Archive for Politics

Post-Obama Organizing? It’s Already in the Streets

Understandably, there’s been a lot of discussion in the last two weeks about the future of the powerful Obama Internet operation. Does the vast, empowered constituency serve as a virtual public advocacy campaign for Obama policy initiatives? Does it work toward the mid-terms in 2010? Re-election in 2012?

Or does it inspire a “flash cause” that puts tens of thousands of people into the streets in outraged protest less than two weeks after the election in what is a clear sign that what the Obama campaign unleashed in online organizing is just the start.

Based on the incredible success of JointheImpact.com, which channeled anger over California’s passage of the anti-gay Proposition 8 into an instant same-sex marriage advocacy organization that put the old line gay rights groups to shame, we’re voting for the latter.

Built on the WetPaint platform, using Twitter and other social networks, and boasting local organizing groups in every state, JointheImpact generated massive media attention and built itself into an action-oriented campaign that brought tens of thousands of people to mass rallies. The group combined a strong political message at the top with the tools other participants needed to organize themselves.

Here’s how Reuters covered the story:

Amy Balliett, 26, used her lunch break last Friday to start a website — http://www.jointheimpact.com — to call for coordinated action across the United States this weekend.

In a few days, more than 1 million people have visited her site and dozens of marches and meetings are now planned for 1:30 p.m. EST (1830 GMT) on Saturday.

By the evening jointheimpact.com was created, it was visited 10,000 times. By Sunday, there were 50,000 visits per hour and the computer running the site crashed. It has moved computers twice since in an effort to keep up.

“Why do we have to wait for someone to step up and say let’s do a protest?” Balliett remembered thinking after her friend, Willow Witte, posted a blog about California. “Over email we decided to do it.”

Now that’s online organizing. Genie. Bottle. Not gonna happen.

Change.gov vs. Change.org

If President-elect Barack Obama and his transition team are looking for a model that uses the power of social networks and citizen democracy to open up government, they ought to bring their own homepage – Change.gov – and replace the g-o-v with a little o-r-g.

Online social activism portal Change.org, whose origins predate (by just a little bit) the theme of the Obama ’08 campaign, has opened up a super-connected suggestion box on national policy – and if they’re smart, the new Obama Administration will dive right in. I can almost picture a Capraesque scene in the Cabinet Room come January: Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel dumps a huge hamper of Change.org suggestions on the big, shiny and table and calls on the startled Secretaries to “dig in” as President Obama nods in approval.

Not that you’d divine that sort of attitude from the dot-gov side of the Change domain spectrum: Change.gov is a handsome, well-designed billboard with a light Obama agenda, the latest transition news, and the ability to apply for jobs and send in suggestions. It’s the polar opposite of the much-lauded MyBO site of the campaign, where the campaign allowed organizers to – well – organize publicly using the Obama team’s digital plumbing. And no, your once-prized MyBO log-in and identity won’t work in the Office of the President-elect.

I don’t think you can fault the transition team of Change.gov, especially given the campaign’s track record on balancing real online collaboration with total control over the big brand messages – and I can see some of the wisdom in its skeletal “no drama” approach.

But man, imagine if they’d gone with the Ideas section of Change.org?

I was hanging out over there earlier today and the breadth of the suggestions for the Obama Administration – most of them pretty clear from Obama supporters, as least in the general – was pretty amazing.

The site throws Barack Obama’s quote on open government right up top – both an as encouragement and as a not-so-subtle challenge: I will open the doors of government and ask you to be involved in your own democracy again.”

The ideas number in the hundreds and they’re divided up by causes – economy has the most suggestions, followed by energy, government reform and education. The suggestions are voted on by Cause.org members – high vote-getters include: closing Guantanamo Bay, gay marriage initiatives, fighting global warming, and legalizing marijuana. Yeah, it’s a young liberal crowd on the whole. But there are some really interesting ideas – I was taken with the suggestion of Michael Kleinman, who describes himself as an aid worker from L.A.:

The most effective reform would be to establish a new cabinet-level Department of Development, with the power to coordinate US foreign assistance across and throughout the Government, while also implementing a long-term, strategic approach. USAID, as a sub-cabinet agency, lacks the ability to play such a role.

