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'I Lose Sleep Over Upvotes -- Seriously:' How a Subreddit Became a Social Action

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, December 14 2010

How quickly can activism move on the Internet?

In just over a month, Eddie Geller went from an angry Internet person, frustrated about the direction that the policy fight over net neutrality was taking, to the co-founder and director of a real-life, incorporated political advocacy organization, acting as an interlocutor between users of the popular social bookmarking site Reddit and Federal Communications Commission member Mignon Clyburn on a phone call. All this thanks to people he had not met in person.

This is not a world-changing series of events, but it is an example of how rapidly online can move offline and start having real-life effects. And, given how often initiative springs up on the Internet only to fizzle out, it is noteworthy simply because Geller's idea actually went somewhere at all.

"You know what?" Geller posed to Reddit on Nov. 8, 2010, "F*** this idea that we can't get anything done with a Republican Congress. If we want Net Neutrality (or anything else), then we need to demand it. I propose a Reddit Political Action Committee--not committed to a party or one politician, just good policy."

(The censorship is mine.)

This rant, linking to a Raw Story reposting of an Agence France-Presse article asserting that the Republican Congress effectively meant the end of the idea that Internet providers could not give preferential treatment to traffic they liked and slow or stop traffic they didn't, spurred 452 comments and had a net total of 1,605 votes on Reddit. (That's a respectable number.) It catalyzed the next series of events: A series of meetings on IRC, which were logged, where members chimed in about issues like the creation of a charter or picking a name (The Open Source Democracy Foundation); and a new website; and incorporation in the state of Massachusetts.

Besides Geller's call with Clyburn, OSDF is also part of a coalition led by Free Press, an advocacy group, that collected 2 million petitions advocating for regulations on the Internet that would prohibit service providers from giving preferential treatment to some communications over others. (When I checked late last week, they had rounded up 1,000 or so of those.) The petitions are being hand-delivered, over time, to the FCC this week. The FCC will meet on Dec. 21 and is expected to discuss net neutrality rules, although most of us outside the commission have no information about what the proposed rules are except for a speech that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski gave on Dec. 1.

"What we saw is what happens all the time, online and offline, which is when especially one person has the vision and the drive to move something from the point of conversation to the point of action," said Josh Levy, Free Press' online campaign manager. Free Press has been watching net neutrality discussions on Reddit for some time and approached OSDF, Levy said, when the group of Redditors indicated to the world that they wanted to work on net neutrality as an issue. (Disclosure: Levy was on staff here at techPresident for about two years, as assistant, then associate editor.)

"[Geller] used online tools to do that, but I wouldn't necessarily thank or blame the Internet for that," Levy continued.

Two Redditors who chose to get involved in the project explained that they did so because it was another way to do more or less exactly what they would rather be doing while at work — or be doing for work.

"I’m a very active redditor," Joshua Vogel, the lawyer who filed incorporation papers in Massachusetts on behalf of OSDF. He continued:

I saw the initial postings about it and followed its progress. When it was clear it was more than just a fleeting whim, I decided to get involved. As to *why* I got involved? Well, the whole reason I became a lawyer was to get involved in government and policy . . . and most of the jobs I’ve been applying to lately are to work for advocacy organizations very much like OSDF. It was a fantastic fit for me: it combined my interest in the Reddit community with my professional training and career goals.

A similar desire to meld professional skills with personal beliefs drove Andrew Ettinger, a software developer from Portland, Ore.

"I like to say I'm a political junkie with a coding problem, so this scratches an itch for me," Ettinger wrote to me during a chat last week on IRC.

"I think that the reason that the OSDF resonated was the amount of money and us-vs-them politics that was shown in the last election. I hope we can at least put a dent into making elections and government about the constituents again by raising real issues and providing ways for people to track that progress."

Ettinger told me he's building a technology infrastructure for OSDF's advocacy, including a website built on Drupal integrated with the open-source constituent relationship management system CiviCRM.

