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Looking for What Works: Best Online Organizing Reads of 2010

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If Google's 2010 Zeitgest covered the world of digital organizing and social change, we probably wouldn't get much beyond "Gladwell," and "Wikileaks." But behind the buzz were some truly inspired commentaries and discussions from our friends and colleagues that enriched the entire field of online organizing and digital social change-making. Here we go.

Social media for social change defended.

Malcolm Gladwell's provocative piece in the New Yorker ("Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted") sparked a heated public dialogue not just among the professional class of online organizers but also throughout the broader nonprofit/NGO community. By effectively questioning the value of online networking and communication tools in creating positive change, Gladwell forced an entire professional class of online organizers to defend its existence.

Gladwell's piece doesn't make this list, but one response does. Among the many retorts, perhaps the most carefully argued and cool-headed came from Ben Brandzel and his all-star co-authors, Tate Hausman, Paul Adler and Ben Wikler. In a piece they penned for The Nation, "What Malcolm Gladwell Missed About Online Organizing and Creating Big Change", the authors speak for many of us in providing not just a point-by-point deconstruction of Gladwell's argument but also a nice new articulation of the online/offline symbiosis:

What Gladwell misses entirely is that modern examples of good online organizing almost always involve an equally multi-faceted interplay between clusters of strong-tie risk-takers and dissemination strategies that catalyze more activism, expand the story and heighten the impact.

We re-read the lessons of traditional community organizing.

Gladwell's article was particularly distressing for those carrying a deep understanding of not only the digital landscape but also the long tradition of effective community organizing principles and how they relate to online citizen engagement.

The people-based organizing skills that ought to be associated with the job title "online organizer" are increasingly a lost art. And it's no wonder in a time when empty-calorie-click activism, or "clicktivism," is becoming the norm rather than the exception. Gladwell seized on this trend to make some sweeping dismissals of the effectiveness of online activism.

These next two posts stand out because they're written to teach online organizers what lessons they ought to draw from the world of community organizing if they truly seek to meaningfully engage people in our causes and movements. Both Booth and D'Amico do an impressive job of pairing principles with actionable tactics:

Ivan Booth introduces "What Online Activism Can Learn from Community Organizing":

There's often a disconnect between what's seen as online activism--referred to as "slacktivism," sometimes accurately but oftentimes sloppily, and community-based social change

P.J. D'Amico on the HandsOn blog, "10 Ways to Integrate Traditional Organizing Techniques in Online Strategy":

Community organizing has its own unique and demonstrated ways of "meaning making" that must be carefully translated into parallel technological frameworks in order for the technology to be useful in community organizing.

We were called to measure the actual impact and results of our online activity.

So how do we know if all of our flashy online activity is making a difference? Steve Andersen cut to the heart of this question in the lead-up to this year's Web of Change event. In "We Must Be Scientists for Change," Andersen issues a call to organizers and campaigners to think of themselves not just as toolset-jockeys setting up online petitions and blasting messages but as doctors or scientists carefully evaluating the progress of their treatments or experiments. We need more "meticulous measurement and sharing," not to mention "relentless, iterative experimentation."

Shayna Englin, an experienced political campaign manager, has been pushing online campaigners and technology evangelists on this topic for some time now. Far too few have heeded her advice that in most political advocacy, "a call, visit, written letter, letter-to-the-editor, question at a candidate forum, and other more personal and direct interactions with legislators and their staff are far more likely to move the needle" [than the more easily launched e-advocacy campaigns]. "We should undertake redirection of advocacy resources and thinking toward old-fashioned "meatspace" approaches to balance out the e-advocacy approaches that get so much attention of late."  (From Englin's "Three Advocacy Shoulds")

Jake Brewer deserves credit for bringing this important issue to a boil. In his brave and widely-circulated "Tragedy of Political Advocacy," Brewer pulls back the curtain on the endless stream of online petitions and e-advocacy "asks" that have come to define our inboxes (from too many of our favorite organizations).

Through a combination of research and Brewer's own professional experience running online advocacy campaigns in DC, Brewer concludes:

The modern Tragedy of Advocacy is that all this increased share-your-voice-i-ness of citizens with Congress has actually resulted in more reliance on specialists and less on constituents than ever before. Congressional staffs often need those specialists (typically the dreaded "lobbyists" we love to hate) simply to distinguish signal from noise.

We finally accepted that the web won't solve all our problems, but we can't win without it.

Joe Solomon, one of 350.org's champion online organizers, poetically articulates the frustration and disillusionment that has begun to take root among some of the most talented and committed online organizers ("Reflecting on 2011 - The Year Online Organizers Got Real"):

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.

