MoveOn.org is already one of the more transparent, membership-driven political organizations this world has seen. Their local councils and rolling membership surveys drive the hive’s priorities. This week, Justin Ruben announced that they were going one leap further, and “turning over the keys of our technological toolset to our more than 7 million members, asking them to step up and lead their own campaigns, and putting them squarely in the MoveOn driver’s seat.”
This is big. Here’s why:
An employee at a grassroots organization can’t dream up as many actions as millions of members of the public, and the actions they compose won’t be nearly as compelling as true, lived stories. I know: I’ve been that employee. For example, the background story and the timing are two of the absolutely critical factors in a petition gaining traction (or not). Drastically scaling up the number of people who can contribute their story and launch the petition when it’s fresh offers gigantic improvements over the officeworker, knowledgeable though he or she may be.
It activates the long tail of progressives
Judging by public opinion polls, there are many people who share progressive values with MoveOn who don’t often publicly fight for those values. National campaigns often feel forced, or at best, removed from citizens’ day-to-day lives. More campaigns launched by more people who don’t live in DC offer more opportunities to hold our elected officials, institutions, and companies accountable to the values we were taught as children.
Opening up the tools of political action not only allows an organization’s network to take more shots, but the sheer number of shots also allows each action to be more relevant to more lives. I think Change.org really blazed the way, here, and MoveOn is wise to double down on this model. Reaching new swaths of society is also good for membership growth, beyond the absolutely finite number of citizens who are politically active 365 days a year.
Staff shifts to strategically augment the crowd’s firepower
Giving the reins over to members isn’t just crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing traditionally refers to harnessing collective intelligence or coordinating large numbers of small distributed tasks. What we have here is a broadening of organizing leadership, which, in addition to the benefits above, frees the limited number of expert staff up to focus on accelerating actions with traction.
Change.org made their name in petitions, like Care2 before it. Care2 has been around since 1998 and has 21 million members, but hasn’t leveraged their petitions as strategically as Change.org. Change leveraged their core team of online organizers to bring additional firepower and publicity to user-generated petitions. They’re also talented at delivering media attention and highlighting the stories behind the petitions. These key interventions ensure that petitions actually produce change. Signatures in cyberspace won’t do it alone.
Experienced staff are freed up to help retarget petitions to more sensitive targets (more local officials, consumer-facing brands) and strategize on what it will take to effect the change the member seeks. Petitions are often an excuse to generate ‘earned media’ coverage, which contributes a significant amount of the social pressure that eventually produces concrete change (especially from public officials).
MoveOn is different from Change in a couple of important ways. There’s already a functional membership-approval system in place to prevent non-progressive actions from gaining ground in the community, whereas Change has decided to publish anything that Google Adsense would (sorry, Nazis). But Change has also disappointed in connecting petition signers with one another. Even petition organizers have been limited in their ability to reach the people who have signed on to help their cause. Change will never email their entire list, because it doesn’t see itself as an organization so much as a platform. But this horizontal connection between users organizing around the same issue is where real movements are born, and it looks like MoveOn has a much more holistic vision in mind.