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MoveOn as an Instrument of the People

MoveOn's Joan Blades talks about mobilizing the masses, community organizing, and moving nimbly in the Internet world.
 
 
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The forces that impeached Bill Clinton may have sowed the seeds of their own destruction, for it was as an internet response to that destructive and cynical waste of our nation's energy and attention -- and ultimately of too many valuable years of peace and prosperity -- that MoveOn.org was born.

I had an early look at that birth. We both threw up web petitions within a week or so of each other. Wes Boyd and Joan Blades created Moveon.org while I, in league with writer Sara Davidson, produced enoughisenough.org. They were inside the high-tech world; I was someone who did email. About 15,000 people signed enoughisenough. When Boyd and Blades put the word out to their networks, over half a million people signed their petition.

I had high hopes for what they would do with that network, and to my mind Moveon.org has far exceeded those expectations. We may look back some day and feel it was too partisan to be ultimately revolutionary, but these are highly partisan times. From the perspective of April 2004, it feels like one of the very greatest gifts of the Internet age.

Joan Blades is a software industry veteran, having co-founded Berkeley Systems, responsible for the once ubiquitous flying toasters screensaver. Blades served on the Berkeley Systems board and as Vice President of Marketing. Prior to her work in consumer software, Blades taught mediation at Golden Gate Law School, and practiced mediation. A past member of the California and Alaska bar associations, Ms. Blades is also a published artist.

Terrence McNally: I want to ask you a bit about your personal path to the work you do today. I'm guessing you didn't start out intending to develop either flying toaster screensavers or a political action website?

Joan Blades: You're certainly right, but that is definitely where I've ended up. I have referred to myself as an accidental activist on more than one occasion.

We put together a one-sentence petition asking Congress to censure President Clinton and move on to other pressing issues facing the nation. We sent it to under a hundred of our friends and family, and within a week we had a hundred thousand people sign the petition. At that point, we thought it was going to be a flash campaign, that we would help everyone connect with leadership in all the ways we could figure out, and then get back to our regular lives.

A half a million people ultimately signed and we somehow never got back to our regular lives. MoveOn is now at 2 million people. It's been an incredible experience because people really want to participate, and I feel that we've just scratched the surface in helping them do so. We have all sorts of things to learn.

McNally: When I realized what a database you had, I wondered to myself, "Do they go away or -- what comes next?' And what came next was "We will remember.'...

Blades: About two weeks after the November election in 1998, we had a real sense of having succeeded. The results were a setback to Republicans, and most thought it had a lot to do with the unpopularity of the impeachment. Then two weeks after the election, they went ahead and voted to impeach. When you become active in the system and communicate to your representatives, and they don't vote in accordance with your values, your next responsibility is to support candidates who will. All of a sudden we were signed up until 2000. We had a huge response to that as well. In 2000 we raised almost $2 million in small contributions averaging $35. That may not seem like a lot of money to most people, but it was a revolution in fundraising for campaigns from average citizens. That is exactly where we want to be going as a democracy.

McNally: ...and it hadn't been happening before. No candidate or party had realized it could happen. It was basically the folks who had shown up for your two campaigns -- Moveon and We Will Remember -- that showed up again for the 2000 election. What did you do with the money?

Blades: It went directly to candidates. We didn't work on the presidential election per se. That wasn't our focus. It was mostly Congressional races.

The powerful thing about Moveon is that it is not a one-way broadcast media. The Internet, when used best, is a two-way media. We get thousands of emails. We have a forum in which people can post comments and those comments can be rated so we get a sense of what tens of thousands of people feel most passionately about. We also do surveys when we're trying to figure out the right thing to do. We aim to express the passion of our members in something actionable that we can all in fact do.

We asked folks and we got the message that a change in leadership was their top priority, so we looked for races that were close or where there was at least a reasonable chance of winning, and let people know about them. It was inspiring to see how people came forward and volunteered and gave money, and that money went directly to the candidates.

