Media

America Offline and Online

Creating communities based on online connections but rooted in public places could be the key to reviving civic life – and it's an important lesson for groups like the DNC and the ACLU.
In the 19th century, there was a rule of thumb that a county seat should be within a day's buggy ride for every citizen. We need to live by a similar rule now – a rule of thumb that pushes for physical closeness to political power through social communities.

The 'net is disrupting some old channels for political power and offering new kinds of connections as well, leading to lots of big, exciting thinking about how this may restructure society. Without an aggressive effort, however, I worry that most of this energy will go into fundraising, list-building, and maybe some online community building. These aren't bad things, but in the face of the Great American Loneliness and the Great American Powerlessness, I hope that the disruptive power of the internet might serve to create a new form of voluntary association: offline communities based on online connections but rooted in public places.

There's pretty good evidence that humans actively enjoy belonging to ritualized, secular societies that meet pretty regularly, weekly and monthly. Once upon a time, so many of us were engaged in local organizations with regularized membership and leadership roles that an observer wrote, "Here then we have the great American safety-valve – we are a nation of presidents." (My thanks to Theda Skocpol for unearthing that gem, and much of the research I am now citing.) Even as late as the '50s, there were more than 20 federated organizations which each counted between one and twelve percent of all Americans as their members. Think of the AFL-CIO, the Free Masons, the American Legion, the YMCA, the Elks, and so on.

These federated organizations had strong local structures, visits from traveling organizers but relatively little of what we would call "training" today – more networking and information sharing – and no federally funded local staff.

There are lots of explanations for the decline of participation in civic life (start with Skocpol's Diminished Democracy and then read Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone). Among the reasons Skocpol notes include: the intense professionalization of non-profits (high expectations of staffing and training), the elite flight from cross-class associations (in part due to histories of racism and sexism), the new development of foundations that meant membership wasn't necessary to raise money, the Vietnam war, which put a wedge between elites and others; the rising number of women in the workforce; and the shift in the center of political power to the federal government (leading to more emphasis on federal lobbying efforts).

In searching for salves, people today tend to either focus on a) recreating large, federated political organizations with local chapters, or b) stimulating social capital through non-political platforms for community life. (In crude form, Skocpol is seen as representative of the former view, Putnam of the latter.) In this essay, I want to poke around ways in which the internet could be used for doing both of these things, by suggesting how it could work as an organizing tool for more vibrant, federated national organizations like the Democratic National Committee or the American Civil Liberties Union.

Join In, Turn On, Turnout

Why does this matter? Local involvement in community organizations – be they explicitly political or not – correlates with much greater sense of power over political life. Sidney Verba and Gary Almond have shown, in a multi-decade, five-country study that participation – even passive participation – in local voluntary organizations appears to directly lead to greater satisfaction with government. Interestingly, the satisfaction seemed to result from the participation in the voluntary association – not from the political outcomes matching the individuals' hopes. So, as we manage to revive civic life, maybe we can also turn at least some of the anti-government tide.

Our political voice these days is largely the voice of a vote on referendums – one out of a few hundred thousand votes for a congressperson, one out of a few million votes for a senator, or worse, one out of a thousand people polled or focus-grouped standing in for the whole nation. Joining a local group, 20-50 strong, that provides some support and confidence in political acts, local or federal, vastly amplifies one's sense of power. Our representative government was built on a deeper framework than voting – on the associations that De Toqueville noticed in his travelogue – and while it thrived in that culture, it drifts without those deep and broad ballasts.

Furthermore, community involvement would seem to increase our capacity to empathize as well. The archetypal tale of online community is this – you join an e-mail list to talk about some arcane topic or hobby, but one day reality intrudes – someone dies of cancer or a heart-attack – and suddenly you realize that your online group is also a human community, albeit in virtual form. Well, talking and laughing and scheming with people of different ages and backgrounds in a face-to-face setting on an ongoing basis is even more likely to exercise our empathic abilities. No doubt that's why so many of us still volunteer in local ways, or participate in our church, synagogue or mosque.

Finally, the few groups that have devoted their energies to non-staffed local community building – the National Right to Life Committee, the Christian Coalition, and the National Rifle Association – have been extremely successful in leveraging their communities to impact federal policy.

Why aren't more people involved in secular offline communities? Part of the answer is wrapped in the logistics of helping people connect, the hassle of finding regular physical spaces to meet in, a lack of federated community organizations, and a lack of aggressively marketed/evangelized options. The net can help solve all these problems.

Among one of its most unsung charms, the internet lowers the barrier to finding places to host public events, and telling people about them. If political and media (though that's another essay) organizations with incentive and opportunity exploit this lowered barrier, the Internet could power a resurgence of a new version of the great American voluntary association.

