I was at Netroots on Saturday to learn from a mixture of new and old activists, and particularly on the lookout for insights into how local websites can link with action on the ground.
As most people involved in hyperlocal websites know, anger is a great mobiliser. A local issue is often what gets an online community up and running and it is also one of the best ways of getting people talking on your site. How to move away from the negative is another interesting issue for another blog post, but for now I want to focus on the common questions: aren’t you just messing about on computers? What’s it got to do with action in the real world?
One point before I start: politicians and the media underestimate the power of a lot of people clicking at their peril. Mainstream recognition is only just starting to emerge of the scale of the culture change that has been sparked by our ability to communicate en masse and from anywhere. Successful campaigns will still largely be won in meetings, protests, petitions, political chambers, newspapers and TVs, because, utimately, they reach the places where power still lies. However, you can think of websites, email and other methods of communication as powerful, free organising tools that help you to talk to many more people and involve them in many more ways. More importantly for democracy in general, these tools enable people to communicate in different ways and from afar. While there may be some way to go in ensuring full access to these powerful free tools, the shift is still remarkable to witness.
These are the tips I picked up from activists and community workers and hopefully they will be useful to anybody seeking to develop an online community or campaign. It’s not the politics of the campaigns that is of interest here, it is the techniques that can be used to ensure that energy levels are maintained. I’m grateful to the presenters and participants of the ‘Turning online activity into offline activity’ for many of these tips ‐ if the video stream gets posted up I will post a link.
Get together in real life
This may sound like a surprising first tip for a digital guide, but physical togetherness is useful. The workshop speaker from the UCL Occupation described how constant contact through being in the same place 24 hours a day helped to keep up the spirits of the protestors and enabled them to show each other tools and platforms that they hadn’t used before. Many of the occupiers became ‘twitterised’ by seeing it in action. While websites are a great way of getting neighbours talking to each other, a gathering in the local community centre or pub will cement new friendships.
Fun is good
We heard a lot of examples of the power of humour and creativity. Sing, dance, make satirical cartoons ‐ and capture it all and put it on the website. It all helps attract people who hate political meetings, or, for that matter, resident’s forums. Creative challenges work well, such as the occupiers’ dance-off and caption competitions by political organisations.
Never stop talking (or tweeting)
Another nice tip from the UCL Occupation. They used cotweet ‐ a tool I haven’t yet tried ‐ to coordinate their Twitter feed behind the scenes and see who had replied to tweets they received. This grew their Twitter follower list. With a fast-moving, short-lived campaign like this, Twitter is perfect for sending out short updates, asking for help and ensuring that the cause stays in the minds of its followers. Other platforms may be more suitable for slower-burning campaigns or the development of ideas.
When you enter the realm of politics, even at parish council level, things can get nasty. In the case of the UCL occupation, their Twitter account was hacked. It is always helpful to have more than one social media presence for this reason, but also in case one platform goes down and you are left without any way for people to find you.
Build, prepare and then wait
As one of the workshop presenters from Obama’s campaign said â€œThere are moments that occur and moments you can createâ€. If you’re used to traditional organisations, you’ll be used to doing a lot of strategic work before starting a campaign, project or website. Unfortunately, on the web nobody can see you planning. If you feel strongly about an issue, you are more likely to find other people who feel the same by being spontaneous and following your instincts. This also applies because you need to be receptive to the community forming around your cause. The example given was an email sent as Sarah Palin was on TV one night ‐ a hastily prepared email led to $8 million of donations to Obama’s campaign. That wouldn’t have been possible if the platforms and email lists hadn’t been built, but it couldn’t have been planned ‐ this is about being spontaneous but still organised.
Don’t under-estimate the workload and time
This is possibly one of the most important lessons of blogging as well as campaigning. To do it really well takes a lot of time, especially at the beginning. It isn’t necessarily rewarding or much fun, especially when you’re getting into heated debates with commenters late at night. I was also intrigued to hear about the consensus meeting process by UCL students, which could take a very long time indeed (luckily, they were all sleeping there). Many campaigns take years to be successful. This isn’t meant to put anyone off, but it is worth thinking about the pitfalls and putting out your ideas tentatively to see if people want to help you before you take any big steps.
Learn from the archives and ask for help
Another tip that is sometimes taken for granted. If you still think the internet is just too many boring buzzwords then let me say two things: millions of pages and millions of people. It’s a community organisers’ dream. While in the past campaigns would happen and then disappear, now they can be found on Google. If you’re embarking on something, look around and ask for help. In my experience, people are very happy to reply to queries about a campaign they were involved in and share what worked well and what didn’t. That support from afar can be very reassuring as you start out with a mountain to climb.
Collect contacts and stay in touch
Is it difficult to keep people involved if you’re not mobilising around a particular issue? If you are constantly mobilising, isn’t there a risk of fatigue? Yes on both counts. This is where ‘become a news source’ is great advice. It keeps you in touch with the people you connected with in the initial burst of excitement. If you don’t feel your issue or area gets enough attention, you can provide an â€œalternative narrativeâ€, in the words of one of the campaigners. This is relevant whether you are talking about your local street or a campaign topic. Aggregating the information that tends to come your way when you’ve become involved in a campaign or group is a really helpful thing to do. Another workshop presenter suggested using anonymous quotes from emails they received in reply to their emails in future emails ‐ this is a great way of giving a flavour of community views without pushing people into writing for your site.
Again, this is a message from political campaigning that is relevant for hyperlocal websites. Many people prefer videos to written essays (she writes, sadly). Real people show that a campaign is authentic, both to potential supporters and those who will otherwise write you off as a lone voice. Also, videos can be shown in meetings to people who might not have the access levels to read a blog post. â€œThink of videos as tools to take to meetingsâ€ rather than always relying on people visiting your website. If you’re new to video creation, these guides can help.
To sum up, two of the final tips from the workshop were:
- don’t be scared to do things differently and don’t under-estimate the workload
- these are new means towards the same ends and what works offline also works online
This was echoed in a later workshop with the tip: â€œThink of the online space like an offline space, this will help you imagine how to get people inâ€.
If you have any ideas to add, please leave a comment!