McNally: While we're talking about the history, I saw a television profile on you and Wes (on "California Connected") and something which stuck out for me was the two of you expressed regret that you didn't get more involved during the recounts and court battles in the post-2000 election period in Florida. Could you speak just a little about that?

Blades: In retrospect it looks like there was a lot of strong-arming going on there, and we just had more trust in the process than we do now. We realize now that you may have to do some strong-arming to make sure that your point gets equal play.

McNally: ... once the vote had taken place, you figured "this will play out like democracy...'

Blades: Yes.

McNally: ...and we were all blindsided by how aggressive the Bush forces were and a little late to catch up once they had the train moving.

Blades: That's pretty much exactly it.

McNally: Why did you decide to do a book? Since MoveOn is web-oriented phenomenon, couldn't all this information be on the website -- the stories, the checklists, the links? Why a book?

Blades: For one thing, I had a very persuasive MoveOn member come to me and say "You've got to do a book.' A book is a very different medium. It reaches a different crowd of people. We actually had a number of people tell us we needed to do a book, but it didn't really gel until Karen Morris, MoveOn member and now friend, had a vision that was very much in keeping with the MoveOn model -- the concept of a book using MoveOn members. All of a sudden it clicked.

What's so wonderful about MoveOn is how brilliant and talented the members are, and the wonderful things they do. You read this book and there are fifty different stories of very different individuals participating in their communities either locally or nationally in meaningful ways. Fifty really great ideas for how we can do things that demonstrate how much difference the efforts of one person really does make -- and how much difference the efforts of all of us working together makes.

McNally: So the book in some ways follows the model of MoveOn as an instrument of the people who show up...

Blades: We did the Bush-in-30-Seconds competition back in January in which we had MoveOn members make ads about policies of this administration. Brilliant. It was just brilliant what was produced. We've had radio ads made the same way. Utilizing the talents of the members is what we are always trying to figure out how to leverage and encourage.

McNally: Tell people a bit more about the book and what they're liable to find in there, and maybe a couple of examples.

Blades: It's in five sections. The first section, The Power of Connecting, is about online efforts. It starts with a couple in Alaska who put up a website to save the wolves in Denali. There were two packs of wolves in Denali and in wintertime they'd venture outside of the park. There are a lot of hunters in Alaska and one of the packs has been totally decimated, so they were trying to create a larger perimeter for the winter when wolves roam outside the park. The couple put up a website and had a petition. It was nothing like the scale of the petitions we do, but it was enough that they created the support for the wolves and they got a buffer zone for them. That is just a wonderful example of protecting your local wildlife.

Then there are more simple things. One person describes how they went to constituent meetings, which is one of the things we've organized with MoveOn members. When we compile a petition, we often have members go to their representative's or Senator's offices and deliver it in person. This way they can experience a real connection with the staff and, if possible, the representative to let them know why they're concerned about going to war or mercury poisoning or judicial nominations. This puts a real face on these people. It's often the first time the members have ever met each other. It's a real community experience and energizes people.

McNally: In case anyone might think "that's cool if you can get to Washington...,' you're talking about visiting representatives when they're home, aren't you?

Blades: That's right. If there's someone who's taken the step of signing a petition or sending a $20 check, the book is a real nuts-and-bolts introduction to the next five or six or ten things they might do.

McNally: If you were one of the political parties teaching your faithful, that's one thing, but this educates those people who might be just putting their toe in the water.

Blades: Right. The book is made up of stories by individual people about what they did participating in a phone bank or organizing a registration drive, but included also in each one of these one- or two-page stories are specific tips offering links to go to or ways to take action. The story tells you someone just like you was able to do it, and the tips actually take you the next step.

In the section Every Vote Counts we have stories of people who register voters in a couple of different ways -- one does it within her company, another goes to the local bars to do it.

In The Many Faces Of the Media there are specific tips about how to write a letter to the editor and the story of a man who hadn't been actively engaged in political dialogue. He's not comfortable at rallies, but he writes letters every week because he found it was important and -- for his part of the country at least -- he's got a voice.

I found them really inspiring. It was very hard to do only fifty.