A Proposal for the DNC

Zack Exley recently wrote a great piece addressed to the next DNC chair about how he should use the internet. It is largely focused on ground-game advice about how to win elections using technology. It's a brilliant piece, important and very concrete, and I will urge the next DNC chairman to read it, ask his staff to read it, and quickly develop a plan to implement something along those lines.

But that doesn't limit the DNC from also pursuing an internet-generated aggressive effort to re-establish local party structures as vibrant, multi-purpose, cross-class continuous communities. The DNC is not only an organization for electing candidates – it is also a service organization. It serves people's needs to be politically powerful, connected, and have a voice in agenda-setting – it can serve people's needs for moral secular communities. Constituency service is a sometimes underrated and highly important reason that people choose the candidates they vote for. (See The Personal Vote: Constituency Service and Electoral Independence by Bruce Cain, et. al.) I suspect the same is true for political parties. Inasmuch as local party offices can serve these needs – the Great American Loneliness and the Great American Powerlessness – it will also, in the long term, elect more democrats.

Right now, the DNC web site communicates to a newcomer that what it most wants you to do is contact the media, contribute, or raise money. It also has a great "Get Local" drop down, which pitches you to a page with information about your local party and links, which you can then follow to find local party events – many of which, depending on the state, sound intimidating to newcomers.

The DNC has taken great steps towards enabling local organizations, but I hope it takes it a step further, aggressively pushing the national DNC meetup – or some similarly ritualistic community event that takes place in a public space at a predictable time wherever you are – and making clear that what it most wants from its members is local involvement. The DNC can aggressively use the internet to push vibrant federation far past where it's been pushed to date.

Any visitor to the DNC's website, and any member of the DNC e-mail list should run – not walk – to the next meeting of local Democrats in their area. Ideally, the meeting would take place in a public place, so that the timid and uncertain would feel like they could just check it out, without committing. Ideally, the meeting would happen within a week or two of any given day – with a promise for another meeting near in the future – so that the DNC web site visitor would get the real sense that they were being invited to join an ongoing community, not just sit in on a brown bag lunch.

While it's not the only way, Meetup is the easiest way right now – the only service that keeps a database of public places and supports the ritual of regular meeting. The DNC should revive its stalled 66,000 member Meetup and turn it into million-strong federated organization. To ensure that the public places cultivated diverse membership, Meetup would have to be pushed to expand its database of locations. Furthermore, the DNC would have to work aggressively to grow its own email list from diverse web sites and forums – advertising on mainstream sites and predominantly Latino and African American sites and reducing its reliance on the prominent political blogs and sites that attract a primarily upper class white audience.

Ideally – and this may be one of the toughest sells, but it's a sell the national leadership can be very engaged in making – the newest member of any community will be the most celebrated, and there will be a culture of shifting leadership to new people. When I was 10 and played the Prodigal Son in my church play, the children's chorus sang "There is more joy in heaven for one lost soul that has found his way than for all 99 that have never gone astray." To regenerate local community, the Democratic Party has something to learn from the great religions – that growth depends on celebrating the greenest person in the group.

Without the internet, the DNC played relatively little role in the recruitment of new people to local organizations. Now, it can play the central role.

In market terms, the Democratic party has something that no-one else can sell – political power in local communities around the moral vision of the left. It can't sell that simply through drivng people to support candidates. It can only sate that need – which is millions strong – by building a database of places and a calendar of ritual meetings as a platform for local community.

Yes, But

There are many reasons this won't happen. First, there's an enormous opportunity cost to sending people locally quickly: it will make less money than it could in the short term. If the DNC parcels out its e-mail list to local groups, or send people to local events, that means it isn't raising millions of dollars it could have raised.

Second, local groups may not want the flood of newcomers. One can easily imagine conversations with local party chairs who tell the new chair of the DNC that they'd like help fundraising, and they'd like the DNC help when they have special events, but they don't really need a core of regularly meeting new people. (Who knows – they may raise concerns that the local party chair doesn't want raised, or even vote to replace him!) The DNC chair, wanting to serve the state parties, will sleep better when he chooses to send out fundraising emails instead of Meetup emails, knowing that he's serving the party chairs the way they want to be served.

Third, people will have bad experiences, and the DNC will hear about them. Bad news travels quicker than good, and in the age of the internet, it travels especially fast. Lots of local groups will have festering or open power fights, talkative or annoying leaders emerging, and unpleasant venues. The DNC will hear all about it, and quickly – and will quickly feel swamped and that it isn't serving the needs of its constituents. It will conclude that until they can insure that the experience will go well – with good qualified enablers/mediators at every meeting, with full staff ready to answer all the complaints – it shouldn't be in this business at all. Even if it's just 15 percent of all events that go sour, DNC staff will beg the DNC chair to let them professionalize and improve, and indefinitely defer true federalization.