There are a lot of efforts out there to keep the super-wired organizing work that came to life around the Obama campaign alive – and even grow it into a real national movement that transcends a mere election campaign for a single politician. What Al Giordano is attempting with his network of Field Hands is a good example of the post-election “keep-it-going” mindset. It’s light on any unity of policy yet, but as Giordano points out, people are talking actively about their own roles as participants in democracy – something that is, frankly, a pretty new concept for a lot of Americans. And that’s what the Change.org transition site alternative is all about – a potential complement to the Change.gov side, the “outside” to the politician’s “inside.”

“I see it as parallel attempts to get people involved in civic life again — one through the public sector, the other through the private,” said Josh Levy, editor-in-chief of Change.org in an email. “I think they can work together.”

What Obama’s Victory Means for the Social Sector

[Cross-posted from onPhilanthropy.com]

In a victory that holds deep lessons for how nonprofit organizations and cause-driven ventures will organize volunteers and build support in the future, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States Tuesday in a near-landslide victory keyed by state-of-the-art social networking and online organizing.

The story of the Obama triumph is a political one to be sure; the campaign used all the traditional methods of organizing party politics, from endorsements and open-air rallies to television advertisements and neighborhood canvassing. It super-charged those traditional methods with the best online strategy ever employed in a national campaign, leveraging a digital toolset that kept supporters constantly in touch with the campaign superstructure. The Obama campaign carefully controlled the overall message and story – but it also made the key decision to free up content, unleash self-organized social networks, and encourage third-party innovations in software, web advocacy, and new media.

But it would be a mistake to view the Obama campaign solely as revolution within the political sphere.

Obama’s victory and the online army of volunteers and supporters that drove it should be viewed as both proof of the vast organizational possibilities of a mature wired network – and an impetus for further investment by nonprofits and social entrepreneurs in connecting people via the CauseWired Internet.

Obama’s online success combined two seemingly opposing core strategies: a tightly-controlled, and well-organized website with simple messaging and the slickest branding of any campaign in history and an architecture for distribution that basically told supporters, “here’s what we’ve got, now show us what you can do with it.” For all the money the Obama campaign spent on media in the 2008 cycle (perhaps the largest total media buy in history), it was that army of digital volunteers that made every dollar spent on branding and communications feel like two or three dollars in actual outreach to real voters. At the center of this effort was a clever platform designed to make even the slightest of supporters feel at home; My.BarackObama.com was a virtual organizing center that combined blogs, outreach groups, virtual volunteering, fundraising and a series of tools designed to give each Obama activist the media or the network needed to recruit other supporters.

From the start, the campaign was agnostic about platforms and the content and organizing tools available on My.BarackObama.com migrated almost anywhere a digital conversation could take place. You could easily take your support for Obama on the virtual road, to your own social networks at Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace, by sharing media Flickr and YouTube, by voting up top stories at Digg.com or by participating in social networks targeted toward various demographic groups, like Eons (Baby Boomers), BlackPlanet (African-Americans), Faithbase (church-goers), AsianAve.com (Asian-Americans), and MiGente.com (Latinos). And everywhere you went, the ubiquitous Obama brand followed, centered on hagiographic photos and a campaign insignia that was one part Tolkien’s “one true ring,” and another part Middle America margarine logo.

On My.BarackObama.com, you could sign up for an Obama campaign event, volunteer to travel to primary states and knock on doors, or make telephone calls with a handy database tool that provided both a script and a valid phone number for each bit of outreach. You could download widgets that broadcast news stories about the Obama campaign or scrolled his biography. You could get campaign text messages on your phone, or even download one of several approved “Obama ring tones.” And every now and then, you’d be asked for money. “We’ve tried to bring two principles to this campaign,” Joe Rospars, Obama’s new media director, told The Atlantic. “One is lowering the barriers to entry and making it as easy as possible for folks who come to our Web site. The other is raising the expectation of what it means to be a supporter. It’s not enough to have a bumper sticker. We want you to give five dollars, make some calls, host an event. If you look at the messages we send to people over time, there’s a presumption that they will organize.”

