Using the Net to organize

Dave Riley, long-time organizer in Australia comments on my recent post, The Left and the Blathersphere.

Yeah, this is an interesting observation but I guess it begs a larger question: what is the role and what is the tactics that the ‘hard’ left should pursue in cyberspace?

Most important, I think, cyberspace organizing needs to grow out an existing organization. Then it has roots, a base, volunteers, maybe even paid staff, plus perspective and experience. The cyberspace presence needs to accurately portray who the group really is, and can be a powerful recruitment tool as well as a way to quickly spread news, points-of-view, and propaganda.

It’s the recruiting though, where the web can shine, especially for the hard left. Someone discovers you through Google, starts reading your articles. There should be multiple ways for them to get involved; like listservs, petitions, and, if they’re in the area, local events of interest. This draws them in, and if you nurture them, some will end up becoming volunteers and organizers.

I’ve been in the ANSWER Coalition for several years and it was their listserv that initially got my interest. However, and this is an perfect example of why a cyberspace presence needs to emerge from an on-the-ground group, I joined the listserv because someone handed me an ANSWER flyer at an event, and I read it. Face-to-face is still the best way to organize.

Coming from a format resting on Lenin’s perspective of an ‘all Russia newspaper’ and leafleting, forums and the like,the socialist groups have made a jump to cyberspace but then I think a lot of opportunities are squandered there.

That may be because cyberspace currently requires highly specialized and technical skills, way more so than a newspaper. An organization might not have anyone who can, say, tweak a blog template, put a database online, or design an attractive website. No easy answers here, although blog software, especially WordPress, continually gets more powerful and easier to use.

Small groups might consider getting a free WordPress blog at This is a stripped-down version of the full product, you get free hosting forever, and it’s an ideal way for a small group with little in the way of technical chops to get a web presence.

Green Left Weekly here is the most popular political web site in the country with significant international rankings but I reckon a lot of this Web 2.0 stuff offers a platform to do more, to experiment a bit and consolidate some highly potent ways to deliver content.

I can only be in awe of a country where something like Green Left Weekly is the most popular political website… Web 2.0 is powerful indeed, however content will always be what keeps them coming back. Keep the content fresh, relevant, and changing.

The problem partly is that a newspaper per se is a group project — it’s a collective exercise — while a lot of the web interfaces can be simply individual activities. Blogging is a prime example — although group blogs exist.

My problem is that I’m trying to get some sort of perspective in my head to pilot by. Because political activism is so much focused at running hard in the real world it’s difficult for these same activists to muse about the passive universe of the web. And it is passive despite any amount of interactivity.

Excellent points. Activists who can successfully table an event for three hours aren’t usually same people who can spend hours debugging code on the website. And the web is passive, no getting around that. The web surfer doesn’t ever have to do anything. That’s why the website needs to draw them in and get them involved.

But I kinda think there’s a lot on offer that can greatly enhance the collective activism and democracy of what we do –or try to do.

The Net is always changing and morphing, however blogs and podcasts (both audio and video) are currently highly effective ways to reach and recruit, along with, of course, the organization’s website.

These are tools, powerful tools, but still tools. Cyberspace can augment and build the activism, but can never substitute for it.

  • One subject you haven’t raised here is the question of geographical reach. ANSWER, for example (or any other group) only exists in a handful of places. Someone in Podunk, Iowa has no access to any such groups in person, and is never going to be handed a flyer. But the opportunity for them to listen to forums that you (and others) place on the web as mp3s/podcasts (as well as read articles, sign petitions, etc.) is a tremendously valuable way to get them involved as much as they can in their isolated small town. Then, who knows, maybe they’ll organize their own group and the left will spread geographically as well as numerically. Not to mention helping out financially.

  • Bob

    True. The goal is always to get organizers on the ground in their community, but this can certainly start with a cyberspace connection. Fundraising is an important point too, the Net certainly broadens your reach, and for tiny amounts of money compared to any other method too.

  • Eli, thats’ right — such that I read what you say on your blog so far away here in Australia. So you r e a c h that far and more. And here we are chatting although we live in different hemispheres. But these features of web life are standard.

    People here had been asking me to write an assessment of the sort of netroots stuff coming out of your Dems — but I couldn’t get it. It was like these people had a magic bullet — indeed they were selling it like banana oil –that turned political organising on its head.

    And you get stuff here too like — why bother with a hard copy paper when you can do it all on the web? — like the WSWS site. But they miss all the dynamism in the detail –all the stuff that Bob was talking about.

    Here in Australia the question of r e a c h is very important. The urban centres are condensed on the seaboard and in between is the tyranny of distance that makes democracy very expensive.

