Home Quick Thoughts + Shares MoveOn.org, Occupy Wish List, and the Continuing Demise of the Audience

UPDATE: MoveOn has posted a public FAQ that clarifies that they are not adding Occupy Wish List email addresses to their own list, but are merely using them to coordinate donations: http://occupywishlist.org/faq.html

There was a time, not so long ago, when an organization or a group of activists could sit around a table and – considering their goals, assets, allies, and opponents – develop a workable strategy for change. That time of strategic development in isolation is ending and the reason is the Internet.

Message from the Former Audience: “Why Wasn’t I Consulted?”

Early this year Paul Ford, a commentator for NPR, wrote a blog post called The Web Is a Customer Service Medium. In it he proposed that the fundamental question of the Internet is: “Why wasn’t I consulted?”. He explains:

“Why wasn’t I consulted,” which I abbreviate as WWIC, is the fundamental question of the web…. Humans have a fundamental need to… exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.

He gives several examples, both online and off: Michael Arrington’s “Digg’s Biggest Problem Is Its Users And Their Constant Opinions On Things“, digital groupies claiming ownership of their heroes online, anger by Star Wars fans (now the subject of a documentary) at how George Lucas destroyed theirfilms.

The necessity of participating in public creation,of being consulted, is also what Dan Gillmor was talking about when he coined the term “the former audience” in the context of citizen journalism and what Beth Kanter is talking about when she encourages nonprofits to act and strategize like porous sponges instead of self-isolating fortresses.

From film fandom to journalism to activism, participants expect to be involved in planning from the beginning, not just mobilized at the end.

Occupy Wish List and its Discontents

This is what MoveOn.org learned recently with occupywishlist.org, its attempt to assist the Occupy Wall Street (hereafter #OWS) movement by crowdsourcing supply donation while simultaneously collecting email addresses to build their own list. The site is problematic because of this uncomfortable mix of selfless and selfish motives, because of MoveOn’s partisan hard-left stance, and because of its desire to catch a bit too much of #OWS’s reflected glow.

However, the real problem was that they seem to have barreled ahead without engaging #OWS in their decision-making from the beginning, resulting in angry public denunciations from #OWS that did not help MoveOn’s image of standard-bearer for progressive change in America. (Disclaimer: This post is based on public information available online; I have not spoken to MoveOn or #OWS activists directly. Tell me if I’m wrong in the comments.)

The site seems straightforward enough (see left). It presents a list of needs which have been added by activists at Occupy sites and then provides purchase links and details so that sympathizers can fill those needs. So far so good. But then MoveOn added another step. After you press the “commit” button to buy a requested item they ask you for your name and email address.

Now, to be honest, there is no real need for a donor to provide their email address to MoveOn in order to provide an item to an Occupy site. It seems like this was just added to help MoveOn build their massive email list, the source of their mobilizing power since they first began in the late nineties. And while even this could be forgiven – they don’t need to be totally selfless, after all – they is no opt-out option: if you want to help the occupiers by filling a need, you must give your email address to MoveOn unless you intentionally bypass the platform and buy the item independently.

With other movements, this kind of “me too” encroachment might have been tolerated or even welcomed. After all, the platform does provide an easy way for sympathizers to support occupies around the country.

However, #OWS’s fierce independence, strict non-partisanship, and intense suspicion for any kind of authority resulted in a backlash. When MoveOn began promoting the site on Twitter on October 24th and 25th by reaching out to individual Occupy sites on Twitter (top tweet), some responses were very positive. @MitchHurley (middle tweet) suggested to his followers that it was a “great option to consider” to “help the #Occupy movement.” However, some on Twitter, particularly the vocal account @OccupyWikipedia, began an equally active campaign to reach out to occupiers and denounce the site (bottom tweet) with words like “OWS?MoveOn” and he coined the rather blunt hashtag “#MoveOnBackOff.”

While the chatter on Twitter about the site was tilited more on the pro-MoveOn side, on other sites the condemnation was more pronounced, and not limited to critique of the Occupy Wish List site alone. Twitter criticism joined other previous denunciations of MoveOn’s participation in #OWS, which began in early October when the protesters created a graphic (left) asking the vernerated liberal organization to kindly “fuck off,” while eschewing any kind of partisan label or hierarchical political philosophy.

Mid-month, the Wall Street money management blog The Big Picture published an email from David Degraw, whom it identified as one of the primary organizers of #OWS:

Top MoveOn leaders / executives are all over national television speaking for the movement. fully appreciate the help and support of MoveOn, but the MSM is clearly using them as the spokespeople for OWS. This is an blatant attempt to fracture the 99% into a Democratic Party organization. The leadership of MoveON are Democratic Party operatives. they are divide and conquer pawns. For years they ignored Wall Street protests to keep complete focus on the Republicans, in favor of Goldman’s Obama and Wall Street’s Democratic leadership….

