Organizing in the Internet Age

How online activism can help us understand how real change is made.

The Internet is no substitute for person-to-person organizing. But it is a tool that can be used by activists. And it is potentially a rather powerful tool.

This is the not-so-novel conclusion I presented recently when writing about "The Limits of Internet Organizing." The piece was a follow-up on a much-discussed article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker. I was generally sympathetic to Gladwell, but many others haven't been. His article has sparked widespread conversation and criticism in many corners of the Internet.

Based on the discussions I've had with people on this topic, I think we need to clarify some terms. For those who believe that social movements are the bedrock of social change, it is important to come to some agreement about what "organizing" is.

When I am talking about organizing, I am referring to activity that mobilizes collective action around an issue with the goal of building popular power--the power of social movements and democratic constituencies, as opposed to that of established elites or moneyed interests. Ideally, as the word implies, organizing leaves behind some level of social movement organization.

I am not trying to reinvent the wheel here or make up some new, official definition. A basic tenet of understanding social movements is to distinguish the work of organizing from that of, say, social service. The two are different things. Likewise, there are lots of other pursuits that might count as "activism"--broadly understood as actions which engage a person in issues of public significance--that don't fit into a narrower understanding of "organizing."

Aaron Schutz offers a more in-depth discussion of what organizing is and isn't in his "Core Dilemmas of Community Organizing" series at OpenLeft. Schutz operates within a pretty strict Alinskyite framework, so there are some movement-building activities that he does not count as "community organizing" that I would include within the scope of what I am addressing. But he makes some good general distinctions.

In short: giving out food at a soup kitchen is not organizing. Filing a lawsuit against a racist slumlord or an exploitative corporation is not organizing. Making environmentally conscious lifestyle choices is not organizing. Running for office is not organizing. And education or raising public awareness, in and of itself, is not organizing. These things might broadly be considered "activism," but by themselves they do not produce social movements.

That is not to say that any of these are bad things. In some cases, they can be vital. Nor am I trying to be holier than thou on this point. As a writer, I would certainly not call myself an organizer. I hope that my work can be helpful to social movements and to those who are doing the rubber-meets-the-road work of building them, but my writing by itself is not doing that. Again, if you believe that such movements are the essential ingredient for progressive social change, it is important to make the distinction.

So how does the Internet fit into all this?

There's obviously a lot of online activity (Facebook status updates, online petitions) that does not qualify as social movement organizing. To the extent that people believe these things are sufficient to produce social change, I think they are quite problematic. To the extent that people harness these activities in pursuit of actual organizing, I think they can be much more helpful.

Consider three examples that illustrate a range of online endeavors--and that show widely varying potentials.

First, there is the story in Gladwell's article of how one person used Internet networking to retrieve a lost phone:

The bible of the social-media movement is Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody. Shirky, who teaches at New York University, sets out to demonstrate the organizing power of the Internet, and he begins with the story of Evan, who worked on Wall Street, and his friend Ivanna, after she left her smart phone, an expensive Sidekick, on the back seat of a New York City taxicab. The telephone company transferred the data on Ivanna's lost phone to a new phone, whereupon she and Evan discovered that the Sidekick was now in the hands of a teen-ager from Queens, who was using it to take photographs of herself and her friends.

When Evan e-mailed the teen-ager, Sasha, asking for the phone back, she replied that his "white ass" didn't deserve to have it back. Miffed, he set up a Web page with her picture and a description of what had happened. He forwarded the link to his friends, and they forwarded it to their friends. Someone found the MySpace page of Sasha's boyfriend, and a link to it found its way onto the site. Someone found her address online and took a video of her home while driving by; Evan posted the video on the site. The story was picked up by the news filter Digg. Evan was now up to ten e-mails a minute. He created a bulletin board for his readers to share their stories, but it crashed under the weight of responses. Evan and Ivanna went to the police, but the police filed the report under "lost," rather than "stolen," which essentially closed the case. "By this point millions of readers were watching," Shirky writes, "and dozens of mainstream news outlets had covered the story." Bowing to the pressure, the N.Y.P.D. reclassified the item as "stolen." Sasha was arrested, and Evan got his friend's Sidekick back.

While there are some interesting aspects to this type of networking, Gladwell correctly notes that examples along these lines--"things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls"--do not represent social movement organizing that challenges status quo power relations.

A second, more promising, example: when I asked readers for their favorite online activist campaigns, several people mentioned to me the "It Gets Better" project. As many know, this project was launched recently by well-known writer and sex columnist Dan Savage as a response to the publicized rash of suicides among bullied gay youths. In the wake of one suicide, Savage wrote:

I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.

But gay adults aren't allowed to talk to these kids. Schools and churches don't bring us in to talk to teenagers who are being bullied. Many of these kids have homophobic parents who believe that they can prevent their gay children from growing up to be gay--or from ever coming out--by depriving them of information, resources, and positive role models.

Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids? We have the ability to talk directly to them right now. We don't have to wait for permission to let them know that it gets better. We can reach these kids.

Savage established a YouTube channel for the "It Gets Better" project and put up his own video message of hope. He encouraged others to submit. The result has been a remarkable video series in which adults reach out to queer teenagers who might otherwise feel targeted, vulnerable, and utterly without support.

I think the project is fantastic and that it effectively uses the Internet's strengths. Is it organizing? No. It falls more into the category of outreach and education. But other people, inspired by the site, have launched the "Make It Better" project, designed to take things a step further and facilitate organizing around the issue.

A third example comes from Ted Nace, director of the CoalSwarm Web site. The CoalSwarm site documents and supports efforts around the country to close coal-fired power plants, which are leading sources of CO2 emissions. Nace has persuasively argued, in his book Climate Hope among other places, that Internet listserves and Web sites have done an important service in allowing organizations fighting specific plants to coordinate their efforts with others, gain resources and strategic insights, and overcome a sense of isolation in their work. Nace recently wrote me:

I worked in the anti-coal movement before the Internet. People in one part of the country had very little idea what was one going on in other places. Appalachian Voices' project with Google Earth did a lot to show mountaintop removal to the world. Social media allowed decentralized anti-coal activists to connect across the country. It has cut the previous isolation that limited local groups, and it's allowed much more information to get passed around than would ever have been possible "back in the day."

The results of this Internet-aided organizing have been significant. Nace states, "By late 2009, following two years of intense mobilization, opponents had derailed at least 109 proposed plants, bringing the coal boom to a sputtering halt."

At the same time that I find it exasperating to read a lot of high-tech boosters--especially those with roots in marketing and business management--spread hype about the world-shattering implications of the Internet for social change, I am genuinely excited to see savvy organizers get their hands on new tools and new technologies and come up with innovative campaigns. I look forward to profiling more of those in the future.

As a last thought, I believe Jamie McClelland, one of the tech whizzes over at the May First/PeopleLink collective, makes an interesting suggestion when he argues that the Internet is not merely a medium for activism, but that it is important enough that it should simultaneously be a subject for organizing. He supports shifting from the question of how we "should use the tools of the Internet" to a debate about questions like "what is our role in the development of Internet?" and "how do we support and develop the revolutionary potential in the Internet" in the face of efforts by corporations and governments to control and monitor how we operate on this new digital terrain?

It is a fair concern, and I hope that--as much as high technology--the tried and tested art of person-to-person organizing will be brought to bear in addressing it.

This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.