Joe Trippi, the tech-savvy media consultant who ran the Dean campaign’s online operation, summed up those early efforts: “We were the Wright brothers, we showed you could fly. We barely got off the ground but we got it done.” Scott Heiferman, founder of Meetup.com, put it differently: “The cat is out of the bag. The people have it in their brains that they can organize themselves.”

That thought is at the core of CauseWired political activism. As Republican blogger Alexander Brunk lamented as Obama sealed the Democratic nomination, “their side is full of activists, and ours is full of pundits.” Taking an action was at the core of Democrats’ success online as they evolved from the Dean campaign, to the break-through fundraising and organizing juggernaut of the 2006 Congressional elections, to Barack Obama’s historic campaign for President. The left rode a not-so-subtle shift in demographics and consciously empowered a new generation of supporters to take action, no matter what the platform. “I would venture to say that the reason for [Obama’s] continued success,” said new media analyst Tristan Louis, “in the face of any existing model is also based on the realization that he, as a candidate, can make himself available in any media form.”

Yet, political campaigns remain staged demonstrations of media and messaging, massive set pieces with a singular goal: electing a candidate. At the national level, they masquerade as “movements” in this cynic’s view. They’re like Rolling Stones tours – a massive temporary corporation staffed from Keith Richards down to the lowliest laborer, set up to tour the nation and take its money for a set period of time, then breaking it down, packing it up, and moving off the stage for a few years. And while electing a candidate is an important cause in itself to some – especially partisans angry at the other side – the ultimate goal in politics (along with power) is changing policy. Watching the massive social media operations in 2008, with their unprecedented list-building and constituent relations, the obvious question becomes: “what happens now?”

“When one imagines how Obama’s political army, presumably intact, might be mobilized to lobby for major legislation with just a few keystrokes, it becomes possible, for a moment at least, to imagine that he might change the political culture of Washington simply by overwhelming it,” wrote political analyst Marc Ambinder in the Atlantic. “What Obama seems to promise is, at its outer limits, a participatory democracy in which the opportunities for participation have been radically expanded. He proposes creating a public, Google-like database of every federal dollar spent. He aims to post every piece of non-emergency legislation online for five days before he signs it so that Americans can comment. A White House blog—also with comments—would be a near certainty. Overseeing this new apparatus would be a chief technology officer.”

Mark Glaser, who writes the popular MediaShift blog for PBS (and who co-wrote the proto-blog Media Grok for the Industry Standard back in the 1990s with me and Jason Chervokas), developed a list of “open source” ideas for the next President to consider in bringing policy closer to the people. He proposes moderated wikis for major policy initiatives, live online chats to complement press briefings, a transparent schedule, and a Google map of political contributions. But I like his suggestion best: “Create an online community of trusted advisers. Why not tap the wisdom of crowds and invite people with knowledge of critical subjects (energy, Middle East history, religion, etc.) to join up into online communities? These people would have to pass a certain threshold to join and be accepted, but they could give more outside opinions to subjects that are often misunderstood by politicians and political operatives. While lobbyists and special interests might join up, at least the others that join will make it a more level playing field for advice.”

Government itself remains largely another matter, though there are signs of open source improvements. In Great Britain, a movement to open government itself parallels the netroots effort to influence it. My friend and blogging doppelganger Tom Watson, Member of Parliament for West Bromwich East (Birmingham), was appointed in the spring of 2008 by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to the Cabinet Office and given the task of coordinating the transformation of British government in the digital age. In a much-quoted speech in the House of Commons, Watson pointed out that one in ten British citizens have emailed 10 Downing Street. The next step, he said, “is to enable e-petitioners to connect with each other around particular issues and to link up with policy debates both on and off Government webspace.”

Watson neatly encapsulated the coming change in how government deals with information. “The challenge is for elected representatives to follow their customers and electors into this brave new world,” he said. “Five years ago, I set up a political blog. At the time, it was seen as a radical act. People couldn’t believe that I had opened myself up to such scrutiny and occasional daily abuse. But the blog broke down the walls between legislators and electors in a way that interested me. So I persevered. Today I’m no longer a pioneer. There are thousands of political bloggers. And politicians can no longer set to default broadcast mode. They have to engage. Some have said that the Power of Information agenda is a geek manifesto. It’s not. It’s about making people’s lives and their communities better.”

