Net Talk and Net Action

I’ve read and participated in various discussions contrasting the top-down, direct-mail, action-oriented approach to polical action, and the blog-and-forum , bottom-up, decentralized, discussion-oriented approach.
This classic by Alex Steffen at Worldchanging predicts a “move from centralized, mass-market NGOs to advocacy networks driven by members.”
This month’s Personal Democracy Forumessay praises efforts at TrueMajority and Common Cause to open the traditionally centralized advocacy culture to solicit member input.
I don’t think the approaches are as far apart as they seem, and we’re just wanting a few new tools and models to get “best of both worlds” power to swarm and act.
Today, self-organized groups can easily and cheaply publish and discuss with blogs and mailing lists.
Where the pros have the advantage in the member database behind the mailing list and action alerts. Yahoo groups and similar tool lets an administrator see who’s a member and set moderation policies. But they don’t have features to track how many people have responded to an action alert. Also, they don’t have a good way to manage overlapping memberships.
The world needs hosted and open source tools that give this power to bottom up groups. I think we’ll start seeing this in larger of blog activist communities, starting with groups like Kos and maybe TalkingPoints Memo (to pick a couple of left-of-center examples). In those communities, sub-groups will start creating and managing action alerts as segments of the core group.
Today, this approach seems unthinkable for today’s centralized groups, which manage their mailing list like Fort Knox. But when you look closer, the fortress has a few doors. Today, it’s possible for a grassroots group to traverse the social network to get an action posted in a major group. But it takes old-fashioned social networking.
The fortresses are not going to become public squares any time soon. But there will be acknowledged ways for building trust. Volunteers will be able to progress from clicking through on an action, to writing blog posts and co-ordinating other volunteers, to managing sub-campaigns.
It doesn’t seem that hard to me to bridge the “action gap” — the tools are well-known, and just need to get cheaper and more accessible. The value is really obvious — letters and dollars.
Alex Stephen also foretells the rise of bottom-up social networking.

advocacy networks encourage relationships. Advocacy networks want their members to connect to each other. Advocacy networks are a form of social software, like Friendster, or the Omidyar Network. That means, at the most basic level, that your working relationships are not subject to the control of any third-party organization.

This approach seems further away to me, because the basic tools don’t quite exist yet. The Friendster/Tribe/O.Net systems that exist today are too centralized and tightly coupled. We need the equivalent of a permalink, subscription format, and hosted service for linkable mini-nets.
LiveJournal but more extroverted.
The non-corporate solutions I’ve seen in the space have been targeted at different problems — easing the single sign-on inconvenience (IDCommons, SXIP), declaring one’s relationships (XFN) — rather than easily snapping one’s profile into a new group.
Probably the fastest way for this to happen is for one of the existing, popular services to create profile permalinks and a published data model.
In the areas of action, fundraising, and networking, the pyramid can get a lot flatter. New organizations will grow up pioneering these methods, and older organizations will adapt.

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