Finally, the unspoken reason for resisting Meetup – or whatever form this ritualistic event will take – is that it actually changes the structure of power. It is almost impossible for organizations with power to reshuffle it, even if the net gain for the party is served – the net gain for the actors within the DNC is not served. This may be articulated in soft form, as in, "we don't want people to have bad experiences," or "the type of people who go to these meetings will be out of the main stream," but the underlying motivation will be a very human need to maintain control.

In the long term, however, I believe the best thing the DNC can do is be an aggressive hydraulic force outwards, with the net as its power – and all democrats will be rewarded with a vastly stronger networked community, with deep loyalty and deep engagement of the party membership.

A Proposal for the ACLU

Nonprofit organizations have little obvious incentive to invest in federated, voluntary structures. With high competition for few dollars, most organizations are taking this moment to do all kinds of fancy variations on one thing: building their list and web traffic to make more money. Consultants with short-term contracts and an understandable need to show their worth are more likely to encourage investment in the immediate payoffs that come with list-building than the long-term social change that comes with federated associations. Organizations that have internally devalued potentially federating forces as "volunteer coordinators" are also not structured to take advantage of the moment.

It has traditionally been very costly to find and support federated communities. Highly specialized non-profits that have built their entire structure around narrow lobbying efforts will not see, immediately, how they can gain by a membership organization with strong satellite structures, minds, thoughts and energy of its own. Even if they do (greater loyalty, if nothing else, will create greater revenue), these specialized nonprofits will typically reach an upper-class, well-educated membership – and create upper-class, well-educated local civic organizations.

That said, nonprofits alone can make a dent in changing the prevailing structure of our social/political life.

For a brief period, the Promise Keepers, an all-male Christian revivalist group, were one of the most successful voluntary associations in recent history. The Promise Keepers grew at a time when other voluntary associations were shrinking, in part because they didn't shrink away from using a centralized medium – television – to create a federated structure:
Promise Keepers bought 200 hours of prime-time weekend television slots on local network affiliates to broadcast [a major national program] around the country between March 24 and April 12, 1997. The program featured shots of previous conferences, interviews with men who changed their lives by becoming a Promise Keeper, and promoted a toll-free telephone number through which men could sign up for a 1997 conference or Stand in the Gap [a giant rally on the National Mall that was the group's highpoint]. Eight percent of men surveyed at Stand in the Gap reported that they first heard about the organization through PK television advertisements.
– Arkadi Gerney, The Organizational Dynamics of Promise Keepers.
The Promise Keepers have more recently followed the path of many other declining organizations, but their experiment showed something interesting – the building of local groups can be driven by national media.

Imagine if the ACLU took the Promise Keepers model, but used the much cheaper vehicle of the internet. Start with where the ACLU is today. I use it because its highly successful and has a federated structure, with chapters all over the country, and because it has a great web site, with lots going on. But you'd have to be fairly clever, aggressive, and lucky to get involved in a local ACLU community.

Say you started at their web site. You'd first have to scroll down to the bottom of the page (something not showing when the site opens in your browser) then stop at a page that explains that local chapters largely do legal work but hold some forums, then link to your state's page – which links to another state page of your local chapter. My local chapter (Massachusetts) has stuff going on, but none suggests an invitation to join a community – I can go to a speech/brown bag lunch, or I can contribute. It's four clicks before I find something local, and it's a local event that promises me information – but not social capital, and certainly no power or political heft. Everything about the ACLU web site structure tells me that what the ACLU really wants me to do is contribute or take MoveOn-like actions (phone campaigns and legislative pressure).

So now imagine that the ACLU decided to actively support the creation of continuous, local, civic communities that affiliate themselves with the ACLU. The ACLU currently has a federated structure, actually, but you don't naturally find yourself in its web if you happen on their web site. It might do so for solely pecuniary reasons – because while there is a fair amount of attention of the ACLU now, it wants to keep loyalty high among its members. It finds that members who have met other members are more likely to give more money, so it sets out actively encouraging members to meet each other, regularly, and develop strong community bonds with each other.

Right now the ACLU claims 400,000 members. What would happen if it tried to implement this strategy?

Tuesday is Rights Night

First, the ACLU would have to find a database of places for its members to meet. Then it would have to create a ritual of meeting. Habit, says the American psychologist, William James, is the great flywheel of society: ritualistic meetings are much more satisfying for the participants and easier for the planners alike. Imagine the ACLU designates Tuesdays as "Rights Night" across the country, and identifies 2,000 public places that will hosts "Rights Nights" without complaint – bars and restaurants.

