On PdF Conference Call, a Talk About 350.org, and People Power
BY Nick Judd | Thursday, January 21 2010
For an hour or so this afternoon, Michael Silberman of EchoDitto and Phil Aroneanu of the climate change advocacy network 350.org talked with Micah Sifry and members of the PdF Network about how to engage large groups of people with, in financial terms, practically zilch.
In fact, Aroneanu said, that's part of the recipe for success. When 350.org set out to engage thousands of people worldwide in creating a transnational flashmob advocating for a reduction in global carbon emissions — with their protests documented in video and photos and aggregated on YouTube and Flickr — the group could have wound up with a lot of people running wildly off-message. There could have been damage to the organization's reputation. But there were no financial resources on the table, no resources to spend to help people put together their events — other than advice — and he figures that limited the group who responded to only the truest of true believers.
Aroneanu crystallized this engagement in a single image: A lone girl, standing in front of the giant sandstone reproduction of the Ishtar Gate to Babylon in Iraq, holding up a simple cloth sign. On the sign is the number 350.org, written in blue paint.
This, and 25,000 images like it, are on Flickr and on 350.org's website. They come from thousands of people around the world who went to places of significance — the tops of mountains, landmarks from Antiquity, even, via kayak, the middle of a river — on Oct. 24, 2009, to get world leaders to look at this number and, by extension, just how many folks cared about it.
The number is a target for the amount of carbon in the world's air, in parts per million, that 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben and the rest of the group's coordinators figure that world leaders should strive to reach. (350.org figures we're at around 387 ppm right now.)
That Oct. 24 event — organized, after a couple of prelude events, with technical assistance and tools provided by EchoDitto — was the crystallization of a worldwide movement that put pressure on world leaders going into last year's (milquetoast) Copenhagen conference on global climate change and created a core network of organizers Aroneanu says is now 5,200 people strong, worldwide.
What technological tools did EchoDitto have to offer, exactly? After an hour, we never really found out. Micah Sifry asked Silberman and Aroneanu about tools, and the answer he got was that 350.org leaned on the leadership and organizing tools, identified by Harvard professor and longtime organizer Marshall Ganz, to build a community around their issue. The key to action, Aroneanu said, was building up a network of like-minded people who trust each other. Can you do that on Twitter? Ask @silbatron and @philaroneanu yourself — they mentioned using Twitter and Facebook to reach some people, but they never really got back to us on that one.
In a follow-up comment to this post, Silberman wrote, "Phil [Aroneanu] or other members of the team could provide you with a long list of technologies leveraged — Drupal, [Democracy in Action], Citizen Global, Google Apps, Skype, [YouTube], [Facebook], Twitter, Flickr, etc. — but that wouldn't help one understand why 350 was successful."
The people were more important than the platform, Aroneanu said, in part because there's little hope of success with Facebook when you're trying to reach someone in a country where access is blocked or Internet access itself isn't very reliable.
And what 350.org was doing is very different, Silberman pointed out, from a lot of what folks call "online organizing" these days.
To some, he said, online organizing really means "list building:" there are direct calls to action pushed out by a central leadership, like sending letters to members of Congress or donating $10 apiece or calling 10 voters in Texas. They help, but — and Ari Melber approached this in a completely separate context in his recent report — a lot of times keeping people engaged through action is almost as important to the organization as the actions they're taking.
What was exciting to Silberman about 350.org was that it was not an organization or institution asking its supporters to answer a call to action. Instead, it was a group of organizers, by his definition, helping interested folks grow a movement. What kind of event each person participated in, where they went, what they did, was up to each of thousands of organizers around the globe.
"Yeah, we could build a list," Aroneanu said. But what was important was reaching people who felt they could turn around and drum up support in their own communities, then going out and training them on how to do that.
And train they did — six sessions around the world, Aroneanu said, in Turkey, Johannesburg, Bangkok, and one or two U.S. locations. Some training materials, like guides to organizing a vigil, getting media coverage, shooting video of an event and other topics practical and theoretical, are still available on 350.org.
"I think this is a big wakeup call for a lot of non-profit organizations and many campaigning organizations out there," Silberman said. "[It's a] case in point that you don't need to be a well-funded institution to have a meaningful impact."
** This post has been updated to include a response from Michael Silberman about which technologies are being used in the 350.org project — and why they aren't that important. It has also been corrected to make clear that EchoDitto did not provide any technological "tools" to 350.org. Rather, EchoDitto was an advisor and consultant to the group.