Please help us stop this divide and conquer attempt.

Looking at this evidence, it seems likely that MoveOn did not consult with #OWS on occupywishlist.org because they knew that #OWS would not engage with them. It was a rather twisted logic: “I know you will say no if I ask you, so I won’t ask you.” In the past this might have been okay. MoveOn could have promoted the site to their supporters and simply ignored the rather embarrassing fact that many of the beneficiaries of the site – the #OWS protesters themselves – opposed their involvement.

However, in the age of Twitter, where a hashtag like #OccupyWishList can be used by both proponents and opponents in defining what the site means, occupywishlist.org became yet another opportunity for #OWS to use social media attack and discredit MoveOn.

Implications: The Collision of Hierarchies and Loose Networks

What does this case study imply for the future of activism? It is yet another example of the collision of hierarchies and loose networks as they battle for political power. (For a fascinating discussion of this idea, check out this Person Democracy Forum video from Mark Pesce.) Like the Egyptian revolutionaries and the Muslim Brotherhood, loose networks of activists are resisting the attempts of legacy institutions to define and control the movements they create.

The example of #OWS and MoveOn also demonstrates that it will become harder and harder for traditional organizations to ignore the fact that loose networks see them as illegitimate, since both have access to broadcast platforms like Twitter that are used to define such legitimacy issues to the broader public.

How will MoveOn respond? Will it continue to participate in #OWS despite the humiliating challenges of the protesters themselves? Will they seek to gain the respect of #OWS? Will they step back from actively engaging in the most significant challenge to the American status quo in a generation? None of these options is particularly appealing or easy, yet other legacy organizations in the advocacy space should watch MoveOn and hope that the path they eventually choose is a model to emulate and not a cautionary tale.

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4 replies to this post
  1. Mary-
    While the larger point you make about consultation and participation is spot-on, I think it’s a little bit of a mistake to pick on MoveOn for OccupyWishList.MoveOn scarcely needs to “build its list” considering that it has 5 million people on it already. According to Daniel Mintz, MoveOn’s campaign director, who I spoke to before posting about OccupyWishList (http://techpresident.com/blog-entry/occupywishlist-launches-online-registry-connecting-ows-needs-and-donors), the reason they are asking for the email of the donor (as well as the recipient, if you post a request for help), is so they can then play a matching role by connecting both to each other, AND make sure the transaction gets completed. Otherwise, you could have people offering help to occupiers, and not following thru, in which case MoveOn has failed to help the occupier, or vice versa, a scam artist seeking free goods. By getting an email from both parties, MoveOn can confirm if the transaction was actually completed, and if not, they say they will re-list the need as unfilled. This seems like a very responsible approach, though maybe they should explain more explicitly what the email is needed for.
    It’s true that there is much sensitivity among OWSers about anyone, including MoveOn, claiming to speak for them. But this kind of help appears to be welcomed, at least from the email conversation I’ve seen. David DeGraw appears to speak for himself (he’s very insistent about getting credit for inventing the “We are the 99%” meme, as if that matters…)
    Micah

    • Micah, I think a lot of my reaction was context: OWS being publicly resistant to MoveOn and MoveOn choosing to act w/o addressing those legitimacy issues, MoveOn having a reputation for, as commenter Shava wrote, being “a mill for extracting personal info and then spamming and extracting money.” Those two pieces of information together made me a bit cynical.

      I know, and acknowledge in the post, that part of MoveOn’s motivation was to help the protesters, but I also think it was to help themselves, if not through simple list-building then by catching some of the reflected glow of the OWS movement.

  2. I observed this one from the inside of the media cre of Occupy Boston, and it was not pretty.

    For myself, I am former Democratic State Committee in Oregon, although I’ve spent most of my adult life in metro Boston (where someone pretty much has to die.before you get a spot on a city committee ;) . But I have huge respect for the process at OB. There is more education and problem solving and civic process going on in that camp than in DC – it is the New Chautauqua.

    Teddy Rooseveldt said the Chautauquas were the most American thing in America. People of every level of education and literacy gathered in a temporary tent city on the edge of town and got to hear the best speakers, artists, science demonstrations – and talk about them. It was an intentionally civic tent revival.

    Yet, what do we get? Police, and marketeers.

    MoveOn, I’m sorry, are privacy whores, and have been since day one. After their first couple of years of existence, they figured iut how to justify their place in activism and tie their work to real work on the ground, becoming something mire than a mill for extracting personal info and then spamming and extracting money forever after in the name of raising consciousness on issues. (Now change.org has taken moveon.org’s old total petition/donation only mill).

