Community organizing 2.0: Republicans missing the boat with the participatory web

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When Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani mocked Barack Obama's years as a community organizer at the recent Republican convention, they wanted to underline the Senator's supposed limitations as a real-world leader. Instead, they highlighted the Republican Party's own limitations in a world that will be crucial in determining this election's outcome: the Internet.

Obama's campaign's online success is widely noted. It consistently outstrips John McCain's online fundraising efforts, as does his presence on a wide range of social networks. That success goes well beyond the official campaign, from light-hearted efforts like to supporter-created groups on practically every significant social network (the most famous being the "One Million Strong" Facebook group). Nor is it limited to the presidential race; even conservative bloggers acknowledge they have nowhere near the impact of their liberal counterparts.

On the Republican side is a presidential candidate whose aides are reduced to saying things like "John McCain is aware of the Internet" – and a campaign that filched the design and images for his MySpace page without crediting the creator (who got even by swapping one of those images with a graphic announcing a change in McCain's position on same-sex marriage). And while they have support on blogs, social networks and media-sharing sites like YouTube, it pales in comparison to Obama's constituency.

That night-and-day difference has left more than a few people scratching their heads – particularly when you consider that the Republicans more than held their own online in the 2000 and 2004 campaigns.

Well, let the head-scratching stop. There are many reasons Republicans are flailing on the web, but the key factor is this: any party or leader who sees community organizing as an object of ridicule is doomed to fail in today's online world.

Because when you look at today's Internet – especially the collection of participation-rich web sites that are often described as "social media" – there's nothing it resembles more than community organizing.

Community organizing – door-to-door, face-to-face coalition building in support of an issue, community or platform – is a way of enabling meaningful individual participation in politics and building relationships among people with common, complementary or even conflicting interests. Social media, where contribute some or all of the content, offer a way of enabling meaningful individual participation in storytelling, reporting, filmmaking, or just about any other form of expression, and of building relationships among people with a wide range of backgrounds and interests.

The similarity between the two – and the Obama campaign's facility with both – is no coincidence. They are two threads in a much larger tapestry of participatory politics that has emerged over the past 40 years in America – not coincidentally, over Senator Obama's lifetime.

The grassroots social movements of the 1960s and 1970s raised expectations of public voice and community empowerment – expectations that made their way into many facets of public life. Newly-elected reformers (and survival-minded old-school pols) enshrined public consultation and participation in law, particularly in urban and environmental planning, in the face of mounting community demands.

The organizations that sprang up around those movements found their members expected them, too, to be more democratic than their private-sector counterparts; many of them, too, evolved to become more participatory and member-driven. And out of those organizations came much of the current generation of Democratic Party politicians and campaigners.

The 60s counterculture that inspired a new generation of community organizing also gave rise to another enduring phenomenon: Silicon Valley. In the nascent technology sector, a generation of technological innovation and global leadership was inspired by norms of community cooperation and free sharing of information. These norms – and the technical innovations they enabled – ultimately found expression in the give-and-take, expressive and participatory culture of today's social media.

And although the right has tried to jump on board the Web 2.0 bandwagon – including ventures into social media by the McCain campaign – progressives have a critical advantage: a culture and skill-set forged in the world of community organizing.

When the Obama campaign's face on YouTube is defined as much by grassroots and artist contributions (like the Yes We Can video created by Black Eyed Peas singer as by Obama's speech-casts, it's in the tradition of inviting in community voices. When the campaign announces their vice-presidential pick by mobile text message, it's the contemporary equivalent of knocking door-to-door. When the McCain campaign feels a twinge of envy at the thriving community on Obama's campaign-site-cum-social-network,, well, maybe community organizing is relevant experience after all.

And when Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani mock community organizing, they aren't just having a joke at Barack Obama's expense. They're announcing that they don't understand participatory culture – and the large and growing number of Americans who expect much more from those who would lead them.


keegan says

September 19, 2008 - 11:16am
I am starting to work with Democratic campaigns and non-profits who are interested in wading into social media and would love to get your input. Email me if you would like to talk. Thanks, Keegan

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