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Social Movements 2.0 | The Nation

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Social Movements 2.0

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What We Don't Know

About the Author

Brendan Smith
Brendan Smith is an journalist, oysterman and labor activist. He is co-founder of Global Labor Strategies, a consulting...
Tim Costello
Tim Costello is, with Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith, co-author of the new book Globalization From Below: The Power...
Jeremy Brecher
Jeremy Brecher’s new book Save the Humans? Common Preservation in Action, just published by Paradigm...

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At a time of economic, climatic and political crisis, advocates of social justice gathered for the annual World Social Forum to contemplate a new vision for a better world.

Labor leaders and environmentalists meet to explore how to make green jobs good jobs for American workers.

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We can, and must, create common ground between the labor and climate movements.

Despite rumors of its demise, Occupy Wall Street has given rise to a flurry of actions targeting the 99 percent. What is this new phenomenon—and what role will it play in November?

These rapid changes raise more questions than they answer. Here are eight that we've been grappling with:

1. What does it mean when individuals begin organizing outside and without the help of traditional organizations? We do not know the ramifications for unions, for example, if truckers increasingly come together online to organize protests over gas prices--as they did in April 2007--without ever attending a Teamster meeting or receiving a house call from an organizer. Traditional worker organizations have already been outflanked by the global economy; now they face the challenge of workers and their allies acting collectively outside of trade union structures. This type of online self-organization might offer fertile ground for social movement organizations, or it might mean traditional "brick and mortar" institutions need to rethink how they are structured and how to position themselves in a Web 2.0 world. Some organizations might reinvent themselves as network hubs that work to frame and synthesize issues for diverse and fragmented constituencies; others might begin to transform into bridging organizations that help transfer online organizing into offline political power.

2. It's easy and cheap for organizations to bring people together into a swarm or smart mob, but what do you do with them then? Groups like MoveOn have perfected how to share information, raise money and sign petitions. But outside the electoral arena, few have been successful in converting group interest into escalating political activity. Because of this, people are joining and then quickly dropping out of social networks. Labor and social movement organizations need to keep experimenting with how to keep workers engaged and encourage online activity, from information sharing and debate to initiating collaboration, innovation and collective action.

3. Will offline social movement organizations be willing to cede control as ordinary people increasingly leverage social networking tools to channel their own activities? The destruction of hierarchies online means that top-down organizations will face increasing pressure from members to permit more rank-and-file debate and input. This is a healthy process and a long time in coming. If traditional organizations are to embrace the dynamism of the social networking sphere and move beyond simply posting op-eds on Huffington Post written by union presidents or NGO executive directors, they will have to cede significant control. Organizations that resist this trend will become increasingly irrelevant online and offline.

4. How do labor and social movement organizations address the dangers associated with online action? The majority of online tools and spaces are commercial ventures, and the transparent nature of the web means that elites and bosses are always watching. Several Egyptian bloggers were jailed last year after participating in calls for a general strike. Facebook recently closed the account of an SEIU affiliate who was trying to organize casino workers in Nova Scotia, Canada. As Eric Lee told the Guardian, "Social networks in principle are excellent but something such as Facebook, for example, can close down anything it wants. So I think unions need to have their own tools, websites and mail lists." At the same time, there are legitimate concerns about the spread of online anonymous slander and racism, "mobbing" of innocent victims (e.g. "swiftboating"), false rumors or misinformation without ways to rebut. Social movements need to anticipate and respond quickly to racist, nationalist and other destructive forces converging online.

5. How do we track the demographics of who's online and who's not and what tools they are using? Some of the numbers on web usage are surprising. It's known, for example, that Latinos in the United States are offline in huge numbers but their cellphone use is skyrocketing just as mobile phones are increasingly web-enabled. It's also known that poor and working-class folks in the United States are often trapped offline, but those that are online appear to be more interactive and engaged than other segments of the population. According to the Pew Research Center, households making less than $50,000 a year are more likely to post content (pictures, music, comments in chatrooms, etc.) online than higher-income households. The demographics are changing fast; social movements need to be constantly reassessing assumptions about their target audience.

6. How do we present complex ideas online? We know that people take in information in myriad ways and weigh it differently depending on medium. On the web it is been difficult to figure out how to present complex ideas and synthesize large swaths of information--blog posts and YouTube talking points work; long issue reports and white papers do not.

7. How does offline and online social movement building fit together? We know it is essential, but where and when to rely on face-to-face contact during an online campaign and vice versa is still unknown. When, for example, do we call a virtual versus a nonvirtual protest; when is physical contact required to build lasting and deep solidarity versus cheap and fast Facebook or Twitter campaigns? The Obama campaign broke new ground by fully integrating its online and offline activities. Each time a supporter interacted with the campaign, data specialists created new layers for targeting that person by region, engagement and volunteer preferences. Then organizers used many tools--text messages, phone calls, house visits, etc.--to figure out how and where to plug supporters into the campaign structure. Social movement organizations need to experiment with these techniques but anticipate that online organizing will continue to be littered with failed experiments.

8. How can social movements wield real power online? Corporate and political elites have yet to figure out how to transfer their existing power structures into the virtual world. This 2.0 governance crisis is good news for social movements since it opens up a space for us to build alternatives to the current system. But it also means that essential social movement tactics we have used in the past to resist and interrupt power structures--such as strikes and civil disobedience--are at the moment less effective online. We need to keep exploring what if any are the means by which organized groups of people can exercise power online or parlay their online organization into power offline.

None of these questions will be answered overnight, but it is in our interest to engage this new terrain and figure out how to use these swirling forces to our advantage.

So where to we go from here? Last spring, encouraged by the success of their virtual IBM strike, labor organizers launched "Union Island" on Second Life, a space built to help the labor movement leverage social networking tools, including how to create avatars and build more dynamic websites, as well as swap tricks of the trade over a "beer" at the virtual bar.

Maybe we can all start by heading over to the bar for a virtual beer.

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