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The Limits of Internet Organizing

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Is on-line activism the future of social change?[This post first appeared at the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.]

Some of the best organizers I know hardly have time to check their e-mail; they don’t spend their days on Twitter; and they certainly don't count on Facebook to turn people out for events.

These notions may come as a surprise to those who have been bludgeoned with the idea that the Internet is the future of social change and is revolutionizing the way organizing is done. But they are true, and there are plenty of reasons why the great bulk of serious organizing still happens off-line.

I will state up front the conclusion that almost all articles of this sort come to: the Internet is a tool. It is potentially a rather useful tool, but it is not more than that, and it is no substitute for person-to-person organizing.

This conclusion is the correct one. Still, it never seems to quell the high-tech evangelists or to sink in with the public at large.

Partially, I think this is a product of the widespread failure, outside of social movement circles, to understand what organizing really is. You can raise money on-line, you can widely disseminate information, and you can get people to sign a petition. But it's very difficult and rare to be able to use the Internet to build the types of deep relationships that move people to make serious commitments to and sacrifices for social movements. In fact, on-line platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are in many ways designed to do the opposite--to minimize commitment and sacrifice in favor of speed and convenience.

For those trying to build movements in countries with repressive governments, such as Iran, relationships based on personal trust are all the more important. That's why it's hardly surprising that many knowledgeable analysts have concluded that the high-tech hype around last year's "Twitter Revolution" in that country was dramatically overblown.

On this general theme, Malcolm Gladwell has a new article in the New Yorker about " Why the revolution will not be Tweeted." I think Gladwell is one of the most readable writers in the business; his books and articles are consistently vivid, fun, and interesting (if debatable in terms of their final arguments). He's not a social movement guy, and I don't really trust him as a political thinker. But in this instance I think he gets the fundamental ideas right.

First, he convincingly contends that the Internet promotes lots of "weak ties" rather than a smaller number of strong ones.

"Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation," [Jennifer] Aaker and [Andy] Smith write. But that's not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation--by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents. A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, "We wouldn't necessarily gauge someone's value to the advocacy movement based on what they've given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It's not something you can measure by looking at a ledger." In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.