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.

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OPEN Director Ben Brandzel is the person most responsible for the internationalization of the MoveOn model. Brandzel joined the staff of MoveOn shortly after graduating from Brandeis University in 2003. During his four years there, he launched MoveOn Student Action, served as MoveOn’s advocacy director and helped found the internationally focused Avaaz.org. These were the years of MoveOn’s oppositional ascendance, when it was providing a digital outlet for progressive outrage against the Bush administration and pioneering a new type of rapid-response, multi-issue activism.

Soon after the Democrats took back the House in 2006, Brandzel left MoveOn for a short stint with the John Edwards presidential campaign. As the campaign unraveled, Brandzel booked a flight to Australia, where a young Internet-driven group, GetUp!, was preparing for the 2007 Australian election campaign. It was supposed to be a brief visit; Australian elections are six-week sprints, far different from the eighteen-month marathons we subject ourselves to in the United States.

In Australia, Brandzel was struck by the similarities between GetUp! and MoveOn. MoveOn was launched on September 18, 1998, as an online petition calling on Congress to “Censure Bill Clinton and Move On” from the Lewinsky scandal. MoveOn was not the first petition to go viral online. But its founders, technologists Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, hit upon a key insight: that every petition signer was, in essence, a member. “It wasn’t just about petitioning Congress,” Boyd recently said. “These people clearly wanted to do more.” Throughout the Bush years, MoveOn members took action online and offline: signing e-petitions, attending antiwar rallies, donating money for in-your-face media buys. The group was quick to respond to each new outrage, mobilizing members and then harvesting the burst of attention by growing its core list each time. (Brandzel labels this the “crisitunity” model of organizing, melding “crisis” and “opportunity.”) Membership steadily climbed, eventually surpassing 1 percent of the US population (3.2 million).

GetUp!, meanwhile, was founded in 2005 after a right-wing coalition government took control in Australia. Its founders, Jeremy Heimans and David Madden, had spent the 2004 election in the United States and briefly worked with MoveOn. One of their earlier successful campaigns pressured the government to call for the release of Australian-born Guantánamo detainee David Hicks. Between 2005 and 2008, GetUp! grew to more than 1 percent of the Australian population (230,000 members) and likewise became synonymous with the organized left. It is now the largest political organization in Australia. The Conservative coalition lost power in the 2007 election, and Prime Minister John Howard lost his seat, partly because of GetUp!’s campaigning.

“GetUp!’s success meant that we didn’t have a fluke with MoveOn; we had a model,” Brandzel said. “And GetUp! achieved MoveOn-level influence at three times the pace of MoveOn in the US.”

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If it could work in Australia, it could work elsewhere. Brandzel sent a proposal to MoveOn executive director Eli Pariser to “take the best of MoveOn to where it can help similar independent progressive groups around the world, and simultaneously bring the best of those groups back to where it can help MoveOn.” Pariser thought the idea had potential, but he cautioned, “You’ll probably have to devote five years of your life to this.” In an e-mail to his friend Ben Wikler—then an organizer with Avaaz—Brandzel wrote simply, “I feel Project Appleseed beginning.”

Brandzel was proposing a major investment in global organizing. But the large foundations balked. Progressive donors are notoriously bad about funding movement infrastructure. Conservative billionaires have written large checks over several decades to fund think-tanks and policy shops, but wealthy progressives tend to look for immediate, issue-specific results. The left simply doesn’t have Koch-style benefactors. Infrastructure often has to be cobbled together on the cheap. “Movement infrastructure isn’t sexy,” Brandzel told me. “It’s the stuff that makes the stuff that’s sexy possible.”

Lacking a stable funding source, Brandzel spent the next few years hopping from one short-term position to another, always with the Project Appleseed vision in mind. A six-month stint in Britain helped launch 38 Degrees, which now boasts 1.7 million members (approximately 2 percent of the British population).

