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.