You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

LiveBlogging from Berkman: Organizing in an Age of Surplus Powerfulness

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, December 10 2008

Andrew Rasiej and I are in Cambridge, MA today and tomorrow at the Berkman Center's "Internet Politics 2008" conference. Several techPresident contributors are here, including Gene K., Ari M., Garrett G., Chris R, and David A. and tons of friends and colleagues. The conference is semi-open in the sense that we are allowed to blog about it under the "Chatham House rule," which means that we're not supposed to name people (hence my semi-cryptic references), but that we're free to use the information shared, unless someone says something is completely off the record. Some of the conversations are being recorded and will be eventually posted to the Berkman website, however. So, consider yourself forewarned, I'm somewhat handcuffed here...

We just finished a morning session with Marshall Ganz and Jeremy Bird reflecting on the interplay of technology and grass-roots organizing in the Obama campaign. This session was open for blogging (it was one of several keynote conversations that the program says will be ultimately posted to the web), and indeed Gene has posted a great near-verbatim summary of their remarks here and here. Two themes of great interest to me started to emerge from their remarks:

1. There's an ongoing tension between the needs of a political organization and the wider online culture of political activism today, thanks to the net. A political organization like Obama for America had, and in fact still has, a need for control and focus that is inevitably in conflict with how we netizens learn and collaborate today. From the perspective of a campaign leadership focused on winning an election, or a legislative fight, sharing everything they may know about what works and what doesn't work is akin to sharing company secrets with the competition. Thus, all the top-down information-gathering the Obama rump organization in Chicago is now doing--online surveys, conference calls with field organizers, house-parties this weekend--make sense from their perspective. But as Peter Daou just said (he said his remarks were on the record), what's new about the political moment is something like ten million people are engaged in an ongoing public conversation, with few filters, about politics. By staying closed (or as they say, planning with "deliberate haste," the Obama team is also trying to stay smarter than their real and potential adversaries. But as a result they are probably also leaving energy on the table, and they're also stunting a learning conversation that could make their movement smarter and stronger.

2. We netizens need to be more self-critical about the unintended consequences of hyperpolitics. Ganz has much to teach us here. He argues that "purposeful collective action" requires real structures for accountability. "Structure creates a space in which activity can occur, decisions can be made and results judged," he noted. And so he worries a great deal about the far-flung connections that occur online. "It’s very easy to imagine, sitting in a room, that you’re connected to millions of people," he said. "It’s different when you are in real human relationships with people, which builds a different kind of accountability." If you've ever been involved in a flame war on an email list or a blog comment thread (who hasn't?), you know he's right. Political communities online do have a rough accountability system (in theory, bloggers have to constantly re-earn their readers' trust), but I'd be hard-pressed to argue that unstructured conversations online are the best way to get purposeful collective action.

But community organizing mavens like Ganz and Bird need our help in thinking about what to do in an age of surplus powerfulness, or what Clay Shirky called the "cognitive surplus." Internet communications technologies are lowering many barriers to political participation, making joining a movement as easy as "friending" a candidate, leaving an email address, clicking a donation button, or posting a comment on a blog. Thus it's not a fantasy to talk about ten million people, or even double that number, that got involved in the election in 2008 in a tangible way, and want to stay involved in some way. What do you do when too many people show up to volunteer for something? This paper by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen--"The Labors of Internet-Assisted Activism: Overcommunication, Miscommunication and Communicative Overload"-- offers a rich depiction of the problem the Obama campaign encountered last winter in New York when its local organizers had too try to deal with too many volunteers signing up and trying to plug into the primary campaign there.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the lesson of the story is we collectively need much better tools for mass collaboration than we now have. How do we scale up relationships of trust and accountability? Are we bound by what our brains are capable of--face-to-face relationships with a few hundred peers at best? Or can we develop effective communications and reputation systems that would enable much larger groups to connect effectively?