Brandzel finds that MoveOn-style infrastructure grows best at the intersection of three conditions: a provocative conservative government, a strong progressive consensus about the issues that matter most, and dysfunctional traditional vehicles for progressive mobilization. 38 Degrees was launched while Gordon Brown’s Labour Party was in power; like MoveOn and GetUp!, it flourished once the Conservative Party took power. It has not turned back austerity economics, but it is waging a campaign  to prevent cuts to the National Health Service and has defeated an initiative to sell public forests.

After getting 38 Degrees up and running, Brandzel landed at Citizen Engagement Labs as “director of incubation and international programs.” CEL is a rarity in the progressive ecosystem—an organization specifically designed to fill the movement infrastructure gap. It was launched in 2008 by Ian Inaba, James Rucker and Daniel Souweine as an incubation space for digital organizing projects. Rucker, another former MoveOn staffer, left the organization in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to start ColorOfChange.org, a spin-off focused on giving voice to the African-American community.

CEL lowers costs for new digital advocacy groups by providing logistics and training during the start-up phase. Domestic groups like Presente.org, UltraViolet, ForecastTheFacts, DemandProgress and Occupy Our Homes have all benefited from CEL resources and support. If progressives are ever going to get better at funding movement infrastructure, it will probably be through intermediaries like CEL.

While at CEL, Brandzel connected with Canadian climate activist Jamie Biggar and advised him on the launch of Leadnow.ca. Leadnow has made waves in recent months with its campaign against Prime Minister Harper’s proposed trade agreement with China. Harper’s Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) would allow any Chinese company that does business in Canada to sue the Canadian government in secret courts for unlimited damages in response to any Canadian regulation that might reduce its expected profits. Harper finished negotiating the deal in the fall of 2012, and it was universally assumed that it would be approved quickly. But more than 100,000 Leadnow members pushed back through petitions, letters to the editor, crowd-funded full-page ads in national newspapers and radio ads on conservative talk-radio. They also crowd-funded a First Nations–led legal challenge that derailed the FIPA proposal for months. It’s a classic example of the MoveOn/OPEN style: capturing diffuse online energy, channeling it into mass action and using that action to pressure politicians.

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The OPEN model does not lack for critics. British commentator Rod Liddle thinks it encourages people who are “pig-ignorant” to force their will on legislatures. Adbusters editor Micah White, a harsh critic of MoveOn, wrote in a 2010 article for The Guardian that it “uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing. It accepts that the tactics of advertising and market research used to sell toilet paper can also build social movements…. Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change. Instead, subject lines are A/B tested and messages vetted for widest appeal…. The end result is the degradation of activism into a series of petition drives that capitalize on current events.”

MoveOn is hardly the first activist group to employ an “ideology of marketing,” though. Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Group has decades of experience building social movements, one well-scripted door-knock at a time. 

For Brandzel, the OPEN model is, at its core, a “sticky, light-touch structure that captures kinetic energy from high-energy moments. It stores that energy and grows it as movement power, then re-energizes and redeploys it elsewhere.” These moments can be any media event that attracts progressive outrage—the Iraq War, Guantánamo or Newtown. One could argue that Brandzel is talking about nothing more than list-acquisition strategies. But it takes on an almost ethical dimension. “Without this structure, all that energy dissipates,” Brandzel told me. “Every time a moment happens without this network structure in place, it is a heartbreaking loss.”

Brandzel has crafted a blueprint of sorts titled “The 8-fold Path of New Organizing,” in which he describes a set of “operating principles for building a progressive people’s movement in the 21st century.” The document reads more like political philosophy than an instruction manual. The eight principles are: progressive, grassroots, member-driven, nimble, multi-issue, full-spectrum campaigning, independent and technology is the tool. Each principle helps to define the boundaries of OPEN/MoveOn-style organizations.

