Hopeful digital communities

One of the big problems facing the progressive movement - and politics writ large - is the proliferation of cynical messaging, especially in scam tactics used in digital organizing. These tactics tend to depress fundraising and volunteer activity in the long run, but what is worse, they have an immediate negative impact on high-level messaging and policy. In simple terms, they tend to push progressives into messaging based on contrast rather than messaging based on a positive vision for the future.

We need to develop a strategy for building hopeful digital communities, which are more focused on a positive vision. Some of this work is already underway - email programs for Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Elizabeth Warren are well-regarded for their substantive content and positive tone. However, there is more that can be done.

We’re particularly interested in tactics which build digital communities which are more relational than transactional in nature. In particular, these communities should have some or all of these characteristics:

  • The tone of the community should feel hopeful, active, and oriented towards positive change.
  • Individual members should be connected to each other via “horizontal organizing”.
  • Individual members should be able to “talk back” to organizers and interact with the community in a way that feels empowering.
  • Individual members should be empowered to self-organize into sub-communities and to self-govern as much as possible.
  • The community should manifest itself in the real world from time to time - e.g. via volunteer days, meetups, or other activities which promote face-to-face relationship.
  • The community should engage in persuasion as well as mobilization. Organizers should seek to bring members on an ideological journey, as is done in traditional community organizing or union organizing.
  • The community should offer members real value in various ways: by providing fun real-world experiences, by connecting them to news and resources relevant to their day-to-day lives, by giving them a chance to form friendships and fulfilling connections.
  • As a consequence, members should look forward to engaging in the community and should want to bring their friends and family into it, because it is such a positive experience.

As noted, there is some precedence for similar kinds of communities - many of these ideas are borrowed from union organizing and traditional organizing communities. We believe they may be repurposed towards other forms of ideological organizing, such as religious organizing or organizing around broad cultural movements like LGBTQ rights. In fact, it is likely that these kinds of communities should not be employed in a campaign context at the outset; perhaps they should never be.

Our conjecture is that it is possible to build these communities as a way to promote ideological conversion, and to make the experience of participating in politics and public life more pleasant and even enjoyable. Although such ideas might not benefit campaign tactics directly, they are likely to improve participation and make campaigns more effective indirectly.

While not directly referencing this approach, Colin Delany similarly described building a large digital community focused on persuasion and messaging in his Great Battlefield interview, at the 23:24 mark. Myles Bugbee discussed very similar non-transactional digital organizing ideas in his Hello Merge Tag interview. Eric Sapp discusses an approach to marketing which dovetails nicely with this form of organizing in his Great Battlefield interview at the 34:53 mark.

To make these ideas concrete, imagine that there is an organization called Americans for Progress, which is a broad-based membership organization open to anyone in the US who subscribes to progressive values (defined somewhat loosely.) The primary focus of this organization should be engaging its members in their communities. At the outset, as a primarily-digital organization, the organization would promote national days of action for activities like volunteer work, Earth Day events, and voter registration. Members would be free to find one another and create sub-communities with functionality similar to meetup.com’s. They could form groups such as an Atlanta chapter, or an occupational chapter like “Musicians for Progress,” and so forth. Such chapters, especially the geography-based ones, could operate as place-based social networks. They would be able to organize action around more chapter-relevant events and opportunities. Chapter organizers would be given deliberate training in running a chapter, and would have to adhere to a code of conduct with stipulations for reasonable chapter governance and inclusivity. The organization would also share news with its members, and notify them of important developments in local and national politics - although this work would have to be carefully balanced with its mission to create real-life community. Members could even work on pro-active projects to seek political change, e.g. to seek student debt cancellation or to enact a local ordinance around transit. Progressive politics would expressly be included in this organization, but it would not necessarily be the primary focus. In this way, the organization could include a broad swath of people, even those not expressly seeking a political experience; but it could also be a site for politicization and for engaging members in public and political life.

Such an organization could serve numerous roles in the progressive ecosystem:

  • It would be the natural home of a permanent, un-tenanted, nationwide social graph.
  • By marrying content to organizing, it could support progressive news organizations and become a site for disseminating news with a progressive perspective.
  • It could “receive” the energy of volunteers and other supporters of electoral campaigns after Election Day.
  • In the other direction, it could be a source of volunteer energy for electoral campaigns.
  • It could help members interact with government in positive ways or could help them access benefits - for example, it could be a resource center for Medicare or Affordable Care Act enrollment. By doing so, it would push progressive politics into a direction more closely connected with tangible improvements to day-to-day life.

It’s not necessary to create one large organization, though it is a useful thought exercise. It’s possible that numerous such organizations, with a wide range of scope and size, would better serve the need for a public-engagement community. The business model for such organizations is somewhat poorly-defined, although it’s possible that over time these organizations could become self-sustaining through membership dues. Regardless, it seems quite reasonable to assume that such organizations would provide a valuable sub-strata for progressive politics, and would ultimately benefit numerous campaigns in many ways.