P2P Book of the Week, Excerpt 3: Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, by Allison Fine

We’re pleased to present the third and final excerpt from Momentum today, following Ms. Fine’s introduction on Monday, the first excerpt on Tuesday, and the second excerpt yesterday.  Today, the author demonstrates the power of the synergy of Online & On-Land, of Meeting Up and Moving On, of taking it from cyberspace to the streets.

Online and On-Land Go Hand in Hand
As Craigslist demonstrates, localness matters: relationships can be started online, but they are strengthened and deepened by in-person activities. Research indicates that online and on-land communities reinforce and strengthen one another. Virtual communities are strongest when they are attached to geographically based communities. One group of researchers reports, “Heavy internet use is associated with increased participation in voluntary organizations and politics. Further support for this effect is the positive association between offline and online participation in voluntary organizations and politics.”2

            Since 2001, Meetup.com has been the engine for an amazing amount of connectedness; working at the intersection of online and on-land activity, it has been responsible for the creation of over 100,000 clubs involving over two million people. The concept of Meetup is so simple that it is brilliant. Scott Heiferman, one of the co-founders of MeetUp, describes the genesis of the site this way, “How do you start an association today? Do you need a building in Washington? No, you go online.”3   We are self-organizers, and MeetUp created a simple mechanism for people with similar interests to form their own local group. It highlights the best of online and on-land worlds: the efficiency of online organizing with the intensity of on-land relationships.

            Meetup was quietly plugging along helping people to self-organize, meet locally and have a drink, trade stories and make new friends when the 2004 presidential campaign began in earnest. The Dean for President campaign was not a virtual campaign—it didn’t happen just in cyberspace—it exploded in hundreds of communities around the country when it began to organize local gatherings through MeetUp. In his book, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi describes the frustrating, head-banging first discussions he had with his campaign colleagues when he advocated the need to use “meetups” as part of a strategy to gain grass-roots support for the candidate. Taking their cues from their technophobic candidate, the members of the campaign staff, except for the one webmaster, just didn’t get it. The resistance to using the Internet for a grass-roots campaign, Trippi writes, was similar to the resistance of companies and corporations to using the Internet for advertising. “Forty years of reliance on television advertising has atrophied creativity, forcing everyone to approach every problem the same way.” The answer, for Trippi, was using the networking power of the Internet to empower campaign participants to create their own campaigns as a part of, but not dictated by, the national effort.4

            When the Dean Meetups were finally posted, the number of people participating in local gatherings went from 432 to a high of 190,000 within a year’s time. This explosion of activity helped to turn meetup into a noun, just as Google has become a verb. Dean enthusiasts transitioned from e-mailing one another to talking face-to-face in a local pub or Starbucks. Meetups also helped to create friendships among like-minded individuals that have lasted beyond this one campaign and this one candidate.

            MoveOn.org provides another example of the importance of on-land connections to supplement online efforts. MoveOn is the online advocacy group founded by Wes Boyd and Joan Blades in 1998 with the goal of getting Congress to stop the Clinton impeachment activities and “move on” to more pressing issues. MoveOn exploded in size and influence largely due to the founders willingness to let their members take the lead on determining their strategy.  In the years since its inception it has created a membership base of more than three million people through viral marketing, which takes place when individuals pass on e-mails to friends and family, who in turn spread the word to an ever-widening circle of contacts. That’s certainly an enormous achievement. The 2004 presidential campaign mobilized millions of people, but, ultimately, MoveOn was criticized for concentrating too much on fundraising at the end of the campaign and not being effective at mobilizing voters. In fairness to MoveOn, voter mobilization was never a core competency of the organization. The complaints, I believe, speak more to the incompetence of the Democratic Party than to MoveOn’s capability.

            To its credit, MoveOn has recognized its limitations, one of which was the lack of local connectedness. In March 2005, Micah Sifry, the executive editor of the Personal Democracy Forum reported that “MoveOn.org has quietly decided to experiment with a new form of off-line organizing[,] . . . to support the formation of ongoing local MoveOn Teams, focused on the group’s issue campaigns.” In the past MoveOn had organized sporadic house parties and local calling parties as components of larger campaigns and not as part of its own movement building.   MoveOn’s Washington, D.C., staff person, Tom Matzzie, reported to Sifry that the organization recognized that it had to become more than an online community if it was going to enact significant political change.5 MoveOn’s desire to evolve into a permanent, sustainable force for social change speaks to the important, symbiotic relationship between cyberspace and local space.

Networks and Organizations
When I was in graduate school, we had an assigned text titled Organizations in Action, by James D. Thompson.6 I liked it, particularly because it was short. One of the key concepts of the book was that of organizational boundary spanners. Thompson described them as people who interact with the outside world, such as customers and constituents, on a regular basis. They receive useful information and also push information out. Social workers, community organizers, and receptionists are typical boundary spanners in activist organizations. In the Connected Age, everyone in your organization is a boundary spanner.

            Imagine how different your work would be if instead of thinking about functions and departments, you thought about networks and connections. In the Connected Age, networks trump hierarchy. Sustainable social change is going to come from those organizations that can engage, facilitate, and strengthen their networks rather than organizations that push out strategies and messages to a passive audience through large advertising budgets.

            […] There is significant tension between how we are taught to view organizational life and how organizations really work.

Website at http://afine.us.  Allison Fine: [email protected]
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