It seems that much of the social change community had been expecting the web to help us finally achieve the level of success we all dream of "widespread issue education, a tidal wave of online giving, and an supporter list of infinite proportions. We hoped that the great power of the internet would finally bring our causes to the top of the political agenda and deliver success.

Yet after nearly a decade of building online capacity -- skills, staffs, and toolsets -- many in our community started to call the question on whether even the best implementations of online advocacy or social media efforts were really adding up to the change we wanted.

Solomon lays out a positive vision for what 2011 could look like if, as a community, we spent more timing focusing on and engaging the people using the web rather than thinking of the web as an end unto itself:

Movements are made out of many, many people. And somehow we had forgotten that. We 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.

We welcomed experience and guidance from other contexts, and from one another.

We were exposed to a variety of instructive organizing stories this year -- not just online but also through the RootsCamp events that NOI convened in over 25 U.S. states this fall to support the growing community of campaigners invested in "engagement organizing."

Marianne Manilov at the Engage Network and Taj James of Movement Strategy Center wrote a wonderful piece illustrating the difference between engagement organizing and the increasingly typical broadcast organizing practiced by so many campaigns today. Manilov and James tell several stories about where deep change is occurring through community organizing scaled and electrified by the internet -- not succeeding through the internet alone -- from across the climate, media, reproductive justice, and food movements: Movement Building and Deep Change: A Call to Mobilize Strong and Weak Ties.

This community-based, relationship-based approach to online organizing is an important one for online organizers to fully digest. And Nick Moraitis at Make Believe was good enough to create a Cliffs version of Rick Warren's book, The Purpose Driven Church, one of the bibles (no pun intended) for grassroots organizing at a network scale. "The resource is based on Rick Warren's experience of growing his church, Saddleback, from scratch to 20,000 members attending every week. Saddleback is now the eighth biggest church in the United States." Check it out: Purpose Driven Campaigning: 40 Key Principles for Growing Social Movements (PDF).

Wikileaks was a warning sign: web-only campaigns can still work.

No sooner did we start focusing on the critical interplay between online and offline engagement for realizing real change than a historic grassroots protest launched online in response to the crackdown on Wikileaks.

My colleague Jeremy John, in a guest post for ReadWriteWeb, helped us understand the distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks on Visa in the context of nonviolent protest and digital activism: Operation Avenge Assange as Digital Direct Action.

Wikileaks stands out as a unique and rare example of online organizing that lacks any significant "on-land" or on the ground component and still has a strong social impact--in this case shutting down a powerful global institution. And, therefore, it's an important case study for the social change sector to consider as we continue to explore the potential of the digital realm for social action.

We got serious about using the web to invest in people power.

Ultimately, there's plenty for us to learn, but one thing we already know is that the internet and other digital tools play a critical role in our ability to scale campaigns, communications, and organizing in powerful new ways. But as many of the authors listed here have called out, the power of the internet for movement building or deep social change is rarely unleashed without a major investment of time and energy in the people behind the screens who ultimately drive that change.

Movement-leading organizations seek more from their 'members' than clicks, comments, or dollars -- they work to enable and harness every last bit of energy or insight that a volunteer is willing to give. Tim Walker and I talk more about this in our "Web Thinking Manifesto."

But how do those same movement-leading organizations reflect back to their supporters the value of supporters' time and effort? Walker writes a Web of Change thought bomb on how social change organizations can cultivate their community by creating stand-out member experiences ("Your New Promotion: Fearless Champion of Member Experience"):

They don't do it themselves, with internal resources. They look one degree outward to their most passionate, dedicated, excited and talkative members to reach new people.

Steve (So-Smart-He-Gets-A-Second-Listing) Andersen breaks down the methodology and thinking behind the concept of "engagement ladders" that have increasingly become common parlance among consultants in online engagement strategy. Andersen cuts to the core difference between online communications and online organizing -- moving a supporter or individual toward bigger goals and ideally toward unlocking their greater potential: "Engagement Ladders: Building Supporter Power." Gideon Rosenblatt's "Engagement Pyramid: Six Levels of Connecting People and Social Change" is another must-read on this topic.

We continue our quest for what works.

I'm grateful to all of the writers listed here who took the time to explore challenging topics for our space. If there's a common thread among the pieces, it's the shared desire to figure out what's real, what's working, and what matters most for social change efforts in this evolving digital medium. Conversations about technology so often bring us back to core principles about how humans work--fundamentals of organizing. But mostly we're reminded that it's going to take a lot of shared trial and error with these exciting new tools and technologies to build the world we'd like to live in.

Here's the list of top reads one more time: