There is no such thing as online organizing (rant)

This is a rant – all of y’all might reading know this, but

When we were planning the Friends of Caltrain summit last winter, one of my fellow planners suggested that I moderate a session on “online organizing.” I politely declined. We should have a session on organizing and outreach. “But it might be crowded,” someone said. “If it gets crowded, we should split into two sessions about organizing.” In the sessions, we should brainstorm about what communities people participate in, and how to reach them.

When we succeeded at turning out thousands of people to email regional decision makers, and helped turn out hundreds at in-person meetings, we got plenty of compliments at “using the internet” to change the dynamic of the situation. But it wasn’t “the internet” – it was people, in their neighborhood groups, bike clubs, business groups, environmental groups.

Working to help spread the word about Limmud Bay Area, a volunteer-driven conference and festival, I reviewed the list of volunteer categories. One category was marketing and outreach. Another category was “technology and social media.” I politely suggested that we change the categories so that social media was part of outreach and marketing.

Even communities that spend much of their time online, such as open source projects and online political discussion groups are fueled and refueled by meeting periodically in person.

Organizations reach constituents, and people reach out to each other online. There is a distinctive set of tools for this, true. But the tactics used to communicate online are part of an overall organizing strategy. People meet each other and get to know other human beings. The venue, a bar or a Google+ hangout or facebook group or a mailing list is a just a tool for meeting other people. And most of the time, reaching out online is one tactic to help people achieve something together in the 3d world.

Paying for Caltrain

This week I went to a meeting of the Bay Rail Alliance, where the topic was paying for Caltrain. The agency is facing a grim deficit because it depends on earmarked state transit funds that are regularly raided for other uses.

To close an immediate budget gap, Caltrain is making changes including increases in parking fees and charges for employer-funded transit passes, and cutting back on mid-day service. Based on overwhelming community feedback, a worse proposal to eliminate weekend service was taken off the table.

Even with these changes, Caltrain’s revenue is unstable, unlike Bart, which gets some of its funding from local taxes. So the Bay Rail Alliance is interested in investigating potential sources of regional funding. If you’re interested, look for updates on the Bay Rail Alliance website.

While the operating budget is iffy, the capital situation looks promising. The Bay Area is a candidate to get stimulus funding targeted at high-speed rail. Since the stimulus funding needs to go to shovel-ready projects, what this means in practice is that stimulus funding would go to items including Caltrain electrification, and preparing the Transbay terminal to handle the long-awaited extension of Caltrain to the water’s edge. See Transbay Blog for good detail and ongoing coverage.

There are two underlying system problems that make these things a lot harder than they should be. The first is the underlying structural bankruptcy of the California budget process. The calls for reform seem to have quieted down a bit during the knock-down dragout budget battle in Sacramento but hopefully will pick up after the battle. (Comments on what’s going on would be welcome.) If reform goes anywhere, it will need a large constituency, and part of the alliance ought to be green; transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in California, and raiding transit budgets is not the way to get change.

The second system problem is the fragmented of the bay area transit system, were 26 seperate agencies serve a metro area of 7 million. Better regional governance would remove a lot of un-needed friction in creating a great system, but would take major reform.

Social media hasn’t crossed the chasm in California politics

I had a fascinating conversation at EqualityCamp about the status of social media in California politics. Apparently, despite the dramatic upset success of the McNerney campaign, fed by “netroots” small donor fundraising and upstart blog-driven citizen journalism, oppo research and organizing, the political mainstream in California is still fixated on mass media politics. Big-block fundraising is used to fund mass media advertising campaigns with highly controlled messaging created by campaign consultants based on focus group research.
The collossal failure of this model in the NoOn8 has driven those of us who live in a social media, grassroots world absolutely bonkers. But apparently, even the dramatic Obama victory fueled by small-donor fundraising and grass roots, neighbor to neighbor organizing, hasn’t done much to change how the California political class thinks about campaigns.
The state of affairs smells like a classic early market, which in Geoff Moore’s classic taxonomy, hasn’t yet “crossed the chasm”. There are classic barriers, and some classic tactics for overcoming the barriers.
Barrier: There is a well established process for funding and running campaigns.
Opportunity: Identify a niche where social media tactics provide an advantage. Marriage equality is clearly in this category, since personal outreach is the best known way to change hearts and minds on the topic. There are likely other niches where a social media strategy can gain a foothold and win success.
Barrier: Costly tools and data
Opportunity: Blogging and social networking is very low cost. But until now, the data and tools needed to facilitate neighbor to neighbor get out the vote has been very expensive and inaccessible. Innovative business models with California Voter Connect could conceivably make voter data more accessible to the niche markets that would take the risks to innovate with social media grass roots strategies.
Barrier: Mainstream folk lack role models.
Opportunity: Politicians seeking to run for office look to their peers for models of successful campaigns. There are politicians who are “early adopters” of social media, who can integrate social media into their campaigns. Then those politicians can influence others personally, and their examples can be used as case studies.
Barrier: Mainstream politicians lack a mental model of social media campaigns.
Opportunity: Over the last few years, the business and nonprofit worlds have started to evolve a rich set of useful practices for the use of social media. Analyst houses like Forrester Research and independents like Tara Hunt and Beth Kanter have built consulting practices and spread knowledge. There’s a related opportunity to spread knowledge with writing and conferences The best time to build an reputation as an expert in an early market is before the space is crowded, when the topic is still unfamiliar to many people.
When a market is “in the chasm”, it can feel rather grim for the early adopters looking up at the high walls. But early markets are times of amazing potential. There is a wide range of tactics, and the universe provides a variety of opportunities to take one or more of the early market plays and take innovation mainstream.

Who is the online chief of staff?

Big news and much chatter this week about the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff for Barack Obama. The chief of staff is head gatekeeper for the office of the president, and chief of outreach to Congress. A critical organizing role for the community that is the 3D US Capitol.
What about the online community that the Obama administration wants to continue into the presidency. With, and the post-election evolution of, who will coordinate outreach to and filter input from the communities online who have new capabilities to communicate directly?
What year will the online chief of staff be a role whose influence is powerful, acknowledged, announced and debated in the news?

No on 8 – don’t (just) blame the Mormons

There was a vocal demonstration at the Mormon temple in the east bay, large enough to block traffic. Sure, the Mormon church should get into big trouble with the IRS if its role in political organizing can be demonstrated. But let’s be real here — there was 49% turnout in San Francisco County and 55% turnout in Alameda which voted overwhelmingly against Prop 8. There was 59% turnout in San Mateo county. If we the supporters of marriage rights for all had done a better job of helping our neighbors and friends to vote, the result would have gone the other way. The result was in many respects a failure of execution. I care much less about yelling at Mormons and much more about turning out allies and persuading people on the fence about justice for all.

Political blog readership – cause and effect

What does it mean that readership of political blogs in the US is politically polarized, according to a recent study of political blogs in the US. Readers on the right and left reading different blogs, and are more partisan than average Americans. Blogging isn’t a tool for discourse across the spectrum, but a tool for organizing and message-building.
Is the partisanship cause or effect? “We don’t know if blogs polarize their readers, or if highly ideological readers gravitate to blogs that reflect their partisanship.” A comment on Crooked Timber, group blog of one of the study’s authors has an insight. MQ writes, “I think this stuff is going to change over time. The blog world took shape at an extremely politically polarized time, and the polarization was still there in 2006.”
The connection between blog-reading and activism is supported by a multi-national study showing that blog readers in France, Germany, the US and the UK are more likely to be politically active. It would be interesting to find out how many of the the people reading and organizing using blogs have been partisan and politically active all along, and how many have been mobilized by blogs.
Personally, I’ve become more partisan as a result of reading political blogs, and a more active participant in electoral politics. I got involved in tech policy activism before the rise of political blogging; but the issues weren’t particularly partisan at the time. I’ve become more partisan in part because of the evolution of the right in the US toward defense of torture, government spying, aggressive wars, unlimited executive privilege and other radicalism. And partly persuaded by the argument by Markos et al that the attitude of reasoned nonpartisanship on the part of Democrats enabled them to be rolled by those negotiating in bad faith, the “bipartisanship is date rape” tactic. I admire the Obama campaign’s message of hope, but when Obama backpedals on his commitment to the constitution, the right strategy is to organize. It will be wonderful to contemplate varying points of view when the path to compromise isn’t “how much of the constitution do you want to give up.”
It would be exceedingly interesting to find out whether there are meaningful numbers of people getting mobilized to political activity through involvement in blogs and social media.