By “progressive,” Brandzel is marking a key difference between MoveOn and Change.org, the largest online petition platform in the world. It employs hundreds of organizers at global scale and has amassed substantial campaign victories. But Change.org, which is registered as a socially responsible for-profit ”B Corporation,” enthusiastically partners with any cause or organization, regardless of ideology (excluding hate groups). Change.org wants to be the platform for teachers unions and school privatizers alike. Philosophically, it tries to remain value-neutral, putting digital tools in the hands of anyone who wants them. OPEN groups, on the other hand, are not value-neutral; they seek to harness and give voice to the progressive grassroots within their national boundaries.

Unlike their single-issue progressive peers, OPEN groups are less interested in lobbying and gaining access to political elites than they are in speaking truth to power and getting people into the streets. Their membership style is “low floor, high ceiling,” making them exceptionally simple to join while creating opportunities for deeper volunteer engagement. The “low floor” is where they part ways with more radical activist organizations. OPEN groups seek to engage a broad progressive public, including those who are comfortable with (or willing to commit themselves to) only small, digital actions.

OPEN groups do not envision themselves creating a progressive future on their own. Their nimble/multi-issue philosophy is designed to fill a niche within the broader progressive ecosystem. Like MoveOn, which strives to convert moments of outrage into lasting organizational structures that provide a stronger base for building progressive power, OPEN groups “chase the energy.” They look for major change moments and build partnerships with allied groups, exerting pressure on politicians without becoming beholden to any single party. Whether that means supporting primary challengers to conservative Democrats, like MoveOn in the United States, or criticizing the LibDems and Labour Party, like 38 Degrees members in Britain, OPEN groups engage in the complex balancing act of influencing the parties without becoming too closely aligned with them.

By maintaining that “technology is the tool,” Brandzel is arguing that although technology is critical, it is a means, not an end. Social media can be a boon to modern-day revolutionaries, but it does not cause revolutions. Critics of MoveOn are fond of painting it as an endless string of e-mails that fool people into believing technology will save the world. But technology is neither the cause of, nor the solution to, all of activism’s problems. OPEN groups approach technology as a worthy investment, but they recognize that technology alone will not change the world.

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Brandzel’s “8-fold path” is a philosophical blueprint, but it is only a beginning. As OPEN matures, the world’s leading digital activists will develop the finer points of their philosophy at future summits like the first international gathering in out-of-the-way Holmes. Some lessons about digital activism can emerge only through cross-national sharing and partnership. GetUp!, MoveOn, 38 Degrees, Leadnow, Compact and their sister organizations share a common DNA. They can learn things from one another that they can’t learn from older allied organizations within their home countries. As 38 Degrees executive director David Babbs put it, “We’re kind of fucking idiots for not having done this sooner.”

In April, OPEN held a start-up summit in Australia and a tech summit in Germany. (Germany is the sole non-English-speaking member of OPEN, though India’s Jhatkaa is launching this year, and France may not be far behind.) The organization is now focused on expanding to other countries, providing strategic support between organizations and facilitating the next wave of technology development.

Several of the groups are partnering with technologist Nathan Woodhull of ControlShift Labs on a new, open-source-distributed petition platform—similar to Change.org and SignOn.org, but available to smaller advocacy groups. All the OPEN organizations are tinkering with distributed petition platforms that give members more power in selecting issues and choosing strategies. As Woodhull recently explained it, these platforms are an attempt to engage online members as “real activists with agency rather than just passive e-mail recipients.”

Even if these latest innovations take off, critics like Micah White probably won’t be silenced. The OPEN model is about organization and infrastructure, response rates and small participatory acts. It is a far cry from the “poetry of deeds.” But through his new role as director of OPEN, Brandzel is helping activists in Ireland and South Africa launch MoveOn-style organizations. Soon, when “high-energy moments” occur in these countries, they will be transformed into progressive movement.

In November 2010, Ben Brandzel explained “What Malcolm Gladwell Missed About Online Organizing and Creating Big Change.”