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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.
MoveOn failed to stop the impeachment, though Clinton was acquitted and remained in the
A key recruit to MoveOn was a young radical named
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
Avaaz, ultimately the largest and most global of the dot-orgs, also came out of MoveOn and its alumni. Individual co-founders included
38Degrees, the next in the family, was launched in May 2009 as a British parallel to GetUp! Founders included
Most of these people had worked with government or international organisations abroad. Madden had served as an army officer, and worked for the
Early funding for some of the groups came from
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
The organisational model is light, decentralised and cheap. In 2011, Avaaz recorded income of
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
"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
"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
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
Most had mixed opinions - admiration for the scale but not the content. "Maybe
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,
Other organisations are emerging that have similar tactics if different profiles, and are adapting the tools of online activism.
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.
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"Power of the iMob"