OPEN members. (Photograph by Ben Wikler)
Holmes, New York, is an unlikely locale for an international summit. The little town, fifty-five miles north of New York City, has no stoplights, no supermarket and no Wikipedia entry. But earlier this year, Holmes played host to a milestone in progressive political history. On January 7–10, thirty-two of the leading online organizers from across four continents gathered in a rustic Holmes conference center for the inaugural Online Progressive Engagement Networks (OPEN) Summit. All of them hailed from MoveOn.org–style organizations, including GetUp! (Australia), Campact (Germany), 38 Degrees (Britain), Leadnow (Canada) and nascent start-ups ActionStation (New Zealand) and Jhatkaa (India).
The OPEN Summit was the first time this self-described “sisterhood” had met face-to-face to discuss common challenges, forge new relationships and explore future partnerships. The summit also marked the official launch of OPEN, an ongoing alliance among these groups. The organizers picked this remote locale, they said, so they could “turn off the twenty-four-hour news cycle” and spend some time “collectively dreaming and scheming about the future.”
Conversations at the summit clustered around two themes: novel technological tools and longstanding strategic problems. Summit participants divided their attention between the latest advances in online petition tools and perennial questions like “What is the nature of our power?” and “How do we deepen activist engagement and give members a stronger stake?” These aren’t questions with simple answers; they’re questions that activist leaders have to keep asking again and again. And the new movement infrastructure of OPEN will provide plenty of opportunities to do just that.
OPEN signals a new phase in the evolution of online organizing—and in the life of the pioneering online group MoveOn.org. In the early days, MoveOn was a fluke. Then it became a force. Now, as MoveOn enters its fifteenth year, it is practically a franchise. Membership has more than doubled since 2008, and now hovers around 8 million. It has an education and advocacy arm as well as a PAC focused on the ballot box. In 2011, it launched SignOn.org, which further empowers members by allowing them to create and manage their own petition campaigns. As MoveOn continues to expand and innovate, a new wave of grassroots organizations cast in its mold are replicating its efforts in the United States and around the globe. Now these like-minded organizations are beginning to link up, articulating a shared set of goals and strategies.
As the MoveOn model goes global, OPEN groups are confronting familiar opportunities and challenges. MoveOn has developed an excellent structure for encouraging simple acts of citizen participation. It can leverage millions in small-dollar donations toward progressive candidates and causes, and it can deliver thousands of protesters to public rallies. Its rapid-fire mobilizations are perfectly suited for an age when media cycles move at the pace of Twitter. But such speed often comes at the cost of sustained momentum. When public attention moves from, say, the Snowden revelations to US intervention in Syria, what is left behind? Social movements require more than petitions; they need organizations and infrastructure. MoveOn alone can’t force Congress to pass a climate bill or gun control legislation. Some critics say the organization has nurtured a culture of “slacktivism,” charging that it offers little more than a crass marketing ploy and feel-good clicks. As OPEN participants leap into this fray, they are renewing a crucial debate about the strengths and limitations of online activism—and, more broadly, the best ways to harness and deploy progressive power.