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Get FISA Right: Nomadic Democracy

BY Editors | Wednesday, July 9 2008

Carlo Scannella is a graduate student in the media studies department at The New School in New York City and one of the organizers of the Get FISA Right movement. We're happy to have him here. -- Nancy

In some ways, it's too early to write this post. Usually reflection
takes place at the end of an event, but, as part of the Get FISA
Right
movement, I'm not so sure where the end really is...in fact,
it's moved so fast, I'm not even sure where it started.

The story of the Get FISA Right group has already been covered
heavily in the press. Here's
the 30 second version: A group protesting Barack Obama's decision to
support the current FISA legislation appeared
on his campaign website
, and as tens of thousands of individuals
joined, it became not only the largest group on his site, but a
movement strong enough to force Obama to take notice. His response to the Get FISA Right group was a moment of validation; this became
something real.

Maybe a bit too real, as I found myself on Fourth of July weekend
sitting alone in a room on a conference call with 10 or so people I
had never met before in my life, logged into my email, editing a wiki,
organizing a political movement at breakneck speed -- all while my
family ate barbecue without me.

It was at this point I began thinking about Clay
Shirky
.

I recently attended techPresident's Personal
Democracy Forum in New York City, and heard Shirky talk about his
book, Here Comes Everybody. He started his speech off with
this:

The thesis of the book is, in five words:
Group Action just got easier...The idea is that the transaction costs,
the difficulty of simply getting a group of people together to
accomplish anything of value has historically been high, and what we
have now with the internet and mobile phones are tools that lower
those transaction costs. And there's been this explosion of what
people are doing with it.

Those words have been resonating with me over the last few days,
because organizing and participating in the Get FISA Right movement
has been "ridiculously"
easy. We're using free, social software tools to connect, to think
through ideas, to collaborate, all with the aim of taking the passion
and energy created on Barack Obama's website and shape it into
political action.

So we're using email and a listserv. We have a wiki from Wetpaint. We're using Google
Groups
and Google Docs to create initial drafts before posting
them for public review. And we're using social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to get the word out.

Group action really did just get easier.

Yet it's not perfect, and mistakes have been made, and we're
questioning ourselves every step of the way. For example, once a
(very) rough draft of our "response to the response" was created, we

posted it on the wiki. But there was uncertainty -- we knew there
would be increased attention from the press after The New York Times
published its recent
piece
on one of the group's members, Mike Stark. Was it a good
idea to put such a rough draft out in public, for reporters to
potentially see?

We also had a long discussion about changing the email messaging
function on the "My Barack Obama" site. The reasoning was that, once
the group hit 18,000+ members, the flood of email the list produced
was turning off a large number of people from the activist campaign.
There were also questions about how "productive" a list that large
could be. So it become "moderated,"
meaning one of the group's administrators would need to approve each
and every message that went out. While there was some support for this
change, many of the group members became upset, and disenchanted --
there were charges of censorship.

Whether or not this was a mistake is still not known, but something
had to be done. A happy medium was hopefully reached by applying an
extremely "loose" form of moderation, essentially weeding out only
obvious trolls. A Discussion Forum was also setup, and myBO group members were encouraged to move their
conversations over to the new platform.

All part of a day's work when running an open source political
movement by the seat of our pants.

While the group has only been working together for a short time, there
have already been some lessons learned:

Technology Must Be Boring

To borrow again from Clay Shirky, "Communications tools don't get
socially interesting until they get technologically boring." By this,
he means that it's not until technologies become ubiquitous and
commonplace and, indeed, boring, do they enable profound social
changes. For the Get FISA Right group, this meant two things. First,
the technologies themselves had to be free, readily available, and
easy to use. Tools like Wetpaint and Google Groups "pages," and sites
like Facebook meant there were platforms around which we could
collaborate. But beyond the tools themselves, for this group,
collaborating online was "boring." Many of the group members were
already well-versed in blogs and wikis, and were able to quickly
acclimate to the unique social norms and cohesiveness required to be
productive online.

Transparency Over Perfection

As mentioned above, draft statements were posted out in the public
domain well before they were ready. If we worked for a political
campaign, this would never happen. But we decided transparency was
something we valued, and conducting our business out in the open, we
felt, only added to our credibility. That said, not everything was
completely public. Certainly email discussions aren't "public" in the
sense of a wiki, nor are the pages in the Google Group; clearly, not
everything can be done by committee. But every effort was made
whenever possible to forgo perfection, get a draft of something
together, and post it quickly.

Don't Take It Personally

What is striking about the Get FISA Right group is the level of
"professionalism" involved. By that, I mean every single member of the
team is able to both give and receive constructive criticism extremely
well. To an extent, the sense of urgency around the group's mission --
mobilizing the citizenry in the days before the July FISA vote in the
Senate -- forced an environment of quick decision making. But there
was also a level of honesty that was palpable, as folks gave their
opinions and hashed out decisions in real-time. For me, I think years
of participating (pseudonymously) in the political blogosphere helped
me become better at this sort of give-and-take -- the blogs are no
place for thin skins.

18 (Or Thereabout...) Is The Magic Number

The planning group was around 18-20 people, and this seems like just
about the right size for this kind of effort. The group is large
enough to bring varied backgrounds, expertise, and interests to the
table, and also allows for work to get done across time zones. Whether
it was two in the afternoon or two in the morning, others were
available to work through whatever issues came up.

Hopefully these lessons can serve in some ways as a template for more
efforts like ours. It genuinely feels like something new is being
created here. I once heard PressThink's
Jay Rosen comment that citizen journalism is all about "extending
the news space
" into new territories. What we are doing with Get
FISA Right is extending the political space in new directions.

But is this anything new? Haven't blogs have been opening up politics
to ordinary citizens for years now?

While that may be true, blogs, with the Dean
campaign
and, even more so, the first YearlyKos
convention
, have also become part of the political landscape. At
this year's Democratic Convention, bloggers will be reporting from The Big Tent.
Politicians like Barbara Boxer, Russ Feingold,
and John Kerry have posted
frequently on Daily Kos. And blogs have become an important aspect of
professional journalism too, as increasingly we see articles written primarily
based on comments
in the blogosphere.

But perhaps the most important distinction between blogs and the Get
FISA Right movement is that bloggers have a home -- a blog has roots.
While the blogosphere hasn't quite become arborescent,
it's 28 years later and we're still
tired of trees
.

The Get FISA Right group has no home. We're distributed; nomadic.
We're a Google group and a chat room and a wiki that is constantly
changing. We're a collection of email messages in the ether.

Perhaps that will change. Since our work started, we've created an Internet
domain
. We have a logo. Perhaps one day, there will be some roots.

But, for now, we're rewriting the rules. We're walking a tightrope.

We're nomads. And it feels pretty darn good.