Last January, Americans ran towards the politics of 2009 just as quickly as they ran away from the politics of 2008. Yet, in a year we marketed to ourselves and the world as the year of "Change," we ended in the cop-out that was Copenhagen, a failed UN Summit, our president rushing to fly home in order to beat a snowstorm.
There are postmortems-a-plenty deconstructing, evaluating, and assigning blame for what went wrong in Copenhagen. Journalists, bloggers, thought leaders, politicians, and activists have been churning out content discussing, lamenting, and learning from one of our world's greatest missed opportunities. A lot of carbon was wasted flying in the dignitaries, and now the progressive left and environmental movement need a do-over and radical re-branding as badly as the now busted brand of sexting golfer Tiger Woods.
When talking about Activism 2.0, it would be remiss not to note that its tactics are rooted in the compelling story of Obama's election--the story of a people-powered movement, concise organizing, online campaigning in a Web 2.0 world, and an unwillingness to accept more of the Bush-era status quo. As Naomi Klein has identified,
No President since FDR has been handed as many opportunities to transform the U.S. into something that doesn't threaten the stability of life on this planet. [Obama] has refused to use each and every one of them.
Obama's lackluster performance at Copenhagen is no exception to this poignant criticism, but there's plenty of blame to go around, likely enough to fill up the Bella Center.
The Problem of Believing in the "Bella of the Beast"
Copenhagen's Bella Center hosted the assemblage of 192 countries, their state representatives, journalists, bloggers, and activists. I don't think anyone will concede that amid the complicated politics, challenges of organizing a UN Summit, and an ill-timed snowstorm making its way towards DC that there was ever a fighting chance that:
- Grouping people into the facility alone would be the needed catalyst to foster collective reasoning founded in science and consumable discourse
- Thoughtful decisions would be made across political, cultural, ideological, and geographical divides, with no one noticing the 970+ preemptive protest arrests
- The world's leaders would walk away with a compelling set of actionable plans to decrease fossil fuel consumption
The space itself wasn't inspiring and indeed there were issues around long lines and accreditation, but to be clear, the Bella Center space or process itself didn't cause the debacle alone. Rather, the failure of the COP occurred because heads of state dropped in a treaty that bore no relevance to the many days of negotiations that had taken place at the Bella Center. Why?
Creating a space for community to convene and then separate them into social castes does not reduce chaos or increase effectiveness. Instead, the space itself, the tools available, and the collective mindset and social aspect of creating offline and online space to that breaks down silos and builds relationships across NGO lines is what successful organizing to campaign and cause change can be. This isn't to say it didn't happen in Copenhagen, in fact it did, just not at the Bella Center and not in conventional or expected ways.
10 minutes away from the 8-hour lines to enter the space, the chaos of conversation, and signal-to-noise ratio in the cluttered convention center, social showmanship and grand-standing by many heads of state, a much smaller, more focused messaging, conversational, and action-driven citizens platform was produced, The Fresh Air Center. This downtown physical space, founded out of the ethos of the we-powered people movement of media makers and activists, stepped up and demonstrated more courage and leadership in organizing for climate change than our president.
Where Obama failed to present a commitment to get the U.S. economy off fossil fuels that would inspire the other heavy-emitters, Fresh Air Center grassroots field and technology-driven organizing methods accomplished a number of transformative and inspiring exchanges over a daily occurrence of a 2009 Obama-inspired institution -- beer summits (aka the daily "Real Talk" happy hour sponsored by the UN Foundation with half priced drinks).
The Challenge of Creating Casablanca, The Fresh Air Center
Great decisions don't come out of chaos, and they don't necessarily come from the top down. TckTckTck, a distributed brand, created the Fresh Air Center to be a rapid response digital media hub for journalists, bloggers, activists, and NGOs from around the world. What makes the Fresh Air Center worth drilling into is that it wasn't a typical sponsored media center or a blogger tent. Instead, the Fresh Air Center blurred traditional lines first by bringing grassroots activists and leading media mavens together to produce content, and second by carefully constructing a physical space with shared technology and social media. They created what can best be described as a not as a press club, but rather a nightclub. One organizer, Beka Economopoulous, jokingly referred to the experience as a cultural, social, and political operation that felt akin only to Humphrey Bogart's bar-based brokering in Casablanca.
Three experienced field and new media organizers, Steve Rio, Jason Mogus, and Beka Economopoulos found themselves charged with managing two spaces, one inside the Bella of the Beast, and the other at The Huset (translation "The House"), a multi-floor bar and club that they transformed into a 21st Century digital discotheque, only instead of dancing there was co-mingling around rapid-fire content creation. At peak times 120 people convened and worked shoulder-to-shoulder, plugging in and connecting to shared content sources to tell the story of the COP.
When heads of state arrived and sequestered themselves in the Bella Center, kicking most of the NGOs out, the Fresh Air Center built on momentum and continued to thrive with authentic interaction and activity. It was the pulse of where the main messaging out of Copenhagen was taking place. Bloggers and activists worked shoulder-to-shoulder, drinking coffee, cocktails, and beer, smoking and brokering content shares, their hard-drives humming away.
