News & Politics

Armchair Activism That Works

Wikipedia, one of the Web's most valuable resources, is based on thousands of volunteers. Can progressives make that same power of networked volunteers work for us?
One of the most remarkable, unexpected developments of the Internet has been the explosive growth of Wikipedia. At first glance, the Wikipedia concept -- that thousands upon thousands of volunteers working with little central supervision can create a huge databank of accurate information -- seems untenable. And yet the Wikipedia bumblebee flies anyway. While not flawless, Wikipedia has become an invaluable resource, with detailed articles on everything from arithmetic to geodesy to the movie "Zoolander."

Can progressives make this power of networked volunteers work for us? Some are already trying. Last year, Josh Marshall's TalkingPointsMemo.com asked the site's readers to in turn ask their members of Congress, on the record: Do you support Bush's plans to privatize Social Security? A regular progressive organization would have needed a large, expensive staff to make the thousands of necessary calls -- if, as non-constituents, they could have gotten responses at all. But by working together in a mass electronic barn-raising, Marshall's thousands of readers got this critical information quickly and easily. Moreover, they had fun doing it and became more loyal to the site in the process.

A similar dynamic may be creating new forms of journalism. Jay Rosen's NewAssignment.Net hopes to cultivate a large pool of volunteers able to, for instance, check for voting irregularities in every precinct in America. And Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson, the authors of Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA's Rendition Flights, worked with a network of amateur plane spotters to track secret flights around the world. As Paglen recently said, "When the plane-spotter community and journalists came together, it became one of the few ways to see the outlines of this program."

However, what progressives have done little of until now is sit down and consider this issue in a systematic way -- and then take sustained action on projects that demonstrate the full potential of networked volunteers. Netcentric Campaigns (of which Martin Kearns is director) is now beginning this process with the site MediaVolunteer.org. Our conclusions and plans are these:

1. Progressives should think creatively about the potential of current technology to build power.

Politics, of course, usually boils down to the many versus the few. The conservative movement has always been able to raise large amounts of money from a relatively small number of sources. This money translates in turn into a relatively small number of people -- politicians, lobbyists, think tank denizens, PR experts -- paid to spend large amounts of time advancing the conservative project.

By contrast, we have the numbers on our side, but not many multimillionaires like Richard Mellon Scaife. What the web has done is allow progressives to start leveling the monetary playing field, by aggregating small donations from many sources.

This is an extremely encouraging development. But what may be just as important is to find ways to advance progressive goals by aggregating many small donations of time.

2. Networks of volunteers are particularly well-suited to gathering information.

Information is surprisingly "expensive" -- that is, gathering accurate data requires enormous amounts of time and effort. Until now, this expense has translated into a high dollar-and-cent cost.

For instance, as anyone who's ever done press for progressive organizations knows, huge amounts of energy are required to keep track of working reporters and producers. Or rather, trying to keep track, as it's almost impossible. And while there are commercial, national media directories, subscriptions might cost $10,000, beyond the reach of all but the best funded. Thus, everyone doing progressive PR is forced to reinvent the wheel separately across the country on a daily basis.

But many hands make light work. If a database requires 25,000 hours of effort, it could be produced by a staff of 13, working fulltime for a year -- or 125,000 volunteers working for 12 minutes each.

This type of volunteering also holds special promise for progressive organizations. There's enormous, positive political energy at loose in America, but potential activists have few ways simply to dip their toes in the water. Yes, it's now easier than ever to give money, but past a certain point everyone resents being treated just as an ATM. And there are always far more people who might get involved than have the resources to contribute. Yet often the only other option that seems meaningful is for volunteers to dive in completely and spend dozens of hours a week on their chosen cause. As much as we might wish, most won't do this, at least initially.

However, asking volunteers to spend 12 or 30 minutes of their time as part of a project that's truly meaningful will get a far greater response rate (as Amnesty International consistently shows with their letter-writing campaigns). Moreover, for some significant percentage, this small measure of involvement will act as an easy gateway to greater activism. Few things keep people coming back more than a sense of actually accomplishing something.

3. Progressives need just the kind of information volunteer networks can produce.

As noted, a free media directory would be a significant boon to progressive organizations across the country. But this barely scratches the surface of what aggregated volunteer time could produce. For instance, a directory of all pharmacists who will and will not prescribe Plan B contraception would undoubtedly be welcomed by many Americans. No progressive organization could possibly afford to put one together -- but NARAL or NOW could organize a network of volunteers who could. Likewise, pharmaceutical companies test promising new drugs and treatments continuously, with a new trial launched every 20 minutes. The federal government has neither the resources nor inclination to track these experiments; consequently, patients find it difficult to locate relevant trials. But 300,000 volunteers from the American Cancer Society or HIV/AIDS organizations could work with NIH to set up such a database and keep it current.

4. The time to start is now.

After consideration of various possible mass volunteering projects, NetCentric Campaign has -- in consultation with member organizations -- concluded that the free media directory mentioned above is the most promising. We've already begun: In the last few months, 19,000 volunteers have shown up, made research calls, checked each other's work, helped us test run the site and hone the user interface and call scripts.

We're now ready to engage another round of volunteers, involving tens of thousands, and are beginning a new stage of outreach with our partners. We encourage anyone interested in getting involved, either as an individual or by bringing your organization into the effort, to check out our current activities at www.mediavolunteer.org. As you'll see, our aim with this initial project is both to create something progressives badly need, and -- by building a concrete example of what can be done with networked volunteers -- encourage us all to dream bigger.

Imagine an America five years from now that's a nation of networked volunteers -- where a lawyer working late in Manhattan takes a 15-minute break in her 38th floor office to volunteer for the environmental movement working to save her favorite river. Her work is cross-checked by a nurse sitting in a San Diego library who got involved via her union. Meanwhile, a bright 12-year-old in Tennessee digs up information that's checked by a marketing director in Iowa City who just joined the ACLU. This is all part of an Internet bucket brigade thousands of links long, doing work that before could only be accomplished by corporations or governments.

This is an exciting time for progressives. While we can't deny the present is dark, the future may be bright if we turn potential into reality. Robert F. Kennedy spoke of individuals sending out tiny ripples of hope, "crossing each other from a million different centers of energy" to "build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall." What he didn't realize is these ripples might well travel by cable modem. (Speaking of which, we just looked up Kennedy's speech via Wikipedia.)
Martin Kearns is executive director of Green Media Toolshed. Jonathan Schwarz's Web site is tinyrevolution.com.
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