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.
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.