online activism

The Irrelevance of the "Online Base"

Micah Sifry's response to my post (and Mindy's) on the size of the right online brings forth a basic assumption I'm not so sure is apt anymore -- that there is an "online base" that's distinct from the base offline, and from there, to the electorate at large? A few years ago, I know this was the case. Now, I'm not so sure. 

A few years ago, the mark of an online activist was pretty clear: participation in blogs -- as either a blogger or commenter, or membership in (likely multiple) political email lists and a history of donating and volunteering in response to online appeals. 

The rise of social media and the growing ubiquity of the Web as an entry point for campaigns makes the 'net a singular platform for activism -- online or offline. 

Unsatisfied by the political success of the Tea Party movement more broadly, Micah is greatly interested in what its size is, and specifically, what its size is online

 

Again, I'm sorry, but if you're going to tout the Tea Party movement as the embodiment of a wonderful flowering of grassroots activism on the Right, as both Mindy and Patrick rightfully do, you've got to expect that inquiring minds are going to want to know, well, how big is it? How many people are active in it? And you can't wave your hand and say, well, there are too many groups and none of them really are the hub and therefore it's impossible to say how big. Let's look at the metrics.

In 2008, roughly 13 million people joined Barack Obama's email list. That's also the size of his Facebook fan base today, roughly double its size since the election (a counterpoint, Micah, says, to the right-is-dominating-online argument -- though I'd say it's more indicative of Facebook's growth since Palin -- and others' -- numbers have also at least doubled). 

The number 13 million -- roughly 20 percent of the total votes Obama received -- suggests something that transcends activism as we normally understand it, and specifically online activism (however you define that to be different than regular activism). If all you need to do is hit the "Like" button, is it activism? Or is it something more akin to casting a vote, something roughly 130 million people did in the last election? That shows the "online activism" picture getting muddled. You don't need to be an activist, or even terribly savvy politically or technologically, to make your voice heard online nowadays. The tools have gotten so mainstream, and so easy, that the line between an activist and a supporter is blurring. 

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, we're seeing many candidates whose online fundraising now exceeds their direct mail fundraising. Are these two groups separate and distinct? Has online permanently enlarged the activist pool? Idealistically, we'd like to say yes. But practically speaking, it's probably mostly a matter of grabbing the low-hanging fruit from the offline space who simply find it more convenient to engage online. I would contend that these are no longer two radically different groups of individuals, but the larger base of conservative activists is migrating online. In this way, I don't think you can separate broader political success and enthusiasm from online activism in the way Micah does. 

In 2004, it was easy to have a debate about online activism in a silo. Blogs were relatively small, frequented by at most hundreds of thousands of Americans, and experienced by more only when the media deigned to talk about them. Political blogs were fragmented and difficult to find, not like leaving a stray political comment on someone's Wall or clicking "Like" on a politician because you happen to be on Facebook for two hours a day anyway. 

The nature and scope of online activism has changed dramatically since then, but the outlook of some techno-political pundits who cite Daily Kos uniques as the be-all, end-all of activism has not. We're now at a point where every significant change or insurgent movement in either party is dependent primarily on the mainstream Internet -- Facebook, Twitter, and participation in websites and e-mail lists seeded by offline megaphones like Fox News, MSNBC, and talk radio. The narrowcasting of blogs seems less relevant now, because there are much bigger media and technology players driving people online. This is popularizing online activism and making it indistinguishable from regular activism. 

Sure, there are still plenty of groups that depend primarily on direct mail for their fundraising, but few new groups. Judging from what I've seen this cycle, the Big Shift to online is happening. And just like the early adopter disillusionment that's gripped tools like Twitter and Facebook now that Lady Gaga has taken her place at the head of the table, we're finding that the political Internet isn't just for tech geeks anymore. Lots of regular folks are joining the party. 

 

RightOnline Day 1 - "If you can blog...BLOG."

United States Representative and conservative firebrand Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) addressed conference attendees after lunch today - he made some pretty broad tactical appeals to online activists that have been uncommon to date on the Right, and to that extent, I was pretty impressed with his speech. He also stuck mainly to economic issues, which is what conservative sweethearts will need to do on their end to help coaxing centrist and libertarian voters out of their strongholds, back into the political and policy spheres. I'm not a cameraman, but you can view (well, hear really) Pence's speech in its entirety at my Qik profile. Cross-posted at Liberty Pundits and Intelligence, Please...

New Battlefield, Old Guard

Leslie Graves emailed me earlier today with an interesting point: The institutional Right is finally spending money online, but there's still a mis-alignment between the organizations and the Rightroots.

[L]egacy orgs are starting to be active online...like righty e-activists have always wanted them to do ... but for the most part, they are not doing the things online that we wish they were doing. ... Thus, there is no love lost between the conservative e-activism community and the orgs.  [A]ll this money being spent ... finally ... online but generally not doing the things that e-activists probably would prefer be done.

