement writ large, we have tried to target the narrow
subset of the global labor movement that is grappling with long-term,
strategic questions of worker and class representation in the global
economy. Two decades ago we could never have precisely and cheaply
carved out this audience.

3. Interactivity: The web is not a one-way
transmission belt like television; it's more akin to the telephone,
allowing conversation,
intimacy and debate by tapping into the fundamental human desire for
self-expression and shared communication. Much of the strength of social
movement organizations lies in their ability to empower those shut out of
elite political activity to participate. With the Internet encouraging
this participatory tendency, social movements need to approach their
technology platforms as more than just a new way to send out fliers and
opinion pieces or run petition drives. They need to build freewheeling
electronic spaces where people can share, debate and
collaborate.

4. Destruction of hierarchies: Elites have long
dominated the broadcast and distribution networks, making them the
primary gatekeepers of information flow, allowing them to frame and
dominate political
discourse, and decide what is and what is not news. But new broadcast
tools increasingly allow ordinary people to publish and distribute their
own news and begin redirecting information flows. The elites are
terrified of this "mass amateuration" of broadcasting. The mass layoffs
of journalists and the frantic fears of politicians who never know when
a swarm of people might go on the attack are two recent examples of this
erosion of the power of the "professional classes."

5. Cheapness and ease of tools: Social movement
organizations have been perennially under-resourced, and with the
current financial crisis and
global recession the situation will surely worsen. But with the advent
of web-enabled mobile phones and $300 computers, cutting-edge
communication tools are becoming cheaper and more powerful, and as
a result, are quickly leveling the technological playing field. In South
Africa, for example
, even though Internet penetration remains at
around
10 percent, mobile phone penetration sits at 98.5 percent.

Social networking tools are also becoming easier to use. Just in the
past two years, people with little technical ability are now able to
create websites, Facebook pages, YouTube videos, etc. We're drawing
closer to the point where the majority of online tools are so
simple that technical experts are beginning to fade into the
background. The web is no longer the exclusive dominion of the young
and highly educated, and as this trend continues it will allow social
movements to cheaply and easily reach out to increasingly diverse
constituencies.

What We Don't Know

These rapid changes raise more questions than they answer. Here are
eight that we've been grappling with:

1. What does it mean when individuals begin organizing outside and without the help of traditional organizations? We do not know the ramifications for unions, for example, if truckers increasingly
come together online to organize protests over gas prices--as they did in
April 2007
--without ever attending a Teamster meeting or receiving a house call from an organizer. Traditional worker
organizations have already been outflanked by the global economy; now
they face the challenge of workers and their allies acting collectively
outside of trade union structures. This type of online self-organization
might offer fertile ground for social movement organizations, or it might
mean traditional "brick and mortar" institutions need to rethink how
they are structured and how to position themselves in a Web 2.0 world.
Some organizations might reinvent themselves as network
hubs that work to frame and synthesize issues for diverse and fragmented
constituencies; others might begin to transform into bridging
organizations that help transfer online organizing into offline
political power.

2. It's easy and cheap for organizations to bring people
together into a swarm or smart mob, but what do you do with them
then?
Groups like
MoveOn have perfected how to share information, raise money and sign
petitions. But outside the electoral arena, few have been successful in
converting group interest into escalating political activity. Because
of this, people are joining and then quickly dropping out of social
networks. Labor and social movement organizations need to keep
experimenting with how to keep workers engaged and encourage
online activity, from information sharing and debate to initiating
collaboration, innovation and collective action.

3. Will offline social movement organizations be willing
to cede control as ordinary people increasingly leverage social
networking tools to
channel their own activities?
The destruction of hierarchies online
means that top-down organizations will face increasing pressure from
members to permit more rank-and-file debate and input. This is a
healthy process and a long time in coming. If traditional organizations
are to embrace the dynamism of the social networking sphere and move beyond
simply posting op-eds on Huffington Post written by union presidents or
NGO executive directors, they will have to cede significant control.
Organizations that resist this trend will become increasingly irrelevant
online and offline.

4. How do labor and social movement organizations address
the dangers associated with online action?
The majority of online
tools and spaces are commercial ventures, and the transparent nature of
the web means that elites and bosses are always watching. Several Egyptian bloggers were
jailed
last year after participating in calls for a general strike. Facebook recently closed the account of an SEIU affiliate who
was trying
to organize casino workers in Nova Scotia, Canada. As Eric Lee told the
Guardian
,

"Social networks in principle are excellent but
something such
as Facebook, for example, can close down anything it wants. So I think
unions need to have their own tools, websites and mail lists." At the
same time, there are legitimate concerns about the spread of online
anonymous slander and racism, "mobbing" of innocent victims (e.g.
"swiftboating"), false rumors or misinformation without ways to rebut.
Social
movements need to anticipate and respond quickly to racist, nationalist
and other destructive forces converging online.

5. How do we track the demographics of who's online and
who's not and what tools they are using?

Some of the numbers on web
usage are
surprising. It's known, for example, that Latinos in the United States
are
offline in huge numbers but their cellphone use is skyrocketing just as
mobile phones are increasingly web-enabled. It's also known that poor
and working-class folks in the United States are often trapped offline,
but those that are online appear to be more interactive and engaged
than other
segments of the population.
According to the Pew Research Center
, households making less than
$50,000 a year are more
likely to post content (pictures, music, comments in chatrooms, etc.)
online than higher-income households. The demographics are changing
fast; social movements need to be constantly reassessing assumptions
about their target audience.

6. How do we present complex ideas online? We know
that people take in information in myriad ways and weigh it
differently depending on medium. On the web it is been difficult to
figure out how to present complex ideas and synthesize large swaths of
information--blog posts and YouTube talking points work;
long issue reports and white papers do not.

7. How does offline and online social movement building
fit together?
We know it is essential, but where and when to rely on
face-to-face contact during an online campaign and vice versa is still
unknown. When, for example, do we call a virtual versus a nonvirtual protest; when is
physical contact required to build lasting and deep solidarity versus cheap
and fast Facebook or Twitter campaigns? The Obama campaign broke new
ground by fully integrating its online and offline activities. Each
time a supporter interacted with the campaign, data specialists created
new layers for targeting that person by region, engagement and volunteer
preferences. Then organizers used many tools--text messages,
phone calls, house visits, etc.--to figure out how and where to plug
supporters into the campaign structure. Social movement organizations
need to experiment with these techniques but anticipate that online
organizing will continue to be littered with failed experiments.

8. How can social movements wield real power online?
Corporate and political elites have yet to figure out how to transfer
their existing power structures into the virtual world. This
2.0 governance crisis is good news for social movements since it opens
up a space for us to build alternatives to the current system. But it
also means
that essential social movement tactics we have used in the past to
resist and interrupt power structures--such as strikes and civil
disobedience--are at the moment less effective online. We need to keep
exploring what if any are the means by which organized groups of people
can exercise power online or parlay their online organization into
power
offline.

None of these questions will be answered overnight, but it is in our
interest to engage this new terrain and figure out how to use these
swirling forces to our advantage.

So where to we go from here? Last spring, encouraged by the success of
their virtual IBM strike, labor organizers launched "Union Island" on
Second Life, a space built to help the labor movement leverage social
networking tools, including how to create avatars and build more dynamic
websites, as well as swap tricks of the trade over a "beer" at the virtual
bar.

Maybe we can all start by heading over to the bar for a virtual beer.