    Occupy was doomed to this from the start. Born as tge brainchild of Canadian anti-consumerist AdAge equivalent of The Onion, AdBusters, Occupy Wall Street was born as an anti-consumerist prank by a group whose most elaborate organizing history was limitedto pranking billboards in Times Square. I love these guys sense of snark – but they have no idea of civics or non-violence. They decided to coat-tail on Europe’s #S17 protests on a month’s notice, and within a week, while many nonviolent organizing groups were FREAKING out that what they were doing was impossible, ill advised (protesting WS within a week of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 which killed thousands in that community), to doomed. No permits, no sanitation, no experience. And the name! Not nonviolent.

    And then within a week, they got their furst open ally. Anonymous. Who was going to test a new “toolkit” attacking the money system in solidarity. DHS took an extraordinary step of issuing an open memo warning everyone about the event.

    This is when the Day of Rage language came in, from what I saw.

    So, those of us engaged in this pluralist effort which is now a largely educational civic pluralistic effort, assailed by press and authorities for historical and hysterical and prejudicial reasons, and strained from within as any direct democracy is by pluralistic views – we do not need co-option, characterization as anything but the fruit salad of peaceful activism we are determined to be, or “help” from people who want to exploit or distort.

    No demands? No. We haven’t adequately defined the problems yet. OWS talks about corporate personhood, but then, I point out my little games-for-health company is developing a possible alternative therapy for PTSD and I can’t do good things if I can’t be personally protected from jerks who might sue me for trivial reasons in bad reasons, which happens in this society.

    People are learning that the issues go beyond slogans. People in the press, in government, in MoveOn, need to think that through too. Get a clue; get a sense of proportion and humor. Get a clue.

    Clue one: Eat the Rich — if you see this on a sign, it’s not a threat of violence. It’s a wry reference to a very dark 1980s British comedy (not as dark as Sweeny Todd or Delicatessen, but there is a genre).

    Clue two: Anything you see on MSM on Occupy is seen through more lenses than those on the camera. With the head of NPR saying that distancing NPR from an arts host who is associated with Occupy DC is covered by their policy on reporter ethics (while Cokie Roberts pulls in what, five or six figures a year in speaking fees on American domestic and foreign policy issues?) you can guarantee if this is not class based it’s baseless fear of mobs (or if not baseless, horribly self-fulfilling), or at best not-invented-here academicism. Real innovation can’t come out of efforts not led by people “like us.”

    Clue three: I’m involved in Occupy Boston’s Free School University, which has many lectures, daily, many of which pull in faculty from the best universities in the world and national and international figures from media crit/media production/gov/econ/stats/hist/poli sci — name a topic the modern Jeffersonian Citizen needs, we’re trying to address it. And we’re establishing a distance learning site for all the resources from the Occupy sites and the open web so the sleeping giant of our dear America has somewhere to learn.

    We no longer teach citizenship in school, at work, or much of anywhere. We need a movement for those who woke up short sheeted. We are not making people angry. At least, my group is not. We are trying get engaged and solve problems. Please, MoveOn, press, police, don’t make the good work harder.

  3. I’m a campaign director at MoveOn and I worked on Occupy Wish List and Iwanted to correct some of the misperceptions in this post.

    First, we are not adding people who use Occupy Wish List (OWL) to MoveOn’s list. That was spelled out in a FAQ we wrote, but it looks like that never made it on to the site until I just posted it this morning. That’s our fault, so, sorry.

    So then, you might ask, why are we requiring email and name if we’re not adding the emails to our list? The reason is quite practical. As Micah posted above, once you commit to buy something for an Occupy site, the next thing the site does is put you and the person who registered the occupation you’re buying for in direct email contact. That’s how you coordinate the delivery of the item and ask any questions you might have. It’s also how we send you the delivery address without exposing it to the whole world.

    The thing that prompted us to build the site in the first place is that we were hearing from a lot of people–allies, MoveOn members who’d gone and visited their local occupation–that there were serious material needs at many sites that weren’t being filled. At the same time, we were hearing from other members that they wanted to help, but didn’t know how best to do so. Building Occupy Wish List (OWL) seemed like a natural solution to that problem.

    However, far from avoiding engaging with #OWS for fear “they” would say no, OWL is dependent on engagement with individual occupations. It relies on them to register and post their needs on the site. The responses we’ve gotten have been overwhelmingly positive. Occupations from Boston to Anchorage to Atlanta have registered and had needs fulfilled via OWL. We’ve got a lot more work to do to continue to make the site as helpful as it can be, but so far, I’d say we’re quite pleased with how it’s been going.

    This post also cites a graphic that was floating around the internet and said it was created by “the protesters.” But as far as I know, no “official” body of #OWS ever said any such thing, nor endorsed that one once it was made. In fact, the person who claims to have made it freely admits on Reddit that he or she didn’t talk to anyone at the Occupation before making it and regrets having made it. Nonetheless, because there’s confusion and misinformation floating around the internet about what MoveOn is and what its relationship to #OWS is, we posted this FAQ a couple weeks ago and I hope folks will take a look at that if they have questions: http://moveon.org/owsfaq.html

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