The Web Rewires the Movement | The Nation


The Web Rewires the Movement

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A follow-up demonstration, on March 16, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, was even more a creature of the web. A wave of candlelight vigils, following the dusk west across the Earth, involved an estimated 1 million people in more than 6,000 gatherings in 130 countries and every state in the nation. This global action was put together in even less time--six days--by an organization with only five staff people, MoveOn. What MoveOn did have was a nearly 1.5-million-person e-mail list and a piece of web software known as "the meeting tool."

About the Author

Andrew Boyd
Andrew Boyd (www.wanderbody.com), a lecturer at NYU, is co-chair of Billionaires for Bush (or Gore) and author of The...

The meeting tool allows anyone anywhere to propose a meeting time and place in his or her own neighborhood--and makes it easy for others to sign up. The day before that Sunday in March, I went to the MoveOn website, entered my ZIP code and learned that three vigils had been scheduled in my neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, including one outside the apartment of prowar Senator Chuck Schumer. The website told me how many of my neighbors had signed up for each. It was already well into the hundreds, and I made it one more.

That Sunday evening, I joined 1,500 of my neighbors. Someone handed me a candle and lit it for me; at some point a rabbi and a pastor spoke to the crowd. But otherwise, there was no obvious leadership, and it didn't seem to matter. There had been no meetings, no leaflets, no clipboards, no phone calls--we were all there, essentially, because of an e-mail we trusted.

The global vigils were but one of a string of Internet-enabled antiwar actions facilitated by UFPJ and MoveOn. MoveOn itself was founded well before the war, or even Bush's presidency, as an effort during Bill Clinton's impeachment to push Congress to censure the President and "move on." The petition went viral, gathering half a million signatures in a few weeks. After that, the group used its list to raise money for progressive Democrats, and by the time Bush was threatening war, MoveOn had become a well-oiled machine. The group raised millions of dollars online to run national TV spots and print ads, delivered a petition of 1 million signatures to the UN Security Council and got 200,000 people to call Washington on a single day. MoveOn facilitated leafleting efforts in cities and small towns across the country and coordinated volunteer-led accountability sessions with almost every member of Congress. None of this stopped the war, but it did help put antiwar sentiment squarely on the political map--and made the case for how powerful the net can be in mobilizing social protest.

"You could say that MoveOn has a postmodern organizing model," says Eli Pariser, the organization's 22-year-old campaigns director. "It's opt-in, it's decentralized, you do it from your home." MoveOn makes it easy for people to participate or not with each solicitation--an approach that embraces the permission-based culture of the Internet, and consumer culture itself. "If Nike hadn't already taken it," Pariser says, "our motto would be 'Just Do It.'" MoveOn has set the threshold for involvement so low that it has provoked skepticism among some activists--and jokes on The Daily Show. Nevertheless, this organizing model has allowed MoveOn to play an important role as a campaign aggregator--inviting people in on one issue--say, the war--and then introducing them to additional issues, from Bush's tax plan to the deregulation of media ownership. "We're helping to overcome the single-issue balkanization of the progressive movement," Pariser says.

By now, many well-funded advocacy groups (Common Cause, Environmental Defense) have developed e-mail lists topping 100,000, which they typically use to run traditional, tightly controlled campaigns, using e-mail as they would direct mail or a phone bank to mobilize their base to lobby legislators. Within the more radical global justice movement, on the other hand, there are a multitude of resource-poor grassroots groups whose e-mail lists are relatively small (5,000 to 50,000), but who use their websites to foster self-organizing--putting their organizing kit online and trusting their activist base to run with it. "What MoveOn has done," says Tom Matzzie, 28, the AFL-CIO's online mobilization manager, "is to bring the core elements of these two models together for the first time." MoveOn has a huge list that it carefully manages, and it also provides web tools that enable members to organize themselves. In the past eight months, as antiwar organizing exploded, their membership more than doubled, to a global total of more than 2.1 million.

A good e-mail list is not something you can buy or borrow. "Every MoveOn member comes to us with the personal endorsement of someone they trust," Pariser says. It is word-of-mouth organizing--in electronic form. E-mail is cheap, fast and easy to use, and it has made mixing the personal and the political more socially acceptable. Casually passing on a high-content message to a social acquaintance feels completely natural in a way handing someone a leaflet at a cocktail party never could.

This "tell a friend" phenomenon is key to how organizing happens on the net. It gives people who feel alienated from politics something valuable to contribute: their unique credibility within their particular circle of acquaintances. A small gesture to these friends can contribute to a massive multiplier effect. It is a grassroots answer to the corporate consolidation of media, which has enabled an overwhelmingly conservative punditry to give White House spin real political momentum, and the semblance of truth, simply through intensity of repetition.

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