Power of the iMob
Power of the iMob

by Andrew Marshall

Protesting used to mean turning up on cold, rainy days with a badly-made placard and hoping others would be there too. It was a serious, if sometimes fruitless, business that often ended up with complaints against the police, fellow protesters and the way of the world. But in the past decade, a new wave of organisations has emerged. They have taken the arguments online, making involvement much easier - and a lot more social, in a digital way.

Dot-orgs such as Avaaz, MoveOn and 38Degrees have sprung up apparently from nowhere, launching campaigns about the Iraq war, the environment, whales, bees, Burma, Syria and everything else you can imagine.

Advocates believe the process will revolutionise social activism for a new age, and change the way we think about protest and political involvement. Critics say it will never be anything more than a waste of time, a chance for the idle - the "slacktivists" - to pose as real activists.

It all began in a Chinese restaurant in Berkeley, California in 1998. Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, the married digital entrepreneurs famous for inventing the flying toaster screen-saver, were complaining about the planned impeachment of Bill Clinton over his sexual misadventures in the White House. They overheard a nearby couple having the same conversation. A few days later, they emailed a petition to a hundred or so friends calling on Congress to censure Clinton and 'move on'. Within a week, it had 100,000 signatures. Within a month, more than 300,000, according to Wired magazine.

MoveOn failed to stop the impeachment, though Clinton was acquitted and remained in the White House. But Boyd and Blades had the technological know-how and the money to continue after George W. Bush succeeded him. They had sold their software company for $14 million in 1997. MoveOn turned its membership's attention to environmental and civil liberties issues. But it was the Iraq war which proved the fund-raising possibilities of digital activism. Boyd and Blades decided to publish an anti-war advertisement in The New York Times. In three days, they had raised nearly half a million dollars.

A key recruit to MoveOn was a young radical named Eli Pariser. Alarmed by the turn of events after September 11, 2001, Pariser sent an email urging a restrained response. "Pariser woke up one morning to find 300 email messages in his inbox," according to The New York Times. Pariser was to become executive director of MoveOn and high priest of the movement.

MoveOn brought together traditional activist tools with electronic and digital protest and a democratic, grassroots feel tied to high-profile events. In the "Virtual March on Washington," more than a million Americans sent electronic messages to their congressional representatives and senators. Opponents of war could find each other quickly on the web, and organise to e-mail, call, or meet up. It didn't take months to get together.

It was an exciting and motivating prospect for any-one who wanted to become involved in social activism. The post-September 11, Bush-Blair era was a good time for young progressives to get together globally. The dot-com crash of 2000-2001 may also have had a positive impact, as the dot-orgs were flooded with job applicants and donations of old computers and office equipment.

MoveOn inspired others. In 2005, GetUp! was founded in Australia by Jeremy Heimans and David Madden. It described itself as 'a new independent political movement to build a progressive Australia'. It ran a campaign to bombard Australian senators with emails that said: "I'm sending you this message because I want you to know that I'm watching."

Avaaz, ultimately the largest and most global of the dot-orgs, also came out of MoveOn and its alumni. Individual co-founders included Ricken Patel (Avaaz's Canadian executive director); Tom Pravda, a former British diplomat; Tom Perriello, who had worked as a legal adviser to the UN and related bodies in Sierra Leone, Darfur and Afghanistan and later became a US congressman; Pariser, formerly of MoveOn; Andrea Woodhouse, formerly of the United Nations and the World Bank; and Australians Madden and Heimans.

38Degrees, the next in the family, was launched in May 2009 as a British parallel to GetUp! Founders included Ben Brandzel, formerly of MoveOn; Gemma Mortensen of Crisis Action; Paul Hilder, also of Avaaz; and Benedict Southworth of the World Development Movement.

Most of these people had worked with government or international organisations abroad. Madden had served as an army officer, and worked for the World Bank in East Timor and the UN in Indonesia. Heimans had worked for McKinsey. Others had been with NGOs. Patel, for example, had been with Internation-al Crisis Group in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan and Afghanistan. Several had been at elite academic institutions: Madden and Heimans at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard; Woodhouse and Pravda at Balliol College, Oxford; Patel had been to both.

Early funding for some of the groups came from George Soros, the currency trader and international investor, lending credibility to a kind of "Progressive International" conspiracy theory. But this charge doesn't stand up. Avaaz liberated itself from large external funding quickly, and now relies entirely on members.

Meeting those named quickly reveals some commonalities. They are all passionate internationalists. They tend to be pragmatic about means: government, NGO, private sector - they are not doctrinaire. They have faith in technology - but only as a means.

The tools have varied, but there is one that is key: blast e-mail, based on their large address list and techniques polished by the direct-marketing industry. They test campaigns rigorously on sections of their member base, to see which fly and which fail to catch on. They test the wording of e-mails and subject lines using "A/B testing" - sending out two versions of an appeal, and seeing which version spreads most rapidly. The track opens (was the e-mail opened?) and clicks (did the reader click through to the petition or fundraiser?). Their aim is to get campaigns to go viral, and spread rapidly. The wording of each e-mail is carefully scrutinised: they use inclusive, rousing language ("let's show the rich and powerful that we won't be shut up!") and images with impact.

There are some grand claims for the movements. As The New York Times said: "Dot-org politics represents the latest manifestation of a recurrent American faith that there is something inherently good in the vox populi. Democracy is at its purest and best when the largest number of voices are heard, and every institution that comes between the people and their government - the press, the political pros, the fund-raisers - taints the process."

