Using data to build a sense of community in grassroots organizing

November 25th, 2008 by Grace Meng

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In the past few weeks, we’ve seen two different political campaigns use technology and the Internet in new, expansive ways. We saw the mother of all online campaigns with the election of Barack Obama, and it’ll be interesting to see how its massive database of donors and volunteers is mobilized in the coming months. We’re also seeing supporters of gay marriage using Join the Impact to organize people across the country and the world, both to stage the protests that occurred simultaneously on November 15 and to create momentum for further action.

It’s fascinating to compare my.barackobama.com and jointheimpact.com with something like the ACLU Action Center. There are a lot of differences, but the one that really jumps out at me is that two recent campaigns firmly place you, the supporter, within a larger context of what others are doing in support of the same cause. It’s like that old fundraising symbol, the thermometer with a target goal, except much more interesting.

For example, Join the Impact’s first organized action was the simultaneous demonstrations that were held on November 15. The website was used not only to announce and spread the word that these demonstrations were happening, but also to record where they occurred and how many people attended. It may be fun for San Diego attendees to see that they attended the largest demonstration at 25,000 people, but it’s even more important for the 15 people who demonstrated in Sandpoint, Idaho, to know that they are part of something bigger. Traditionally, demonstrations have sought to be newsworthy by being enormous—hence, the “Million Man March” on Washington. But these demonstrations were trying to show something slightly different, a sense of support for the cause from towns both big and small, from liberal bastions to more stereotypically conservative places. The fifteen people in Sandpoint were more significant demonstrating in Sandpoint than they would have been if they had traveled to Boise and added to that demonstration by fifteen, and certainly much more than if they had traveled to San Diego. The website enabled the campaign to take a snapshot of that day that both focused on the local but also provided a view of the national that would have been impossible otherwise.

Now look at the ACLU Action Center, which focuses primarily on organizing letter-writing campaigns. It’s very easy to use, they’ll help you figure out who your senator or representative is and his or her email address, and they’ll even provide a template for the letter you send. Once you send your letter, you’ll be exhorted to send the link to all your friends. Yet the website isn’t really connecting you to anyone else. Imagine if, once you sent your letter, you got to see how many letters had been sent from your state. And that you got to compare that number to how many letters had been sent from a different state. Maybe you would see that very few letters were being sent to the representative from Utah who is actually chair of a key committee, and you would feel compelled to email your college roommate who now lives in Salt Lake City and ask her to send a letter as well.

Nonprofit organizations are eager to use “social networking” to promote their work and further their mission. It makes sense to recognize that the best kind of organizing has and always will depend on real connections between people. But the full potential of the Internet isn’t in a Facebook fan page. The best sites are going to take advantage of the Internet’s ability to collect and aggregate information in ways that reinforce a sense of community and shared purpose.

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