Building Socialism: The Trouble With Digital Organizing in the Modern World

Recently, available technology options for organizers has been a topic on our DSA listserv. I was going to fire off a response, but it occurred to me that the topic deserved a longer, more thoughtful answer and that the blog was the right forum for this. I have worked as a non-profit information and database consultant for the last five years, and as I have become more experienced, I have also become more cautious about the adoption of new programs and systems.

Without question, social movements present their own challenges. We are oftentimes talking about people and groups with limited time/money/structure, but there is also pressure to be timely and agile in our communication and management of data. Security is a concern, as some people may not want their political or social views made public, and there is always the potential threat of the opposition using that information in a negative way. Another factor is the wide range of ability and resources that members present, so the question becomes how do you make changes that don’t exclude anyone while at the same time reaching new members and striving for increased efficacy?

I read a great article from Jen Schradie in the Berkeley Journal about this last year, and the author notes that “what was most striking in my fieldwork was how activists, whether Tea Party, union, or student leaders, never talked about how technology is a liberatory new way to organize, absent leadership or hierarchy. In fact, they often emphasized how it takes high levels of organization to bring people and keep people together. One activist talked about how they needed more organizational effort to ensure that working class people without Internet access can stay in the information loop. She had to put in more time and use a variety of communication channels to make sure that everyone can participate in the organization.” She also goes on to say that Internet activism can actually promote isolation if organizatonal roles are not transparent. This is all very important to consider as we strive build multi-generational, inclusive, highly effective movements.

Technology is changing at such a rapid pace, and we are presented with new apps, programs, and websites all the time. So what do to with all these possibilities? Should we just cast a wide net, try everything, and see what sticks?

Here are a few things I’ve found helpful:

  • The best course of action is to first examine the specific goals. Oftentimes, it’s tempting to look at what technology is available, and then imagine how you’ll use it. I find that this creates lots of false-starts, where a project will have lots of support at the start, but then it is either not fully implemented or no one uses it when it’s set up. If, on the other hand, you start with your goals and then work backwards, you are more likely to have the buy-in of the people who will be using the system and this is what creates truly robust data and communcation.
  • Recognize that no system will ever be perfect – you will inevitably be leaving someone out or have some amount of inconsistent data. That’s ok, the goal should just be to get it as good as possible.
  • Think about cultivation – in what ways are different members touched by your movement? What is the ideal level of involvement you’d like to see for your members? Try to see your own “blind spots” and fill those in – so, for example, what happens when someone first joins? Do they receive an email? an  invitation to like on facebook? At what point do you invite them to an event? Etc.
  • Consider different ways to be inclusive – for example, putting a buddy system in place for your group where you have volunteers who are tech-savvy and have access to technology who are willing to work one-on-one with those in your group who want more help.
  • Ask for feedback! Even a quick survey can be helpful. Do your members know where to get information? Are there things they wish they could do but aren’t currently able to? For example, in a recent meeting a member asked if they could watch archived webinars that they were not able to attend in real-time. I think that’s a great question, and something worth looking into.

It’s an exciting time to be an activist, and I’m so impressed with the varied and amazing talents that people willingly share in order to make the world a better place. We all have a spot at the table, so to speak, and it is going to take all of our efforts to move the needle even a bit.