The Digital Revolution and Politics: Behind the Hype

Yet another slew of articles and reports, this time focused mainly on what works – and by implication, what doesn’t – in today’s internet- and technology-enabled political activism.  Luckily, the readings I have chosen to work from this time (including Persuasion Points: Helping Harry Reid One Click at a Time, Neighbor to Neighbor: How Obama Targets Undecideds Block by Block, The New Organizers: What’s Really Behind Obama’s Ground Game, Online Tactics & Success: An Examination of the Obama for America New Media Campaign, Top 10 Tips in Email Writing from Organizations Changing the World, and Looking for What Works: Best Online Organizing Reads of 2010) more or less all follow-on naturally from some of the readings covered in my last post on digitally-boosted activism, and dove-tail nicely with my own limited experience in this area.

In essence, the majority of these pieces examines how (relatively) new digital tools have been, or can be, put to most effective use for causes.  The examples given all have taken place since 2007-2008, when the use of the internet by the Obama campaign was widely hailed as an area where it stole a large lead on its opposition.

Some (in my view) rather extreme claims have been made about the power and impact of online tools including social media to revolutionize activism (and everything else).  Whether or not one agrees entirely with Malcolm Gladwell’s view that online activism doesn’t have much impact at all, his Small Change article certainly sparked a valuable conversation.  Even enthusiasts are compelled to admit (or, rather, in the case of Silberman, to repeat the suggestions of others) that more must be done to measure impact, and that technology alone won’t get the job done – at least not most of the time.

Others among the authors focused on uncontroversial claims how to make optimal use of basic digital tools (email, in the case of Frauzel) to connect with the public and move likely individuals up the ‘engagement ladder.’

But some pieces resonated deeply with me.  They were about the seamless integration of revolutionary online tools into “old-fashioned” campaign plans.  These included the discussion of the dream campaign (because of budget, authority, trust and testing) set up by the digital campaigners working for Harry Reid in 2010, as well as the discussion by Colter of the 2008 Obama campaign’s use of technology to enable extremely local canvassing of neighbors, by neighbors.

But I particularly enjoyed the examination by Exley of the 2008 Obama campaign’s approach to organizing: “The Obama campaign is the first in the Internet era to realize the dream of a disciplined, volunteer-driven, bottom-up-AND-top-down, distributed and massively scaleable organizing campaign.”  While I know that the use of online tools was crucial to executive a flawless ground game in 2008, this article barely even mentions technology.  Why?  Because it is still an enabler in this field, and cannot yet replace the human touch.

As a part-time grassroots organizer, my experience with online tools has been similar.  Free (i.e. unpaid and easy) access to platforms that I could use to build offline, action-oriented communities was critical.  I used quite a few of them to raise visibility and interest, to coordinate efforts, to engage the press and other third parties, and to organize logistics, especially events.  I most certainly could not have done the job without them with anywhere near the speed or level of reach that I was able to achieve.  But I had to use these tools often in highly personal ways, devoting many hours to individual-oriented and action-oriented writing, responding via email or phone or in person early and often, and generally building offline relationships.  All of my successes were enabled by online.  But where the rubber met the road was always offline.

I believe that that the internet has indeed revolutionized the planet.  I agree that we cannot yet see all of the changes that have been triggered.  I understand that activism and organizing have already been significantly altered, and will change more in the future.  And yet, I think that these changes must yet coexist with – or maybe enhance – the tried and true methods developed for activism in the real world.  As David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 Campaign Manager, was quoted by DiJulio and Wood as saying: “There’s nothing more valuable than a human being talking to a human being.  Nothing.”

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