Then it would create a push – on its website, print ads, and emails – telling people regularly to go to "Rights Nights." All 2 million people would get repeated e-mails about Rights Night, all their New Yorker ads would include references to Rights Nights, all the TV ads would include a webpage with links to find your local "Rights Night" by state, city and neighborhood.

Local chapters would use their e-mail updates and colorful pictures to tell members what they missed out on in the local rights night, and reinforce the general jollity and usefulness of the events to those that went.

At first, the membership (which is presumably just under the average age of the membership of the Democratic party: not young) would be mostly older people, median age 55-60. It would be mostly well-educated, Democratic voting, and upper or upper-middle class. Gradually, however, the constant push of something to do – something fun and morally useful and social – might engage younger people who would never have found their way to the ACLU offices on the 8th floor of the do-gooders building in the lights-out section of town.

However, a changing of the guard wouldn't come naturally. It would take lots of aggressive work on the ACLU's part and major efforts to allow for the creation of new subgroups and new leaderships. If the ACLU decided to aggressively advertise Rights Nights on primarily minority TV channels and papers and websites, and ensure that its database of locations were not all on the WASP-y side of town, it might gradually engage more young African Americans, Latinos, and South Asians and Pacific Islanders. The national leadership would have to choose to market its community in places with comparatively low short-term return – instead of New Yorker ads, where maybe 1 in 1,000 readers would join, it would have to have National Enquirer ads, with maybe a 1 in 100,000 return.

The ACLU would have to find a balance between supporting local groups and delegating its power to the edges. Ideally, the central organization would provide a platform for meeting in exchange for only this rent: all the e-mail names and contact information possible. When local chapters demanded more than meeting times, places, and a rough agenda, the ACLU central would have to resist and push back, limiting its involvement. Not only would too much involvement take too much staff time, but it would vitiate the greatest service the local groups provide to citizens – a real sense of power.

When ACLU staff wanted to attend meetings to make sure everything was going fine, ACLU central would have to train the staff to see itself only as support, not as the leadership.

Yes, But (Take Two)

What would go wrong? First, with a large enough list to sustain itself, the ACLU might decide to cut off the push to local groups – the list was big enough and the money was coming in, so there was no need to staff up support for local groups. Also, local groups might well start to develop agendas that were slightly different from the central ACLU, and this would disturb the central organization. For example, I'm a big fan of the ACLU right now, because its taking real leadership on the Patriot Act, but a few years ago I would never have joined because I disagreed, both morally and technically, with its approach to pornography. If I took a leadership role in my Boston ACLU, I would push for a platform that took a different view of the first amendment. If this happened in enough places, the ACLU leadership might again decide to cut off the local groups.

Why, you might ask, would it matter if the central group stopped pushing local groups, so long as they had "seeded" something local? Wouldn't it be all cherries after that?

No. The minute the central group stopped pushing attendance at local events, the local groups would stop growing and multiplying. They might continue – and be a force in local politics – but they would cease to grow in most instances.

Americans are notorious transients. We've been changing homes at a clip rate since the 19th century. The large federated structures that bloomed in the late 19th century and early 20th century made room for our national habits of transience by making it easy to recreate – and re-find – similar community structures from one community to the next. The Knights of Columbus junkie in Madison could easily pick up his Knights of Columbus habit when he moved to San Francisco, and stop by the chapters on the way. If he ended up settling in a new town, he had the tools to start his own Knights of Columbus.

The internet allows a much faster generation of similarly federated structures to spring up – or, at the very least, it allows for the radical restructuring of existing organizations to accommodate our needs for power and community. I'm not convinced the incentives of added loyalty and engagement are sufficient for the nonprofits to seize the opportunity and take the risks of federating their power, but I hope they are.

Right now, most sites are focused on keeping you on their sites – but in my humble opinion everybody can benefit if sites see as one of their primary jobs as pushing you off, into local face-to-face associations.

The voluntary associations of the last two centuries are largely gone, and I don't know that we should make an effort to recreate them in their old form. Given other pressures and our suburban, transient living habits, it may be impossible to recreate cross-sectional voluntary associations without the internet. But if we start to think of the internet as an organizing tool first – a database of places as well as ideas, a database of calendars as well as pictures, we can also build a completely new social structure. It won't look like the voluntary associations of the 1950s, but it might get us past the isolation of the aughts.
Zephyr Teachout was the director of internet organizing for Howard Dean's campaign, the executive director of Baobabs College Labs Project, and a consultant to America Coming Together. She was previously the executive director of the Fair Trial Initiative.
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