That is undoubtedly true. While there is a temptation among those who track causes and online fundraising to separate political organizing from philanthropy, I think that’s a mistake – it’s wishing for a division that the audience simply won’t tolerate going forward. It’s like hoping that a print classified operation will continue to grow during the age of Craigslist. Young people don’t separate their causes into neat little boxes labeled politics and charity. They simply respond to what moves them, what their friends recommend, what they believe might change the world. This article cannot possibly capture the massive changes in politics that information technology has wrought, but it’s important to include a sense of just how quickly the landscape is changing; it’s no accident that my nonprofit clients are asking about websites like Barack Obama’s. The order is rapidly fading.

CauseWired Politics: Remembering the Near Past

By this time tomorrow, the United States will likely have a new President-elect – and just as likely, he will be the product of the most socially-wired campaign in American history. Maintaining tight message control at the top while freeing up supporters to create their own media, their own campaigns, their own constituencies has paid massive dividends for Illinois Senator Barack Obama. But it wasn’t all that long ago – the cycle before last, perhaps – that politics plunged along pretty much as it had for generations. Here’s a bit of chapter six from CauseWired, which focuses on political organizing and advocacy – sometimes it’s important to realize how near the past really is:

When I was a political reporter in the Bronx a lifetime or so ago, local political organizations ruled the ballot. In those days, there were two basic factions in the near one-party rule of what was then America’s poorest county – the regular organization and the insurgents. One had power, the other wanted it. And both used the same means: armies of volunteers and paid staff, gathering the requisite petitions signatures to gain a place on the election ballot. The organization – called the “regulars” in those days – had the upper hand. Their political clubs were bigger and their volunteers usually included a brigade of public employees who used their time off to work for the very bosses who pretty guaranteed their continued employment – and their chance for advancement. These same political activists also contributed to the party coffers, which allowed the organization to pay for the type of advertising efforts that worked in local campaigns – palm cards, fliers, loud-speaker cars, newspaper ads, and the occasional radio spot.

In New York, each borough had its regular organization – in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn they were Democrats; in Staten Island, Republicans. They often got together for the big citywide races, designating candidates after bruising primary campaigns that took real money to buy television advertising. The insurgents, meanwhile, operated around the edges – running their own political clubs and, if they were very well organized, electing some councilmembers, state legislators and judges of their own. They used the same system of club organization, street signature and campaigning operations, and patronage. Often, they put themselves into position to cut a deal with the regulars and thereby help make a candidate for boroughwide or citywide office.

Thus, there were two tiers to political access – the party insiders and the outsiders who still knew how to run the machinery well enough. In cities all across the country, in suburban districts, and in rural counties, the de facto system has remained very much the same. The two keys to real political power were patronage and money – forever intertwined. Contributions went through the big, organized groups – jobs and candidacies flowed the other way.

Then came the grand disruption: a change in political organizing still in its infancy, but capable of rewriting how we operate this republic. That disruption uses the CauseWired digital tools to displace the entrenched powers, creating new organizing levers for changing public policy and bringing new candidates to the fore. Sometimes, this involves major political campaigns – but sometimes, it’s just about local issues or putting the pressure on incumbents to change their positions. In all cases, it’s about ordinary people plugging in and linking up to create political change.

Not So Fast! Election Day Monitoring Goes Mobile

Just three weeks ago, social networking gurus Nancy Scola and Allison Fine of techPresident and the Personal Democracy Forum tossed out a big idea: why not use mobile technology and the kind of short-messaging techniques capturing hearts and minds among the digerati to help keep track of irregularities on Election Day. Here’s how they put it:

We know. It sounds ridiculous at first. But it might not be as crazy as you think.

Why not? Well, here’s what we’re thinking. We all know that American elections can be messy affairs. As longtime online organizer Jon Pincus recently noted, “voter suppression relies to a large extent on information asymmetry.” That imbalance, if not corrected for, can create just enough hoops that discourage all but the most motivated among us from jumping through them on our way to voting. From voter caging to misleading fliers to faulty machinery to the long waits exacerbated by poorly trained poll workers, it’s often a lack of knowing that jams up the process.