The institutional Right has realized there's a new battlefield and they have finally moved into it.  But I'm reminded a bit of the British troops versus the Colonists in the American Revolution (the analogy is tactical, not political).  The Left built new institutions and adapted their tactics to the new battlefield - guerilla warfare, as it were - while the Right is trying to port over the institutional cultures and tactics that they have built up over generations, regardless of the new battlefield.

Andrew Breitbart's Big Government and Michelle Malkin's Hot Air are excellent examples of good, innovative projects on the Right.  We need more guerilla media, like Breitbart is doing.  And Malkin had the right idea with Hot Air - take successful, iconoclastic bloggers (Ed Morrissey and AllahPundit), give them free rein (rather than pandering and red meat) and build around them.

The continuing cultural divide between the Left and Right approach to online media is best illustrated by this: While organizations on the Right tend to hire a single blogger (generally from internal or junior political staff, rather than the blogosphere), organizations on the Left very often (a) hire successful bloggers and give them freedom, and/or (b) have very large staffs focused on muckraking, research and blogging.  Huffington Post has something close to 50.  Talking Points Memo has a staff of close to 20...and they're expanding.  Think Progress has something like 14-17 people working on their 3 blogs and daily email.  Media Matters has a staff of many dozens, most aimed directly at the web.

The Right cannot invest in simply pushing an institutional message; the Right has to invest in adding value.  That means research, muckraking, fact-checking, policy wonkery, information organization and information activism. That's what it takes.

Tea Party '09: The Rise of the Right's New Distributed Online Activism

By the standards of the Obama campaign and MoveOn.org, the Tea Parties happening all across the country are not very organized. Contra Talking Points Memo, no single group "owns" or is instigating tomorrow's events. The closest thing one could call to a centralized Tea Party homepage is Eric Odom's TaxDayTeaParty.com. Freedom Works has popularized a Google Map which has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times that's become the unofficial directory of the event. Newt Gingrich is driving attendance through his American Solutions (a/k/a Drill Now) list, as are a myriad of other groups.

Contrast this to a MoveOn or MyBO (now OFA) mobilization during the election. A single group would send out a call for a single day of action to its massive e-mail list (in MoveOn's case, this would go to 5 million people; in Obama's, to 13 million people). They would direct people to an online event planning tool, which would either have the hallmarks of MoveOn's internal toolset or the Blue State Digital "PartyBuilder" toolset. Host and attendee information would be hosted on a centralized database. Reminder e-mails would be sent at timed intervals through the same technology. It would be a relatively clean, seamless, and centralized process.

Nothing of the sort has happened with the tea parties, at least from a technology and logistics perspective. Organizers have had to self-report their events to various national groups. One group claims credit for putting one set of events; another group for a different set. It's a much messier process that belies the stereotype of the right as a group of mindless automatons.

This is why it's amusing to watch the left try to debate Jon on the charge of "astroturf." MoveOn virtually invented massively replicable online grassroots organizing -- which many would equate with astroturf, in that activity is actually being directed by a few people at the top, and thousands of people on the ground are (willingly) following orders.

If there are talking points, sample agendas, syncronized start and end times, or standard branding and collateral for the tea parties, I haven't seen them. When Tom Matzzie and Eli Pariser did it old school and decided to send an e-mail to drive people to, say, an Iraq War vigil, they instantly created a level of organization we haven't yet seen in the tea party movement.

And that's okay.

The lack of coordination is a sign of a still-young movement that's just learning to organize online in earnest. And arguably, the advantage brought by a massive e-mail list is much impressive now than when MoveOn pioneered the practice in 2002 and 2003, its heyday.

With viral distribution through Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, it's a lot easier to get a message out from an organizational baseline of zero. Riffing off Clay Shirky, it's the power of organizing without organizations. In the Age of Email, those who could aggregate large lists had all the advantages when it comes to organizing. This is still somewhat true, but word can spread faster through networks of influentials with hundreds and thousands of Twitter followers than it can one-to-many through a large list. There was always the hope that people would forward the e-mail to their friends, but one of the dirty little secrets of e-mail is that the "forward to a friend" button on most e-mail blasts is at best an orphan child. Only the most scurrilous (Obama's a  Muslim) or funny e-mails tend to spread purely virally.

As William Beutler wrote the other day, the left is seriously underestimating Twitter, and in a classic judo move, is parlaying the uncertainty of who's really behind the tea parties into charges of "astroturf." Occam's Razor would suggest this nebulousness is a sign of a lack of central organization, not the other way around.

For all its supposed online prowess, it could be that the left is starting to forget the value of distributed online organizing. The Stollers of the world have spent a lot of time studying the myth of the "vast right wing conspiracy" in a bid to centralize power within their movement under the new netroots institutions and take it away from single issue groups they don't control. To them, the only valid model once they've actually achieved power is a centralized one (see Townhouse, or the 8:30 Podesta conference calls). It may be true that the power brokers in their ideal world will look very different. They understood early on that one could use the Internet to crush the old power structure -- to create a new one in its place. But at the end of the day, the model they've settled on is one-to-many, and their world is run through large e-mail lists or big blogs like Daily Kos where it's still mostly about the blogger. The Obama campaign was still more about using the web to create a ruthlessly efficient organization than it was about creating an open community. 