McNally: I assume you did this the same way you do so many things. You sent out to your members and asked them to send you their stories. You get an idea and you throw it at the membership and see if and how they respond...

MoveOn moves very quickly and nimbly. How do you decide what you're going to do next?

Blades: We have member input. What we do is not going to be successful unless our members care about it, unless it's important to them. We try very hard to be clear about what things our members are most concerned about at a given time.

We also have to have something that's actionable. Often people think of us as an information distributor because that's how they relate to the Internet. But most of the time people already have pretty well established opinions. We may provide more information, but the thing that we try to provide first and foremost is an act that will make a difference. Then we back that up with more information to help them make up their mind whether to participate, if they're on the fence.

McNally: A lot of the things in the book help people move to the next level once they're ready to take the initiative of organizing something themselves. On the other hand, on the web and in your emails, you make it easy for people with short attention spans, people asking "What can I do in the next ten minutes to be involved?'

Blades: We do try to do that.

McNally: Were you surprised by CBS's unwillingness to air your ad during the Super Bowl?

Blades: Yes. We had run an ad during the Super Bowl the prior year but only in Washington DC. That was all we could afford at that time. We were in fact talking to folks there, ad representatives who were saying "Yeah, sure...' So we asked at the awards ceremony for Bush In 30 Seconds if folks wanted to run the winner during the Super Bowl. It's over a million dollars to do this. It's amazing that people were ready and willing to pay over a million dollars to be heard. We all put our 50 bucks in and it happened. That's what's so powerful.

I find it deeply disturbing that as things progressed, they decided they couldn't run it. Let's face it, what is the biggest public forum in the United States? We were told it's the Super Bowl. It's important to have the public dialogue. This advertisement that our members chose is eloquent. The ad shows young kids working at blue-collar jobs, and the final statement is just written text: "Who's going to pay for the trillion dollar deficit?'

It's a serious issue. We are mortgaging our future, and I think it's also a very strong message that our members don't want to preach to the choir. They want a real dialogue across party lines.

McNally: You had something like 1800 ads submitted. You narrowed it to 15 finalists, and you ended up -- with the help of members -- choosing one. And it looked to me like the one you chose was not that edgy. I found it moving and certainly suitable for the Super Bowl audience.

Blades: It was moving, that's what it was. It wasn't edgy, it wasn't assaultive. It was thought provoking, and that's what we need to be doing in the political discourse.

McNally: Because MoveOn is a political advocacy organization and an internet phenomenon, and you're from the high tech world, what's your sense of the issues surrounding touch screen voting at this point?

Blades: Touch screen voting is a fine thing so long as they have a voter verified paper trail. We're all used to going to the grocery store and they give us a receipt. It's not new technology. You go to the ATM machine, they give you a receipt. I find it very odd that there's such strong objection to what is a clear and straightforward way to assure that our elections are reliable and we can do a recount if there are any questions.

McNally: In many elections recounts are mandated if the margin is within a certain percentage. It doesn't apply only to those situations where disgruntled folks call for recounts.

Blades: We've all had computers crash on us...

McNally:... and we all know there are viruses and hackers, don't we?

Blades: Yes, we do. I am baffled by the objections to what I consider common sense precautions. verifiedvoting.org is an organization that has taken a lead in making sure that our elections are clean and our systems are what they should be. That's where I recommend people go to for this information and to get involved.

McNally: What's your long-term vision of MoveOn.org?

Blades: I'm inspired by the dedication, the intelligence, and the actions of all our members. I'd like to see advocacy and issue organizations in every spectrum have active membership that engages in political dialogue. The AFL-CIO has 1.2 million online members. Planned Parenthood has 400,000. NRDC has 600,000. True Majority has 450,000. Just imagine if MoveOn was one of hundreds of organizations that help people be heard. Our democracy would be robust.

We've got 50 percent voter turnout for presidential elections. That's appalling. We can do so much better.

Interviewer Terrence McNally hosts Free Forum on KPFK 90.7fm, Los Angeles (streaming at kpfk.org), where he interviews people he believes can help create "a world that just might work."