Blogher, consumerism, community

The Blogher party last Saturday night was at Macy’s, which is a propos. Conventional wisdom is discovering that a network of women bloggers is the next generation of women’s magazine. This isn’t a sellout shock like yoga fashion; it’s not as if BlogHer comes from any kind of ascetic ideal; the founders of BlogHer came from media, and intended from the first to be a new kind of commercial media; The early BlogHer conferences had sessions on how to make money from your blog; now the dream is starting to come true.
Also, there is a basic difference between Parenting Magazine and home blogging – a journalist writing about being a parent and quoting parents in little snippets is different from people writing about their lives. A feature article with quotes from 5 families is different from a comment thread with people talking to each other. The number of voices and kinds of voices in a handful of mass-produced magazines is going to be smaller than the number and kinds of voices in the blogs of individual women. And folk culture does its own transformations of the products of advertising.
And yet there’s a big caution from history. One of my favorite books, Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s More Work for Mother, tells the story of the way that advertisers helped construct the culture and identity of middle class women in the age of automation. Laundromats and storebought clothing might have enabled women to do other things with their time than clean house and sew; and early feminists argued in favor of using automation for liberation. Makers of soap and manufacturers of appliances allied with people who believed that women’s place was in the home, to advocate that women ought to clean clothes more often instead of using their time for other things. When the sources of revenue are makers of consumer goods, how does this affect the lives and conversations of those of us dependent on that revenue? How reluctant do we become to bite the hands that feed us?
There were some excellent sessions on women working in open source communities developing blogging tools; hopefully we will continue to create ourselves as makers not just consumers. I talked to one woman who has a video project on the history of feminism; I hope that the community continues to host that sort of work. And I am hopeful that the lesson of the Obama campaign is that social networks are and remain tools for organizing at the same time as they are tools for marketing.

Open government geekery

So, is it legal to use a web forum or internet chat for official public discussion in California?
The plot thickens. I asked informally, through city council folk in two Bay Area cities, and got conflicting responses from city attorneys. One says it’s illegal. Another says it’s permitted but recommends that officials use the tools cautiously. And neither has provided citations in case law or administrative ruling.
Point to point email is explicitly prohibited under California’s Brown Act, which requires conversation among a quorum of public officials to occur only in public meetings. But web forums are different — unlike an email, which is visible only to the sender and recipients, tools like blogs, forums and wikis are visible to the public.
Teleconferences are permitted under the Bagley Keene act. What about web conference and chat, which are like teleconferences without a phone number, and with or without voice?
In search of some more solid legal grounding, I sent a question to these California open government watchdogs. If I don’t hear from them directly, I’ll network in.
The new tools are great ways to broaden public discourse. If they’re not legal, they should be. The first step is to find out where the law stands.
I discovered another opportunity for fixing, listening to Jon Udell’s interview of Carl Malamud on IT Conversations. Malamud’s activism was behind the publication of Edgar, and many other initiatives to make public data publicly available. In the interview, he mentioned that Congressional Committee meetings are webcast but not recorded and archived. Well, that’s wrong. Sounds like a lovely opportunity for some blog activism, sometime after election season.

The YouTube debate as mass media

On KQED Forum on Friday, David Weinberger noted that the YouTube debate, drew more from the conventions of mass media than the web. The questions came from citizens, but the candidates answered in soundbite format, with minimal follow-up, and the answers were subjected to talking-head punditry. The YouTube debate was a fine news hook for discussion of web politics. Meanwhile, the interesting action, it seems to me, is in local/regional politics.
Firedoglake has a weekly series where progressive candidates talk to the community, and donations are solicited via ActBlue. Recent studies have shown that MoveOn’s get out the vote efforts actually got out the vote; the next step is peer GOTV. Once the Netroots help candiates get elected, the next step is accountability. On Calitics, bloggers are calling out Jerry McNerney, who was elected with tremendous netroots support, for voting against medical marijuana. The legacy of the Dean campaign, it seems to me, is less about bloggers covering presidential campaigns and more about activists building the 50 state grass roots base.

Delamination and the antitrust

David Weinberg has a fine manifesto up on Delamination, the idea that in order to have a free and competitive internet, we need to split access from services. Which is good right and true, and darn hard to do with the government as wholly owned subsidiary of the oligopoly. A good number of the intractable problems in US society come from way too much market power. The problem with Net Neutrality is like the problem with the Farm Bill — a handful of companies own the market and buy the law, and it’s pain in the rear to buy back. Delamination on its own is like saving the whales, a good but atomized idea that’s not big enough to sustain. We need to rebuild the trust-busting ideal of the good old Progressives.