As we experiment with the advanced applications that power grassroots activism online the success of the Fresh Air Center is about the people as the media and the message, pushing politics and rhetoric aside and organize people where they already are. In Copenhagen, a bar as familiar as any neighborhood pub with a few more wired bells and whistles transformed into media's main nerve center. Many more effective transactions occurred in Copenhagen over a half-priced beer or coffee at the Fresh Air Center than on the bargaining floor of the Bella Center before the many heads of state.
10 Lessons Learned From TckTckTck's Fresh Air Center, Applying Activism 2.0
1. Abandon Traditional Accreditation
Everyone is a part of the media in Web 2.0. In order to tell the most compelling and well-rounded story and disseminate messaging to the largest audience possible, in addition to the industry opinion-leaders and journalists, accredit activists and bloggers. Permit, foster, and leverage this social upset to old-media objectivity.
2. Prepare to Persuade Like Mad Men
Utilize the effectiveness practiced by persuasion industries, master the art of messaging, and then organize around it. A Daily Kos blogger writes, "If you want to win, you will ORGANIZE. You will organize in the same way the Right has done for the last 40 years, and you will spend money on persuasion, where it really matters.
3. Leverage a List-Serv "Climate Insider Rapid Response List"
Communities aren't spontaneously formed. They require careful staging and planning. The Fresh Air Center began to build its community with a piece of technology that wasn't Twitter or Facebook. Rather, the Fresh Air Center relied namely on a curated approval-only listserv. Fresh Air Center's listserv topped at 450 members, whose membership was vetted through an application process over two months of planning and discovery. The listserv's community included people unable to attend the conference, but still on the front-lines of creating content around the issues and stories.
4. Build Bandwidth With Balls
In an age where internet connectivity is the lifeblood of community conversations and connections, the Fresh Air Center created arguably the most reliable infrastructure in Copenhagen with plenty of bandwidth for video, audio, streaming, uploading, and downloading. Additionally, all multimedia services were provided free of charge to the entire community of correspondents.
The Fresh Air Center was made up of partnerships, planned, and ad-hoc innovation:
Together this infrastructure meant that anyone could watch press conferences, plenaries, briefings, demonstrations, protests, and cultural events relating to the activities of the COP from this virtual hub, and any content creator could use those materials (and even remix them) freely with attribution.
5. Make Community-Powered Conversation Mobile-Ready
Technical tools connect people, in addition to the listserv, Fresh Air Center's organizers kept the community connected via SMS messaging sent through Skype. That's not to say that tools like Twitter and Facebook weren't used, certainly they were, but they weren't the core components of the tool-set that had the most measurable impact.
6. Coordinate Predictable Programming
Media makers are the message makers, so Fresh Air Center organizers provided morning, afternoon, and evening Rapid Response Briefings, and scheduled notable speakers throughout the event. Together this consistent and quality lineup helped the Fresh Air Center boost credibility and value to the media community, ensuring popular and widespread uptake of services and lots of word of mouth marketing around Copenhagen and through every publication sent from the Fresh Air Center back out to the world.
7. Prepare to be Provoked By Leaked Documents
Once a community is legitimized and recognized by media makers and activists it will be marked for seeding and sharing insider information.
What this means is that you need to be ready to verify and manage leaked documents and other notable information, and not all of it will be credible. A mismanaged source can quickly undercut a grassroots platform, so understanding and having a vetting procedure is of paramount importance.
8. Distribute the Brand
TckTckTck wasn't owned by any one organization, which is what made it powerful and persuasive. Creating a distributed brand is to craft an emblem that conveys that "We're in it together."
Individual brands will still have their impact through word-of-mouth ambassadors and exchanges. Keep the rhetoric simple, and focus on the authentic purpose, compete only in the sense that there's a shared goal. Media makers will remember who bought them beer and broadband and fed them content, and they'll be far more capable of creating content when they aren't laboring under competing brands.
9. Bring Beer
In a city where everything costs twice as much, half priced drinks sponsored by the UN Foundation made a huge difference for organizers, activists, journalists, and bloggers looking for a place to park themselves, work, and connect.
10. Close Down Shop, But Don't COP Out
When it became clear that Copenhagen was not going to produce an actionable agreement, TckTckTck quickly assembled an immediate takeaway called, "Not done yet." This campaign rests on top of the home pages of TckTckTck partner websites, ensuring that the takeaway from the COP is that the movement needs to continue and to grow.
Borrow a Page From Bogart's Book
Projects like the Fresh Air Center are the success of a failed UN summit because of the social relationships established and the well-rooted online infrastructure and knowledge base created for continued communication and collaboration.
The Fresh Air Center succeeded by shaking things up and creating an unconventional camp -- a Copenhagen-based Casablanca. Great things occurred in spite of a much reported on failure. To no one head of state, I'll borrow from Bogart, because if there is no earnest and actionable change, there will certainly be regret,
"'Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.'"
Thank you to Beka Economopoulos, VP of @FissionStrategy, online organizing & social media consulting for non-profits. Beka is also the director of @NAA_NYC, integrating art, activism, tech & theory, for contributing to this post.