You read that right: 2011.
Let's imagine for a moment, that right now we're not nearing the end of 2010 -- we're wrapping up 2011, the year online organizers shot for the stars. At first glance, things look similar: we're still updating our Twitter status and Facebook feeds. Yet somehow things feel drastically & dramatically different.
A fierce hope is in the air. All our tools feel new, even though none of them have launched recently. There is a fresh sense that we're on to something that could change everything. It had been a helluva year.
So, what happened?
First, 2010 -- the year we just blasted through -- was the year those who work on technology for social change came to a collective realization: "the web won't save the world. people will."
This sounded obvious after the fact, as if it was something we all knew already -- but a definite veil had been lifted. For years and years, we repeated the same tizzy of excitement for the latest widgets, map mash-ups, iPhone apps, APIs, twitter tools, & viral youtube videos.
Yet as all the years went by, change was nowhere near the scale at which we dreamed it would be. Hope was getting harder to come by. Truth was, most progressive campaigns were losing. Losing hard. And we started to admit it.
Climate change was bearing its worst brunts to date. Genocide was still happening in Darfur. Corporations were still wrecking the planet -- as well as American politics. US gays could now openly kill people in Afghanistan, but still couldn't get married in most of their home country.
The last straw was JUMO, a highly anticipated online social network 'for good' that launched in November 2010. JUMO promised that we could "speed up the pace of global change." Yet when they finally launched and we got to log-in -- their website was just more of the same: digital feeds, clicking "Like", "follow"-ing organizations, and wishing that somehow it all added up to something meaningful.
We knew JUMO didn't feel right.
But what made JUMO a catalytic wake-up call, was that it wasn't just JUMO. We were mutely honest with ourselves: Change.org, Care2, WiserEarth, and most all the other popular social networks 'for good' weren't all that different. Lots of online interactions that didn't feel real.
We knew something was off -- we knew something was royally screwed up here.
We spent the first quarter of 2011 struggling with despair. We went through the motions at first -- checking in on FourSquare, moving our bookmarks off Delicious, adjusting to whatever Facebook's latest re-designs were. All the while, the web felt quiet, blanketed by the silence of campaigners' souls privately trying to reconcile what had happened. Supporters clicked "Like" less, because there was less to like. Organizations re-tweeted each others good news more, because it was getting tougher to tweet original, fresh victories.
But look: this isn't the story of how 2011 wasn't amazing -- it was amazing. It took hitting a kind of digital rock bottom, and the freedom to say we were losing, to start dreaming big again. In retrospect, this was the best thing that ever happened to us.
For January and February and March 2011 -- we all coped with our own kind of personal retreats. We stopped reading the newest issues of Wired, and picked up some history books. Like, "A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn.
We re-discovered that it was movements -- not just organizations -- who had almost always pushed for, and won great change. From the civil rights movement to the suffragettes, who transformed society's values, and bent the arc of history closer towards justice. We read about how the environmentalist movement came alive after the Santa Barbara Oil Spill in 1969, and was able to pass what are still many of the USA's strongest pieces of green legislation.
Movements are made out of many, many people. And somehow we had forgotten that. We had thought that our organizations with relatively ant-sized teams were enough to win. We thought the many thousands of people on our email lists were only good for giving us more money to fund our turtle-paced social change.
Here's what we realized, as a shared epiphany we each had a unique way of articulating:
We need people. We need real people everywhere to join our fight, to come together in their community for real action. And all together, maybe we might stand a chance, a real chance.
It was time to get real.
Since JUMO was the newest and most agile among the pack, they spearheaded the trend. They put out the call to their thousands of early adopters and invited them to start JUMO groups in their community for the issues they cared most about. JUMO climate groups started springing up everywhere. As did Genocide, Political Transparency, and Human Rights, and many more.
Change.org, Care2, & WiserEarth saw how JUMO was taking off -- not because it's virtual network was so sexy, but because it was grounded in the grit of reality. So they followed suit, and before you know it, even more communities of action were springing up.
Change.org got bold and said, they wanted to see 2,011 Change.org Groups launch in 2011.
Care2 emailed its 14 million members and gave them a map to start finding each other. Yes, in the real world.
WiserEarth took its community pilot project in Paris and called up all its all-star online-contributors, and said, "You wanna start one?"
And for those readers who have never heard of JUMO, Change.org, Care2, or WiserEarth -- Imagine your favorite nonprofit's website. Maybe NWF.org, Greenpeace.org, Fix Congress First, Oxfam.org, SaveDarfur.org, Stopcorporateabuse.org, or HRC.org. All through that summer, they all started to feature a tab on their homepage that read "Get Real" -- where you could start or find groups wherever you live.
It turns out there were change agents everywhere, from seemingly comatose suburbs to super busy cities -- ready to join our causes, with passion, talent, and collective commitment. Sounds simple: but folks were just waiting for us to use the web to web them together.
A lot of us: we were sick of being treated like ATMs; we wanted in on the action.
By September of 2011, Change.org had reached and skyrocketed past its goal. Over 3,000 communities were now gathering under the Change.org umbrella, all over the world. Change.org even forged a partnership with Meetup.com -- a veteran website that had been helping community groups form since 2001.
Meetup.com, catching the zeitgeist, decided to re-publish their manifesto. For years, these words were part of Meetup.com's guiding principles: "Let's use the Internet to get people off the Internet...Let's meet in real time, in real places, and make a real difference."
(for some unknown reason, Meetup.com took down their manifesto in 2009)
By November of 2011, social technologists realized we had a wonderful problem on our hands. There were too many meetups -- working on overlapping issues, competing for resources, and hurting their own efficacy. So, we got to work -- innovating the technology that helped nearby groups collaborate. We found ways to mash-up the real world, by setting standards and building tools that allowed JUMO, Change.org, & Care2, WiserEarth, and hundreds of other sites to more effectively link together. SocialActions.com revamped it APIs, so any nonprofit's website could promote groups working on the org's issue in their town.
By December of 2011, we had long since forgotten about Twitter Lists, and were now dealing with the challenge of how to list, promote, and coordinate so many groups. We stopped counting retweets, and started counting the number of people we helped connect in the real world. It was quickly becoming an overwhelming task.
Look: We still hadn't won our campaigns. More people weren't the only missing element, and meeting up doesn't equal social change.
Nonprofits were quite new at figuring out how to treat their supporters as equals in the fight to transform our world, not just financial backers. A lot of people were still fresh at learning how to lead in their hometown, and not just follow along online. As digital campaigners caught in the nexus, we too had a lot to learn, especially around coordinating communities for much bigger impacts.
But look: Hundreds of thousands of spirits had joined our struggle. Our political power was budding. Our chances at transforming our world were growing. We had a great deal of work to do to see this work through.
2012 was looking like a year filled with unbelievable hope, and beautiful possibility...
It would be wired, but it would be real.
Follow Joe Solomon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/engagejoe