The organisational model is light, decentralised and cheap. In 2011, Avaaz recorded income of $6.7 million, which included $890,000 on salaries (about 13 per cent) and $184,000 on fundraising. Its offices were two crumbling rooms above Pret A Manger, close to Union Square in New York. Avaaz is a low-overhead organisation with high operational leverage (it does a lot with not much money and not many employees), and high fundraising leverage (it raises a lot of money without spending much).

It has what in the tech business is called scaleability: it grew very rapidly indeed without needing to in- crease staffing or infrastructure. Other large NGOs are keeping a close eye on Avaaz in particular; partly from fascination, partly from envy.

That doesn't mean the dot-orgs attract uncritical admiration. Much of the criticism of these movements has come from the Left, which sometimes sees them as a way for the idle and unthoughtful to feel radical.

"The trouble is that this model of activism uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing," wrote Micah White, a US social activist and writer, in the Guardian. "It accepts that the tactics of advertising and market research used to sell toilet paper can also build social movements. This manifests itself in an inordinate faith in the power of metrics to quantify success. Thus, everything digital activists do is meticulously monitored and analysed. The obsession with tracking clicks turns digital activism into clicktivism."

Malcom Gladwell, author of books on social psychology including The Tipping Point, dismissed internet activism as incapable of getting things done.

"Social networks are effective at increasing participation - by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires," he argued in The New Yorker.

"Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren't controlled by a single central authority . . . Because networks don't have a centralised leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can't think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?"

Both White and Gladwell see this as a betrayal of protest.

Adherents of the model say the critics fail to see the revolution. "Anyone who has read a newspaper or watched a news programme over the past year should understand that while these things may start exploding through networks online or on mobile phones, they lead to earth-shaking social change in governments and corporations, as well as hearts and mind," says Paul Hilder, formerly of Avaaz and 38Degrees, and now with Change.org.

"The discussions that took off in the coffee shops and pamphlets of 18th-century Europe and America weren't just talktivism. That early public sphere was the crucible of revolutions that defined constitutional orders that have spanned centuries. The exciting thing is that today's transformations may in time prove to be on a similar scale."

For many people, the apotheosis of the digital activism trend - and its excesses -- was provided by the Kony 2012 campaign, a video on YouTube directed against Joseph Kony, the murderous head of the Lord's Resistance Army in Africa, that went viral in March. The video was the fastest growing social video campaign ever, attracting more than 100 million views in six days. It brought global attention to a serious issue, on a scale previously only associated with the likes of singer Susan Boyle.

The NGO Invisible Children, which led the campaign, attracted brickbats along with the praise -- people who saw it as facile, misleading and even dangerous. 'Invisible Children has turned the myopic worldview of the adolescent - "if I don't know about it, then it doesn't exist, but if I care about it, then it is the most important thing in the world" - into a foreign policy prescription,' wrote Kate Cronin-Furman and Amanda Taub, two international lawyers, at the website of The Atlantic. They spoke for many.

Most had mixed opinions - admiration for the scale but not the content. "Maybe Jason Russell's web-based film Kony 2012 . . . can't be considered great documentary-making. But as a piece of digital polemic and digital activism, it is quite simply brilliant," according to Peter Bradshaw, film critic of the Guardian. But, he added, it was "partisan, tactless and very bold" and could be seen as just 'a way of making US college kids feel good about themselves."

This argument will be worked out over the next few years. Some of the early fights went to the critics; the online brigade have had the last few rounds, though. Technology is moving on and apparently buttressing the dot-orgs, not the naysayers. The Arab spring protests and the "colour revolutions" all relied on technology - blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube - as instruments of coordination, communication, campaigning and action. Governments responded, stepping up efforts to block, intercept, fake and censor. And others are using the same technologies: petitions, surveys and blast e-mails are increasingly part of the armoury for any activist or political organisation. The political battlefield is increasingly digital.

Other organisations are emerging that have similar tactics if different profiles, and are adapting the tools of online activism. Even Downing Street does e-petitions these days

The dot-orgs are also growing up and moving beyond an online-only presence: indeed they would say that online was never the point. In Syria, Avaaz provided cameras and satellite communication gear to help the opposition to get its story out. This isn't coincidence. Patel's movement may for many people symbolise technology and geekdom, but Patel is much more interested in what technology can actually achieve. The organisation has for some years experimented with the use of new technologies to help activists communicate, broadcast, witness and report atrocities and bring in intervention.

It would be surprising if the tools the organisations use now didn't become mainstream. "In a decade from now, I look forward to a time when networked campaigning will have become much more pervasive and everyday, rather than exotic," says Hilder. "We'll all be involved in hacking the world into better shape, from the supply chains of the companies we buy from to our own behaviours. The power balance between citizens and institutions will be much more equal, as will the balance between citizens and elites."

And this is the key to understanding the goals and trajectories of the dot-orgs. Perhaps the most significant thing about them is their style and the causes they champion: increasingly global, trans-border, and outside the traditional framework of political parties. By reducing the barriers to participation, Avaaz, MoveOn, Getup!, 38Degrees, Change.org and the others are bringing in a generation that feels a desire to get involved in world affairs, but which conventional structures couldn't handle. International negotiations, global corporate power-plays, vast environmental challenges, clamp downs by government thugs - these are all things that seem too far removed from our lives for us to affect, but the dot-orgs want to bring you into them. For those who subscribe, it is a heady sense of involvement, and a window into a world of possibility. The solutions can sometimes seem simplistic, but the aspiration - to inform public opinion across borders and to engage in search of a better world - is mobilising millions: at least as far as their keyboards, and that really is something.

Andrew Marshall is a media consultant and former journalist. He worked for Avaaz as a paid consultant in 2009



"Power of the iMob"