    The Socialist Alliance here is very dedicated to web communications as it communicates with its membership primarily via the web. But that presents many problems as that too can foster passivity as an email is not a discourse by default. But compared to other communication and organising protocols is so darn cheap and it’s very hard to switch from internet to snail mail or even telephone in a few instances as communications media

    You can imagine how this network is used with Pdf files for posters and leaflets; e-newsletters and yahoo groups. But what it does create is a two tier membership — those with computers, web literacy and an orientation for engagement in that format — and those without. It’s a very sharp divide.

    What we are finding is that nothing substitutes for meetings either for organising or for ‘touching base’ as it were. Theres’ no shortcut than the tried and true stuff the left has always relied on.

    I’ve created quite a few blogs and ‘own’ quite a few yahoo groups in the quest for platforms to facilitate engagement and it has been an enthralling exercise in xperimentation.

    I guess the best experiment here was the GLW e list which now has just over 850 subscribers and it runs with minimal moderation. That works as a organising tool and houses quite a few important debates while also aggregating on a daily basis a lot of commentary and media that enriches the exchange of POV and information.

    It proves how important polemics can be in politics — because as Karl Marx would say , it forces you always to ascend to the concrete.

    But the way I see it a lot of this Web 2.0 stuff etc offers a little something extra than what we’ve accepted as routine before:

    1) It is spontaneous and can be accessed, delivered and shared improvisationally as the need suggests.

    2) It creates another agenda that transcends the standard routines of monthly or weekly. It potentially can make our organising more responsive and a little bit more powerful primarily because it is not limited by geography or finance.

    3)It forces upon activists a level of conciseness and density in expressing their position — in the way only a written exchange can facilitate.

    4) It promotes a greater sharing of material and ideas and methods. I think this in the clincher that most interests me. A lot of this new web stuff with all their community and networking focus can foster a broader and more active collaboration on projects that in the past tended to be a little exclusive by dint primarily of geography. Today we can really compose anything by committee (God forbid!) regardless of where people are located.

    This sharing and collaborative aspect is something I don’t think many now recognise nor utilise nearly as effectively as it could be.

    That’s what I think is beckoning. In one way we face a major leap akin to a similar degree to the time we activists embraced word processing on our computers and our leaflets were no longer ranio-ed.

    I suspect that a lot of what we can look forward to has much to do with harnessing the potential of RSS primarily because it can aggregate so many key elements together that our culture of debate, activity, reach out, propaganda, agitation, etc is generated with — and do that much more consciously as an accessible and clearly articulated pole of attraction. That that pole is located in cyberspace doesn’t really matter so much because it functions as a gateway to the whole shebang which is located, afterall, off line.

    The way I see it, blogging, for instance, is a tool that can fill the time space between each editions of hard copy– newspaper or magazine — and RSS can draw together many of the elements that are part of our web show — e discussion lists, web pages, archived material, multi media, etc so that we can occupy “a” place more aggressively. and with a much broader sweep of information. The more we do that –and do it well — we begin to hold our own on the web especially since the web to some degree is still a level playing field. (Although Murdoch et al are keen to change all that)

    But the challenge is –as I remarked before — to collectivize these tools because they are engineered primarily for individual use.

  • Mayaguezanos con Vieques

    Saludos desde Mayaguez, Puerto Rico

    For issues and organizations that are far away from
    the centers of world power the Web is a great tool.
    Not only for getting information out that the mainsttream world media will not touch but also for organizing people from
    our area who are now dispersed throughout the world.
    People can check in and find others in their area who
    are willing to picket or write letters to the local editors to get
    the struggle publicity. This is what happened with
    our Puerto Rican struggle to get the US Navy to stop our island
    municipality of Vieques. We had organizations in many municiaplities of our islands who fored the local bases for the civil disp
    obedience but we were also able to contact Puerto Ricans and others from around the globe to help us put peaceful pressure on the US Navy to stop the bombing.

    Our struggle has not ended. We have just gone on to the next stage.
    We are now demanding that the US Navy clean its toxic mess.

  • I think that the far greater proportion of the population on the web has made a difference. So even ten years ago it could still be argued that web discussions were exclusive, that no longer washes.
    On of the myths to dispel is that blogging and internet publishing are an alternative to activism, because the best blogs and web-sites are by people who are well connected and involved. My experience is that in my own small home town people have approached me to get involved based upon reading what we are doing on the web.

    Another important aspect is the way the net has undermined the monopoly of information that the leaders of the left groups had over their membership. Although that does have the disadvantage sometimes that smaller idiosyncratic outfits that devote a lot of time to the web can have the same cyber-footprint as more serious activists.

    We try to both rpovide a news and comment site, and a blog, as they do slightly different jobs.

