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4 Things to Watch For With ActionNetwork.org, The New Online Organizing Platform

BY David Karpf | Friday, September 13 2013

2011 Wisconsin budget protests (Photo by Justin Ormont)

Online organizing is much more than e-petitions. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, because petitions have been (small-d) democratized for such a long time – you can go to Change.org, SignOn.org, petitiononline.com, or any number of other options. Online tools for more complex tasks (list management, event management, group coordination, etc) are harder to find, and often come with exclusive, hefty price tags attached. Yesterday’s launch of ActionNetwork.org represents a promising move towards putting advanced online organizing tools in the hands of many more people…so long as they are progressives.

The Washington Post has the original scoop, titled “Hey: Now You Can Mass E-mail People Just Like Obama.” As Brian Fung writes:

“It's all part of a nascent movement to democratize political organizing. The idea, advocates say, is to turn what was once a domain for big-name strategists into a universe filled with amateur organizers — each of whom might be running his own e-mail list, database and petition site by himself.

If it takes off, the so-called "federated" approach to campaigning could connect like-minded political advocates on an ad hoc basis to tackle new niche issues. E-mail lists — which President Obama famously used to powerful effect in the last electoral cycle — could be combined and applied even by people with little to no advocacy experience, said Evan Sutton, a spokesperson for the Washington-based New Organizing Institute.

‘There are a lot of folks with an advocacy pedigree," said Sutton, "but I can see many people building an organizational list outside of any organizational structure.’”

For the techPresident community, ActionNetwork highlights four larger trends worth keeping an eye on:
1. Scaling Down in Order to Scale Up. One of the main features of ActionNetwork is that every piece of the toolset can be easily exported as an embeddable widget. We’ve seen a few major successes for widget tools in the past – ActBlue.com, for instance, offers an excellent fundraising widget, which has allowed major political blogs to smoothly incorporate candidate fundraising into their posts. Think of this as reducing the barriers-to-entry for citizen activism. Blogging became much more expansive once Blogger.com and Wordpress.com made it free and available to people who couldn’t code their way out of a paper bag. Video became a much bigger part of online activism once YouTube had developed easy uploading and embedding functions. ActionNetwork has the potential to do the same for events and constituent relations management – critical tools for combining online activism with offline activities.

2. Testing the Boundaries of the Analytics Floor. We’ve collectively spent the past year marveling at the Obama campaign’s brilliant use of data. The scale and complexity of the Obama analytics team was unrivaled, allowing for expansive use of what Daniel Kreiss calls “computational management.” Big organizations can process big data and run massive experiments to optimize their tactics and fine-tune their resource expenditures. One of the key questions emerging now is “can these same practices be applied outside of Presidential elections?” The short answer, as I’ve written elsewhere, is “yes, but only some of them.”

The analytics floor is the theoretical threshold where list sizes are too small to support testing and experimentation. We don’t know exactly what size is too small, though. One big current challenge is testing how small is too small. The ActionNetwork represents a powerful test of the analytics floor. If we distribute easy-to-use tools to thousands of organizers, and make it easy for them to combine into groups, can you expand the reach and utility of analytics? There’s the potential that ActionNetwork will not only help more people organize, but also empowering them with data that lets them organizer smarter. We’ll have to keep an eye out and see how that trend develops.

3. Nonprofit vs For-Profit Logics. Many of the biggest recent developments in activist technology have been for-profit ventures. Change.org and NationBuilder have both attracted major investments from Omidyar Network and other funders. Change.org, in particular, has succeeded as a b-corp, attempting to maximize social impact, rather than maximizing profit. As for-profit companies, Change and NationBuilder aim to appeal to the widest possible audiences, including both progressives and conservatives – occasionally leading to controversy.

ActionNetwork operates under a different organizational logic. It’s a nonprofit service, developed by Corporate Action Network with support from several major unions. Think of it as a logic of infrastructure-investment rather than a logic of market-capitalization. The founders of ActionNetwork think they can provide excellent tools to progressives at low costs. Here again, ActionNetwork is reminiscent of (tremendously successful) ActBlue.com. ActBlue is a nonprofit entity, accompanied by a small for-profit tech services arm that develops future iterations of the ActBlue platform. If it can replicate ActBlue’s success, it will disrupt the current trend toward for-profit tech services.

4. Partisan vs Neutral Tools. Also reminiscent of ActBlue, ActionNetwork bucks the recent trend toward “neutral” activist tools. Change.org and NationBuilder are premised on a commitment to putting digital tools in the hands of as many people as possible. That sounds nice in theory, but in practice it can mean empowering union-busters and voter suppression campaigns. For progressive technology advocates, that’s a bridge too far. It can amount to giving away one of the few substantial partisan advantages available to the present-day Left.

ActionNetwork is free for individuals and small groups, so there’s technically nothing stopping an individual conservative from signing up and using it for mass emailing, petitions, and events. But the more advanced group management and federated organizing tools require verification. ActionNetwork staff also monitor petition and event-creation activities to screen for progressive mission-alignment. While Change.org and NationBuilder are trying to expand and level the playing field, ActionNetwork is attempting to further the online progressive advantage. That’s an important counter to the online trends of the past year or so.

ActionNetwork looks like a major new entrant into the activist technology space. It moves us forward in the debate over democratized tools, analytics-informed activism, and the partisan technology divide. Congratulations to the developers, many of us in the techPresident community will be watching with interest as the platform rolls out.

Frequent techPresident guest contributor David Karpf is Assistant Professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. He is the author of The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy (Oxford 2012).