And for far too long, the job of election protection has fallen largely to lawyers schooled in election law. But there’s an opportunity before us right now and through Election Day for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of citizens to identify and rectify voting problems in real time.

Not so crazy, as it turns out. The idea had wings and with some intense work and creative organizing (I’ve been watching some of this unfold, not so ironically, on Twitter) the duo has a network in place to track problems at the polls around the country via cell phones and Twitter. it’s really great work, a real “flash cause” that came together because of the energy and vision of a couple of people and the power of the network. So without further ado, here’s the public service announcement portion of this post – and by all means, reblog it, Twitter it, spread it around:

A large number of groups working on voter outreach and protection efforts have joined this effort.  They include: the 866-OUR-VOTE (The Election Protection Coalition), Rock the Vote, Credo Mobile, Common Cause, Plodt.com, YouTube, twittervision.com, NPR’s Social Media Desk, Independence Year Foundation, Center for Community Change, Student PIRGs, PBS, Women Donors Network, and Demos.

And now we need everyone’s help to get the word out — this effort will only work if lots of people are using the system.  So, here’s how it works:

If you currently use Twitter, send a message after you vote that begins with #votereport (this is critically important for ensuring that your message gets to the right place.)  Then write some or all of the following:

#[zip code] to indicate where you’re voting; ex., “#12345″
#machine for machine problems; ex., “#machine broken, using prov. ballot”
#reg for registration troubles; ex., “#reg I wasn’t on the rolls”
#wait:minutes for long lines; ex., “#wait:120 and I’m coming back later”
#good or #bad to give a quick sense of your overall experience
#EP+your state if you have a serious problem and need help from the Election Protection coalition; ex., #EPOH
If you don’t use Twitter and want to go to http://www.twitter.com, sign up then follow the directions above.

If you want to participate by cellphone but don’t want to use Twitter, you can:

Send a text message to 66937 that begins with “#votereport”
Key in a report by calling (567) 258-VOTE/8683
Download and use the iPhone app (coming soon)
Please participate — we need lots and lots of voices heard on Election Day!

That’s it — let’s go and “tweet” this election!

Bill Clinton and the Economic Crisis: A Blogger’s Chat

The question for philanthropy says former President Bill Clinton, is whether “people give more or less” during the unfolding American financial crisis.

“I think there’s at least a 50-percent chance they’ll give more,” he told a small group of bloggers Monday night during a meeting in his suite at the Sheraton New York, site this week of the fourth annual Clinton Global Initiative conference.

President Clinton covered a wide range of topics – from economics and banking to environmental technology and politics in the hemisphere – during an informal and freewheeling discussion that featured few questions but expansive answers on the world situation. Overall, Clinton maintained an optimistic view on the eve of his annual CGI confab, which is timed to the opening of the United Nations General Assembly and brings together heads of state, top business leaders, philanthropic executives and a slew of celebrities.
The ideas is to create an environment for philanthropic deal-making on a broad scale, and CGI has been responsible for leveraging billions in private funds and investments for global causes over its first four years through “commitments,” essentially term sheets for doing good, that are signed by governments, companies, NGOs, individuals, and foundations at the gathering.

There are, of course, political notes to CGI – some subtle, and others right out on the awning in block letters. For example, both candidates for president, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, will speak about energy at CGI – McCain in person, Obama via satellite. And Senator Hillary Clinton, the runner-up in the race for the Democratic nomination, will be a presence just as she was last year as her campaign got underway. Yet CGI is also relentlessly non-partisan: Laura Bush opened the conference two years ago, Al Gore is a regular, and conservative oilman T. Boone Pickens is in the spotlight this year for his energy proposals. Throw in British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Queen Rania of Jordan, and UN Secretary-General Ban ki Moon, along with business titans and philanthropists like Bill Gates and Muhammad Yunus, and household names like Bono, Barbra Streisand and Muhammad Ali, and it’s quite a mix.