  • A useful tool for cyber-political organizing, in my mind, is the wiki format. A wiki is a a group of related web-pages mainated easily by a group of individuals. You may be familiar with and some others. Anyhow, I think the wiki has potential for a couple of reasons.

    It’s incredibly easy to edit and work with a wiki. Basically you click on something and enter a text and your golden – it’s easier then HTML. But more importantly, in my mind (and this is something which Dave Lister had mentioned on GLW in an article on Web 2.0) it takes the medium from a one way communication into a two-way dialogue (two way between audience and author). Indeed, the wiki strives to bring the audience into the author role. This has clear implications for the anti-imperialist movement; isn’t that one of the ABC’s of communist organizing (bringing the audience into the dialogue).

    On that note, I also agree that a new group with this purposeful bent needs to be developed – In my experience, most of the Marxist-Lenninists are adamantly opposed to this short of idea deeming it a waste of time, bordering along reformism. I’m not inclined to agree with that and I think it’s a bit foolish. Just because the ‘net didn’t exist in Russia circa 1917 and there’s no corresponding Lenin work about it is no reason not to use it…

    I’m involved in a group that has similiar notions to what I’ve outlined above and I’ll probably forward this thread along to it. Follow the link or e-mail me or ask and I’ll divulge more information. But I don’t want to just advertise either – I’m genuinely interested in this dialogue. I think it will be necessary to leverage the revolutionary power of the internet and it’s ability to communicate and create dialogue to ferment revolutionary consciousness.

  • In the immediate term as I suggested before I think harnassing the power of RSS is important because all our web pages and pretty dress ups won’t mean much unless they’re syndicated. But after being a blogger for a few years, and noting its limitations, drudgery and potential I’m keen to promote Performancing — a blog composing extension for Mozilla Firefox –as a tool to generate collective blogs and I’m looking for some projects that can explore that.

    But going back to a few features of the discussion so far…

    Bob is amazed about the weight Green Left Weekly has on the web. I guess it is a remarkable achievement by left standards of outreach. The latest report reads: “Traffic on the Green Left Weekly website jumped significantly during March[2006], with an average of 19,791 visitors to the site every day. This compares to the average number of visitors in the previous six months of about 11-12,000…On average, more than four articles were read by each visitor. ”

    With its hard copy distribution to also consider — in a population of around 20 million — GLW is definitely the left’s major asset in this country.

    So to state the obvious the core issue is CONTENT — but then GLW has been a web presence since the beginning of 1991.

    I think the challenge is to engineer the project with a greater news presence between the current schedule of weekly uploads. And that could utilize tools like blogging and RSS more . I’d also like to see some initial hook up with multi media content and utilisation of that as a news source.

    However, in talking up web use by the hard left you need to consider the world wide Indymedia project as an example of what can be done while also noting its limitations. In many ways Indymedia is being eclipsed by new technologies and the new platform of user generated content. At a recent poll and discussion at Sydney Indymedia here, contributors were active in marking Indymedia down for features that are built into its pages. It’s totally open contributions policy means that you cannot trust the journalism in all cases and it is so easy for Indymedia to deteriorate into character assassination and baiting and flame wars. But as a means to create news content on a very frequent basis, the format works extremely well I think. Indymedia also teaches us that editors are important. But then, the model is different, as the hard left — us socs — tend to have more a didactic rather than a consensual, unbridled access, approach.

    But going back to blogs in my experience I’d point out a couple of a precedents I have had experience with.

    (1) When the Boxing Day tsunami drowned coastal Jave etc in 2005 we initiated a blog to report on the event and format responses because GLW was on summer break. This was crucial as our contacts especially with the Indonesian left and the Free Aceh movement, etc needed a solidarity window in the face of the continuing war being waged by the Indonesian army despite the disaster. Later in that year when the Cronulla race riots occurred in bayside Sydney, during the same non publication period, up went another blog on the topic as the debate raged nationally.

    (2) Blogging has also proven a useful tool for special journeys. Visitors to Venezuela –as part of organised brigades — or those on placement in areas like Palestine, have been asked to generate blogs that have been turned into journalism and in some cases published as pamphlets.

    As an extension to these precedents I am now producing a regular weekly news report as a podcast generated by two GLW correspondents in Venezuela.

    But what I am hoping GLW will do is engineer a way to clump commentary and reporting bogs (and podcasts/audioblogs)together and link them more seamlessly to its web presence. Z Net does this rather well I think with its Zblogs.

    But outside the GLW ‘model’ I think Andy’s project — Socialist Unity — is a great aggregator of news and discussion which fulfils an important role. The site is a very creative use of a large mix of resources.

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