Digital Organizing in the Digital World

Last December as I was casually scanning my newsfeed I noticed a Quartz article titled ‘Slacktivism is Having a Powerful Real-World Impact’ making the rounds.

The article shared the findings of a 2015 report, which found that “liking, sharing, and amplifying content on social media resulted in a positive impact and helped spread the reach of activism and can in fact drive real world political participation.” The article made an important argument in defense of digital organizing. On my Facebook feed many of my organizer friends were sharing this article as a researched, science-based, “I told you so” to all those who had ever doubted the impact of online organizing. Which gave me pause. Because, while, no doubt, digital-native organizing has helped drive social change, all of the campaigns in the study shared one essential thing in common — they had a sustained offline presence.

The study in the article based its research on analyzing the impact of the online activism in the Indignados “May 15th” Movement in Spain, Occupy Wall Street in the United States, and the Summer 2014 Occupation of Gezi Park in Turkey. All of these campaigns were disruptive, powerful forces in their countries of origin. And, importantly, at one point or another, all of these campaigns had extremely visible offline organizing hubs and actions. The online component was a peripheral amplification of the messages of those at the physical hubs.

In fact, the majority of the most influential digital movements in North America over the past 5 years have used this model. Far from the traditional “Netroots” email-blast driven idea of digital organizing, which was largely developed in the election cycles of the early 2000s, these new campaigns (to use the term loosely) have all had some form of sustained offline organizing. From Yo Soy 132 to Idle No More to the Movement for Black Lives — all have reshaped critical societal discussions with a new vanguard of organizing where digital and offline organizing are held in balance.

A changing relationship with the Internet

The world has changed since the early aughts, and so has the Internet.

Since the advent of the iPhone in 2007 the digital world’s integration in our daily lives has rapidly increased. Gone are the days of desktop. Eighty percent of Internet users now own a smartphone which means continuous access to the Internet is quickly becoming the norm. In 2015, for the first time in history, the majority of digital media consumption happened on mobile rather than on desktop. “Online” no longer needs to happen behind a desktop, it now travels with us wherever we go.

The way we use the Internet has also transformed. Americans are increasingly accessing their news through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. And we don’t just get the news through social media, social media has (for better or for worse) reshaped the form of news. Even establishment news giants like the New York Times have begun to tailor media to Facebook. The Internet’s presence in our lives has changed the way we think, the way we shop, and the way we do business.

And it’s changed the way we organize — but it’s taking us a bit of time to adjust. The marketing world, however, has already leapt into action.

A recent study shows, 98% of digital marketers report that online and offline marketing are merging. The marketing world is leveraging online data and email marketing to drive offline consumption. From the Digital Marketing Institute: “For the consumer, it doesn’t matter whether they are buying online or offline, but they want to be able to interact with brands in both spaces with as little friction as possible. “

A new model of organizing

As crass as the marketing playbook may seem, the convergence of online and offline has been happening for some time now in campaigning too. Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter — two of the most influential mass movements of the past 5 years — are examples of this. Both have “front doors” — places where people can enter the organizing from online, in person, or anything in between. It could be a website, an infographic, a physical location, a training, anywhere potential participants can plug in, and get a taste of what the movement is about at whatever speed suits them. People can research around the edges of the movement, assessing their own alignment with what the movement hopes to achieve from their own living rooms; or, in the heat of the moment they could jump right into the thick of the action and take on responsibility for co-creating the movement through their own participation. If participants don’t like the feel of an action, they don’t have to go. Or with just a few clicks they could propose their own event, potentially drawing thousands. In this model there are entry points at multiple levels of engagement which allows people to choose the method of participation that works for them and become more involved as opportunity or desire allows.

This is a massive departure from the digital organizing of the mid 2000s which usually only had one point of entry, historically, petition actions, which would put action takers on a “ladder of engagement”. Once individuals took action on a petition they would then be asked to take more actions in the form of making a donation, calling a representative, and finally showing up to an offline action. And usually in that order.

The most powerful movements of the last five years have had multiple points of entry, every tweet, email, march, article, Facebook event, occupation site is an opportunity to deepen engagement and strategically grow to scale.

A cycle between offline and online

Frequently this model starts small. An isolated event, a protest, an occupation. Whether people come together organically or are organized via online channels, once a dedicated group of people start making a stand it can be amplified via the Internet and social media enough to drive like-minded people to the site (or sites) of action, whether those sites be offline or online. The action then grows larger, drawing even more support from online communities and before long this strategic unity of online and offline can create enough energy to grow the crescendo of a cause so loud that it becomes impossible for main stream media to ignore.

