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. 

 

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Comments

2016

I would venture to say that at least in the 2016 elections there will be a majority of online fundraising. Most of it is already done that way. I found it funny when you asked if merely liking something on Facebook or other social network makes you an activist. Many people who write blogs call themselves professional writers. There are a lot of blurry lines going on.

A lot of those

... "professional writers" are generating what Internal Revenue loves to refer as "hobby income." 

Da blacks are marching

and they AIN't online.

 

Whoda thunk?

 

Boots on de ground, brother, beat waves in the sky.

 

REMEMBER JENA. And do apologize.

 

When your argument falls apart just as quickly as you make it... work harder.