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How to Listen to Your Online Members: Debating the MoveOn Way

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, March 26 2010

If you're a typical online political activist, you probably are on a fair number of email lists, a member of a number of advocacy organizations, and maybe send dues to a few. But how often do you get asked by any of them what you think the organization should be focusing on next week? Indeed, how often do those organizations even ask you basic questions like: what's important to you right now and how are we doing?

One organization that has long prided itself on listening to its members and being guided by their concerns is the online behemoth, MoveOn.org. Now at somewhere around five million members, the progressive powerhouse is engaged in multiple campaigns, from fighting for health care reform to addressing corporate money in politics. But unlike many advocacy groups who claim to speak for their members, MoveOn constantly asks a sampling of its list for guidance and feedback. Every week, in fact, 1/52 of the membership is polled by email. Here's what that looks like. First, the email, with subject line: "How are we doing?"

Dear MoveOn member,

People have lots of different ideas about what MoveOn.org is, but the answer is actually quite simple: MoveOn is an organization designed to help regular people have a powerful voice in politics.

MoveOn's power and direction come entirely from members like you. The type of work we do together and the issues that we focus on aren't decided by MoveOn's (small) staff, they're decided by MoveOn members.

One of the main ways that happens is using surveys like this one.

Can you take a moment to tell us how you think MoveOn is doing and help set our course together?

[LINK]

This particular survey is sent out to a few thousand randomly selected members each week and every MoveOn member receives this survey at least once a year. Your feedback helps the staff understand what members want to work on this week, and how you're feeling about politics and progressive issues.

Your answers will help determine MoveOn's future course of action, so please give the unvarnished truth. If the staff need to be doing better work in a certain area, say so!

Please fill out the survey here:

[LINK]

Thanks for all you do.

–Justin, Nita, Lenore, Ilyse and the rest of the team

Want to support our work? We're entirely funded by our 5 million members—no corporate contributions, no big checks from CEOs. And our tiny staff ensures that small contributions go a long way. Chip in here.

Short, simple, to the point. Note how the text reinforces several key values: MoveOn's mission is to empower "regular" people in politics; it does that by listening closely to its members; this is a crucial governance action so please participate; oh, and by the way we do all this on a tiny staff so if this model of self-organization appeals to you, chip in here.

One can assume this email text has been fine-tuned down to the essentials, given how much MoveOn tests email messaging, and that it produces a steady and useful pulse of feedback as well as donations. MoveOn's director of political advocacy and communication, Ilyse Hogue, says that in theory every member of MoveOn should get at least one of these "how are we doing" emails a year, which means about 100,000 people get emailed each week. Their responses, she says, "are one data point in several that help us make certain we are aligned with our members in any given week." About 1,000 to 1,500 people reply to one of these Friday survey, says Daniel Mintz, the group's campaign director. Hogue adds, "We also read all of our incoming e-mail, which I think is unusual," including all the replies the group gets to its mass emails.

Once you click through to the actual survey page, you see a screen with three sets of simple questions:

Hogue tells me that the data points produced by these surveys, along with the emails that come in through MoveOn's website and via direct responses to their mass emails ("talkbacks" in her terminology) are closely monitored. They "help us to make certain we are squarely within the parameters both issue-wise and tonally of what our members want."

Of course, MoveOn pre-sets those parameters in a number of ways. The list of campaigns you can choose from on the first question come from MoveOn staff, not the membership. If MoveOn members want, say, for the organization to force the Federal Reserve to be more transparent, there isn't a clear way for them to signal that other than individually emailing the group and hoping that their interests do get noted.

Mintz, the group's campaign director, says, "In the reportback that staff see, we get word clouds based on the open-ended questions. So if a bunch of people are like, "we should take on the Federal Reserve," we'll see it and can then dig down deeper and look at their individual responses. Similarly, if we get a flood of people emailing us about how we should take on the Fed, we'll notice."

Second, note the language of the final question on the survey: "We always want to be supporting great work President Obama does and encouraging him to do even better. Which of these do you think should be a higher priority right now? Focus on supporting Obama's agenda [or] Focus on shifting Obama's policies to be more progressive." That's an obvious boundary-setter. MoveOn may be more democratic than your average professional advocacy organization, but it's not going to shift its focus or tone dramatically beyond those parameters--not unless members somehow demand it do so, en masse.

And that gets to a third issue: While MoveOn actively listens to its members using sophisticated online tools and devoting significant staff resources to the task, it doesn't enable its members to talk to each other and develop, through doing so, their own sense of what is important for the collective to be doing. The result is powerful and focused, in the sense that MoveOn's members get presented political action opportunities that "fit" their expressed desires (and admittedly compressed and busy lives). But the result is also carefully constrained, because it is NOT the result of an open process. Compare, if you want, the rich and highly dispersed conversation online and offline among Tea Party activists with the almost non-existent conversation among MoveOn members, and you'll get a sense of what is being potentially left on the table by MoveOn's well-honed process.

Is this a good thing? That's a question worth much more discussion. Mintz comments that "It's always a balance between making sure the stuff that actually is on people's minds does bubble up and not just paying attention to the squeakiest wheel." But he agrees that MoveOn needs to keep working on more ways to enable its members to talk to each other and thus strengthen their involvement in movement activism.

Perhaps now that health care reform is done, such a discussion will open up. Over on the DemocraticStrategist blog, writer James Vega argues that the fight over health care reform was hindered by the new nature of political organizing, and that online progressives in particular had an unrealistic sense of their own power:

The “grass-roots” character of virtual, internet-based organizations is not same as that of traditional mass movements. MoveOn, Netroots Nation and even Organizing for America, while they most certainly communicate with and coordinate the actions of large groups of people, are not the sociological equivalent of organic mass movements like the trade union or civil rights movements. Rather, they are the modern equivalent of liberal lobbying organizations of the 1960’s like the Americans for Democratic Action whose activism was narrowly focused on congress. Liberal organizations of this kind focus on specific short-term goals and do not create the kind of ongoing long-term commitment and self-sustaining “movement culture” that mass social movements do.

Does the existence of these new mass e-groups preclude or somehow weaken potential "traditional mass movements", perhaps by giving people a false sense that they are doing something by clicking on an e-petition? Perhaps, though there's probably many other factors at work, including what happens when leadership decides to lock out a sizable chunk of genuine movement activism by walling off a whole chunk of opinion (for single-payer, in this case) from involvement. I've asked a couple of netroots leaders for their comments on Vega's post, and hopefully will have more to share soon.

On the larger question of how movements get organized, I highly recommend looking at a new blog by Michael Karpman, called "Democratize the Progressive Movement." He's been discussing these questions of organizing and online democracy for a couple of weeks now. I don't agree with everything he says, but his is an important new voice in this conversation.

By the way, the metrics of MoveOn's work can't fail to impress. Here's what they say they achieved over the last year's worth of health care activism:

* 2,000 rallies and vigils attended by 150,000 people
* Hundreds of face-to-face meetings with members of Congress
* 7,813,682 petition signatures, 595,522 phone calls, and 948,705 faxes
* 150 MoveOn Councils running powerful local campaigns in 44 states
* 50,000 small-business leaders, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals supporting reform
* 1,124,457 messages in one day during the Virtual March for Real Health Care Reform
* $9.4 million raised for our campaign, and $5.6 million more pledged to support progressive primary challengers
* Dozens of ads featuring Heather Graham, REM, and MoveOn members like Janet Jacobson and Dawn Smith
* More than 3,000 news stories