The messier, more unpredictable, and more freewheeling examples of online activism -- from the Ron Paul campaign to tea parties -- have been on the right. The right's is a different model. One that the left -- and many of our friends the right -- do not completely understand yet.

Chicken or the Egg?

Pat Ruffini was kind enough to reply to my post from yesterday where I asked how his plans to counter the left’s online advantage fit in to reform of the Republican party.

My point – either not well made or Pat chose not to respond specifically – is one of timing. What comes first, the chicken or the egg? Does creating this online juggernaut occur in a vacuum? Is it dependent on what the Republican party does to reform itself? Are the two goals mutually exclusive or is their some kind of symbiosis involved where the rightroots’ efforts lead to reform of the party or vice versa?

Pat referred to my “strawman” argument as one of tactics. Au contraire, mon ami. First, if by “strawman” Pat means I was deliberately misrepresenting his position, that was not my intent. If he took it that way, I’m sorry. I am 100% behind Pat’s efforts and, as an aside, believe him to be the best individual to get this idea off the ground and in motion.

Having said that, I believe there to be a disconnect in Pat’s reasoning that would be fatal to his efforts. Quoting from his response:
 

I would break down the three things the GOP needs to do as follows:

      

  • Rebuild our infrastructure. There is no question that the left has us beat online and in the new forms of alternative media. We need a strategy for addressing that. This is a main focus of Rebuild the Party but not the only one.
     
  • Find our message. In the absence of a new Reagan or better infrastructure, we need to find a compelling message that resonates. We need to be more centrist / more conservative. We need to focus more on social issues / fiscal issues. Etc. etc. We hear a lot of this lately. Henke has a framing for this that I like: the unifying narrative.
     
  • Find new leaders. Only when people have a leader they can rally behind will the movement be activated. This was certainly true of Obama.
     

 The right answer is that we need all of the above. None of these can happen without the other. Perhaps the largest failings of the Bush years can be attributed to the fact that we had a new leader without an ideological revival at the same time.

Rick is right that new technology will be for naught if we keep spending like drunken sailors. Tactics cannot overcome structural deficits or crappy, uninspiring messaging. Good marketing cannot dress up a bad product.

“Rebuilding infrastructure” was not my impression of what The Next Right and Rebuild the party.com was all about. I thought Pat was in the business of creating a whole new ball of wax – online activism, fundraising, candidate recruitment – everything the left is now doing online as well as transplanting some of the Obama model to the right. Certainly we can piggyback some of that on an existing organizational template through the RNC or some other party department but the bulk of what must be done has to be accomplished if not in opposition to the party (do they really want 5 million people trying to tell them what to do?) then certainly independent of it.

 As for the “message” or Henke’s “narrative,” that indeed, refers to tactical matters that I agree is vitally important but not relevant to my critique. And whether or not finding a “Reagan” is even possible given the nature of politics and the fact that The Gipper was a World-Historical figure who by definition comes along once in a generation or two would be an iffy proposition at best.

So is wondering about whether the chicken or the egg comes first in this reform process a question of “tactics” or is it a fundamental question regarding the viability of Pat’s ideas? By reforming the party, I think we are both talking about not only issues but structural changes as well (Pat addresses this at RTP.com by calling for RNC reform). I am not sure that the way the national party’s thinking is organized at the moment, Pat’s online ideas fit entirely in the party’s plans for the future. I’m sure they’re grateful for the efforts and would give their right arms for the kind of organization Pat is talking about but are they going to be a help or a hindrance?

So my question from yesterday about why conservatives should exert the energy to become more active before the party takes the necessary steps to reform itself both issueswise and organizationally stands. Indeed, if that question can’t be answered, it puts Pat’s entire enterprise at risk in my opinion.

 

Are the Rightroots More Conservative or Republican?

Rick Moran poses some pointed questions I'm eager to respond to and plan to shortly. -Patrick

Patrick Ruffini and Mindy Finn have a nice write up in today’s Washington Post regarding their new web effort Rebuild the Party.com. The website features a list of endorsers that constitutes a who’s who of the rightysphere as well as a plan they would like to see the GOP adopt that, includes the recruitment of 5 million new Republican online activists, reorganizing the RNC, developing a new fundraising model, and rebuilding the grass roots infrastructure of the party.

All ambitious goals to be sure. But are they achievable?

Everybody agrees the GOP must become more web savvy and that a better connection has to be made to conservatives online. Few would also argue with the notion that efforts must be made to catch up to the Democrats in online fundraising and organization. But then we have the problem with the Republican party itself and its refusal to get serious about the kinds of reforms that would make a conservative like me proud to belong once again.

If Ruffini wants me to promote candidates, raise money, and urge volunteers to work for campaigns he better put a burr under the ass of the party leadership and get them busy on changing just about everything about the organization that contributed to its defeat these last two elections. These are not just technical adjustments or changes around the edges. We are talking about fundamental alterations in people, policy, and ideology that would make the Republican party worth getting excited about again.

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