Black Lives Matter Minneapolis is a perfect example of this. The organization started small with a highway shut down just weeks after Darren Wilson’s 2014 acquittal. They acted from the heart, not as a result of coordination from a central organizing committee, but because they resonated with a wider movement. And by amplifying their work through social media they were able to connect with enough people, who also resonated with the movement, to bring the Mall of America to a standstill just weeks later on one of the most lucrative shopping days of the year.

The mobilizations against the Keystone Pipeline, The Movement for Black Lives, the Sanders campaign. Each of these movements elbowed their way from obscurity into the mainstream using some iteration of this cycle. Through using a digital to offline model they have carved out space to build enough support to take over the public discourse to center the issues that matter most, in the process, and make changes that not long ago seemed inconceivable become inevitable.

For evidence look no further than the broader Movement for Black Lives, which in the span of just a few years has obliterated the long standing fantasy of a post racial America, forced the removal of corrupt district attorney’s, sparked the reformation of police departments around the country, and finally finally begun to bring down the Confederate Flag.

We can also see the relationship between online and offline play out in the success of the Sanders campaign — a movement that took hold first in social media before the Senator’s formal campaign was ever seriously resourced. Groups like The People for Bernie, through memes and thoughtful narrative, ignited a powerful yet largely unofficial Bernie movement that was so robust that the formal campaign infrastructure was able to absorb it into real organizing power. The harnessing of this movement energy transformed the Senator’s bid for the democratic nomination from a laughable candidacy to a serious threat to the Democratic establishment and thrust issues of economic justice and wealth inequality firmly back into the mainstream.

And that’s not all, there are more examples to spare: Occupy Sandy, the defeat of the Keystone pipeline, everywhere you look the most powerful organizing of the last five years replicates some pieces of this integration. This is not the email-blast driven digital organizing of the Dean campaign, it’s what comes next — a new model in which digital is not directive, but in ongoing relationship with offline activity. The traditional ladder of engagement, in which people are encouraged to incrementally scale up their involvement, has little to no bearing — here you can go from 0 to 60 in no time at all, and from 60 to 0 just as quickly.

We’re just getting started

This model is in its infancy. So far, it has largely unfolded emergently. The relationships between online and offline, to date, have frequently evolved without deep intention — sometimes to disastrous result.

In decentralized movements lack of clarity around access to digital infrastructure can create roadblocks, miscommunication and power struggles that can tear away at a movement from within. Occupy Wall Street here serves as a good example. At the height of Occupy, rancorous fights broke out over access to the official website, Twitter handle, and Facebook page — all real platforms of power which gave some people more access to shaping the narrative than others.

The same is true in the Movement for Black Lives where unequal access to platforms both digital and actual have allowed some a disproportionate ability to channel the work of a movement to into their own personal capital. In movement spaces who has (and who doesn’t have) access to communication platforms is frequently the site of conflict. Digital communications are rarely thoughtfully constructed before movements come to power, and have yet to be optimized in relationship to movements.

On the other side, digital-native organizations often establish field teams only for a fixed, predetermined aims. Control is centralized and volunteers are not cultivated but plugged into a bigger picture. The major decisions are left to the experts. Campaigns are run from the top down and feel that way. Lasting relationships rarely emerge and leadership is not cultivated outside of the “expert” core.

The #NoKXL movement to stop the Keystone Pipeline, for example had massive participation from digital organizations like 350.org, CREDO, and The Other 98%, all of which used online tools to organize large mobilizations against the pipeline as well as amplify the ongoing actions on the part of many directly-impacted groups. Yet once people were led through the mobilization there was little intention or support to sustain lasting infrastructure or nurture relationships in decentralized groups.

We have yet to marry ongoing digital action with ongoing decentralized action. But there is reason to believe we are heading in that direction.

Online organizations are escalating. Just this year, Avaaz-supported Democracy Spring and 350.org’s Break Free mobilizations have signaled a shift of online organizations towards more-networked organizing models capable of to scaling escalation in a way previously unimaginable by digital organizations.

And volunteer-driven groups like If Not Now are picking up deep digital infrastructure to amplify their work and pull like-minded people into their organizing.

A new era of network weaving using online and offline tools is upon us and that’s a good thing because social movements demand the forging of new social relationships. The more we can create structures where regular people can plug in, connect to each other, and stand up for what matters, the more possible it will be to transform the deepest injustices in our society.