The impact on philanthropy was very much on Bill Clinton’s mind Monday night. “The current economic crisis will make the work of putting philanthropists and organizations together more significant over the next couple of years.”

He talked about humanitarian assistance for Haiti in the wake of devastating storms. “I’m very interested in the response here at CGI to the situation in Haiti because of what we do here, which is get business, wealthy individuals and foundations to five more money to the developing nations of the world.”
But his thoughts were also on the domestic crisis, the economic disaster that threatens the U.S. financial system. “Two-thirds of the American people cannot pay their bills any more,” he said. “They do not believe they will be able to stabilize their lives any longer.” The massive bail-out plans aimed at protecting wide swaths of the insurance, credit and banking sectors should not just protect business, said Clinton.
“It will only work if there’s a mainstream component as well as a Wall Street component…“I’m for the idea that the taxpayers ought to be paid back.”

Predicting that foreclosures on American homes would reach two million this year, Clinton called for a moratorium on home mortgage foreclosures, along with a Federally-run homeowners loan fund similar to Depression-Era programs to allow homeowners to stay in their homes while reducing payments to affordable levels and blocking foreclosures.

President Clinton said that the economic crisis was playing differently in other parts of the United States. “Hillary called [from the campaign trail in Kentucky] and said it’s really interesting how this is going .You know as a New Yorker, she sees Lehman Brothers as tens of thousands of people who worked there and may not have jobs any more, not as a few powerful people. But out here, they don’t see it yet as a big crisis requiring an urgent response, because they’ve been in trouble for years.”

And the world is also paying close attention, he said. Speaking to heads to state at CGI, President Clinton said there was good deal of worry around world about the state of the U.S. economy. “They’re more or less in shock too.”

Note: the team at onPhilanthropy will be covering the Clinton Global Initiative all week. Check back for future updates. I’ll also be Twittering away as the spirit moves me.

Update: Some of the other bloggers who graced the Clinton suite: Lance Mannion, Dana Goldstein, Deanna Zandt, Josh Orton, Josh Levy, and Jack Aponte.

A Nomination Won Online

When Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for President on Thursday night, he capped a long and inspiring campaign that set records for fundraising and personal involvement – and he also put the exclamation point on the first national campaign where the winner was determined online.

The numbers simply don’t lie – by any of the metrics tracked by the excellent techPresident website, Obama ’08 was a well-orchestrated online campaign, a wide-ranging cause that got many millions involved in some way via the network of networks. Patrick Ruffini, perhaps the best Republican analyst working at the confluence of technology and politics, doesn’t hedge a bit in his excellent essay today:

Most of the commentary on the historicity of the Obama nomination has focused on the first African American to win a major party nomination, but Obama’s win also signals a shift in the way that campaigns are waged. The broadcast era is ending, and the era of networked politics is beginning.

Without the ‘net, Obama couldn’t have won the nomination. We could say that about a great many things given the closeness of the primary race, but in many ways all the other explanations flow from it to a great extent. Obama’s celebrity — which remains the central fact of the race today — was cultivated online with things like the will.i.am video. The resources to wage aggressive campaigns in the post-Feb. 5 caucus states came from the Internet. The Internet was not a shiny toy or a silver bullet. It was the platform on which the Obama campaign’s arsenal of silver bullets was minted.

I agree with that analysis; the Internet was central to Obama’s primary campaign – it wasn’t an add-on or a feature or a gimmick. Obama became such a cause online because his team lived and worked and breathed (or so it seems) there. Ruffini roots against Obama, but he recognizes strategic brilliance when he sees it:

I have been constantly impressed at the Obama campaign’s willingness to execute on this higher strategic plain. The normal announcement of candidacy is reserved for local media hits and press. Vanilla. Traditional. Static. Old. Obama led the way in launching his campaign on its first day online.

Now, what worked in the long primary campaign may not work as well in the shorter general election sprint. The txt announcement of Joe Biden as Obama’s safe-choice VP fell flat and suffered from massive delivery glitches. It came across as a gimmick. I suspect the campaign’s use of online video, however, will remain a central focus – it’s hard-hitting, totally viral, and built to convince (or rattle) people easily.

In any case, it will be fascinating to track the wired portion of the campaigning from here on out.