That theme — a desire to move past us-and-them — is a recurring one for people coming to this idea. In an blog post on Huffington Post last week, Geller wrote:

The case for nonpartisan support for Net Neutrality couldn't be stronger. As one of our members (g3tting3v3n) put it, "What we are doing, right here, right now, is an illustration of how the Internet can be used as a user-friendly tool of democracy to empower the masses."

Regardless of peoples' ideologies and political persuasions, we find it hard to believe anyone wants the Internet to be less free or less open. Another post from a user (wdr1) read, "I'm a 'Conservative' who feels strongly about Net Neutrality...Is the [OSDF] something for me?" The answer is, obviously, yes. The user went on to write, "I'm going to disagree with the majority of the Reddit base on a lot of issues. One issue, however, I feel very strongly about & would love to support, and help Reddit push forward, is Net Neutrality. (My livelihood is tied to the Internet. To me, helping preserve the Internet is [a] lot like the forester who plants trees.)" I couldn't have said it better myself.

Net neutrality, as it will determine whether Internet service providers can give preferential treatment to sites like Amazon over ones like Reddit based on which sites pay, makes sense as an issue near and dear to Redditors' hearts.

That said, this group has far from achieved critical mass. The core group working on the new OSDF project was perhaps three dozen people when its charter was ratified, and the audience for OSDF's subreddit, who see items from OSDF on their front page when they visit Reddit, is not much more than 720 people. (Geller says the group has collected about 1,000 email addresses in the course of its partnership with Free Press.)

As FCC commissioners go, Clyburn is also a receptive ear to attitudes like the ones that OSDF's Redditors seem to share about net neutrality, and not everyone associated with OSDF thinks online petitions are going to achieve much of anything.

"They take moveon.org far more seriously than some random Internet petition," Reddit user SquireCD wrote on another political subreddit, Neoprogs. A third user linked to his comments on OSDF's subreddit. "Do you know how many of these there are? I signed this one a while back, and I will continue to sign every one of them I see. But, I'm not so optimistic to believe they give a f*** about this."

This, by the way, seems to irritate Levy to no end. When I asked him about more prominent critics of online petitions in particular and clicktivism in general, he responded strongly.

"Internet activists in general get flak from people who don't understand what they're doing, and they get accused of engaging in clicktivism," he said.

"I don't agree with any of them that petition campaigns don't work," he said later on. "There is a lot of noise coming through ... but there is also a lot of [signal]."

It seems, these days, that everyone is using Reddit. An initiative by people who purport to be part of the Internet thing, Anonymous, called Operation Leakspin, uses a subreddit to find and spread what users think are the cables from the archive of leaked State Department documents being released over time by Wikileaks, for example. There's an activism subreddit where people can present links on social action, generally, as well as actions Redditors can take.

Maybe that's a function of how easy it is to spread information on Reddit, and allow a crowd to separate intellectual heft from kruft and spin, or, at least, spin the crowd disagrees with.

Levy calls it an untapped potential hive of action.

"[They're] passionate about a lot of issues," Levy said of the millions of users of Reddit. "There's a community there ... and we've been trying to figure out not just here but elsewhere, how do you tap into that in a way that's normal, organic, not just swoop in, like, 'You guys are great, love us.'"

Geller just knows that the chief advantage to organizing on the Internet is to build groups that can quickly scale, and tapping into the Reddit zeitgeist to do that is the great unsolved problem of the foundation he has helped to build.

"If we were moveon.org or someone like that, we could just shoot an email to our supporters to get thousands of signatures on a petition," he told me in an IRC chat last week. "But we don't have that kind of list (yet), so we've been using Reddit to reach those people who care about this cause. And that post could get 5 votes (and no one sees it) or get 1000 votes and catch the eyes of thousands."

Earlier, he had summarized it this way:

"I lose sleep over upvotes -- seriously."