Slacktivisim: A gateway drug to activism

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On a listserv for progressive activists that I am on there has been a ongoing debate about the term and idea of "slacktivisim" generally defined as the feeling of being a activist by signing e-petitions, joining Facebook groups, changing your twitter avatar or similar actions. The general consensus that I agree with is that it's a derogatory, useless term.  

However I think the debate about slacktivism is a useful discussion related to a important debate that the netroots needs to be having about how to integrate the online activism the netroots is so good at: raising money, signing petitions, writing blogs and spreading messaging and the more traditional tactics needed to win campaigns and legislative fights: calling voters and representatives, canvassing, data entry, organizing events and training activists. And it's a topic I will be discussing at Netroots Nation on the "Yes We Did: How Blogging Can (and Can't) Support a Field Campaign" panel with some awesome activists from around the country.

During the Obama campaign one of the biggest projects I was a part of was raising money online for Barack Obama and Democratic congressional candidates through the Obamathon and Obamajority pages which I promoted by blogging about the candidates and the issues at stake. I was also active locally doing the traditional stuff, calling and knocking on the doors of strangers, entering the sometimes comic data into VoteBuilder, volunteering at events, lit dropping, that kind of stuff.

But a lot of online activism: signing petitions, joining lists, making donations, blogging is looked down on in field circles as not being "real activism" or just another form of slacktivism (though I never heard that word used). But in my option and my experience these "fake" forms of activism are vitally important for recruiting people to engage in the important, traditional volunteering work. But to understand why these actions are important to turning more progressives into progressive activists it's important to understand why informed progressives, mostly bloggers are not activists already.

Why clicks but not calls?

One reason that bloggers don't participate in offline action is simply lack of information. Blogs keep their readers well informed about news and issues but rarely cover ways to get involved in those issues beyond linking to a website. This creates a large group of people who are passionate and informed about the important issues and candidates but simply don't understand how they can take action locally and make a difference in those issues.

But I think a big factor is one not talked about much. Phonebanking and canvassing requires talking or meeting dozens, maybe thousands of new strangers depending on how long you do it. Research suggests that over 40 percent of Americans are shy, on blogs it's probably over 50 percent. I don't have research to back this up, but as a generally shy person I'd guess that most shy people are not hugely enthused about  talking to a bunch of strangers after going to a office and introducing yourself to someone you don't know. It's just a hunch, but I'd guess that's a pretty widespread feeling among the shy community on blogs and a big barrier preventing people from getting involved.  

Because those are things I had to get over myself I tried to focus on some of the ways that I could help other people get over them while making active contributions to the campaign.

How to develop activists:

The biggest one was donations, the netroots is already very good at raising money, raising money is important and most of all donating to a campaign or issue makes you invested in the cause. It gives you ownership. If you've donated your hard earned money to a campaign chances are when you get asked to volunteer you'll be more likely to say less so your investment pays off. Once you've taken that step your bound to take other steps to get more involved.

My two favorite "starter" activities are volunteering at events and doing data entry. Volunteering at events will mean different things on different campaigns/causes but for the most part it will mean standing behind a table talking to people who come up and ask about your candidate/cause. Your bound to meet another interesting volunteer and hear interesting stories from people you talk to that will inspire you. It's a great and helpful way to get started. Data entry is extremely important and is something that most bloggers are going to be quite good. Essentially all you have to do is take sheets generated by phonebankers and canvassers and enter them into the VoteBuilder database, without good data enterer you can't have a good database and without that canvassers and phonebankers can't do their job and campaigns can't accurately plan strategies to win. Both of these are easy to do, require minimal interaction with strangers and help out the campaign in a big way.

Also by doing data entry you will realize how phonebanking and canvassing are not as bad as they seem. You'll find that the people doing them will leave notes about interesting people they met and that in fact you'll mostly just get answering machines and people who are not home. Direct voter contact is how campaigns are won. We need more of the informed, passionate people who are not doing voter contact to start doing it. And if people are encouraged to take ownership of the campaign by donating, get used to talking to voters by tabling and get used to voter contact by doing data entry then eventually those people will try out voter contact. And since by this time they probably know a lot about the issues at stake and a lot about campaigns they are going to be likely to become the next super volunteers who will recruit people in their community to the cause.

All of these things sometimes seen as not being effective or real forms of activism in truth are. They are not as important as doing traditional activism but they do make a enormous contribution to campaigns and causes and they serve as a important method to get people comfortable with doing those traditional tasks. On the average day 799,068 people visit DailyKos, probably a few of them are just visiting to check out one story or are conservative just watching what we do but many of them are frequent readers who get informed about all the issues that we face and care passionately about them. But most don't engage in some of the most important forms of activism despite knowing how important those issues are. We can and we must change that by actively encouraging "slacktivism" because despite what anyone says it IS important. It brings people into progressive activism and makes them more likely to engage in other forms of activism and become more committed to progressive activism.

Starting the discussion:

This is a discussion that is vital to the effectiveness of the progressive movement. That's why I'm exited to be on the "Yes We Did: How Blogging Can (and Can't) Support a Field Campaign" panel next Saturday at Netroots Nation. We've got some great people lined up.

Our moderator is going to be Sean Quinn of the great site FiveThirtyEight (formerly Pocketnines here), who traveled to the country to document the ground game for both campaigns.  We are also excited to be joined by Jeremy Bird, Deputy Director of Organizing for America and a senior campaign staffer with Obama for America, who has plenty of first hand knowledge to offer on how to mobilize volunteer organizers effectively.  The rest of the panel you will likely recognize from their blogging presence during the campaign:

casperr on Daily Kos, a volunteer organizer with the Obama Campaign
Katherine Haenschen (kath25), Burnt Orange Report
Pamela Coukos (femlaw), OFA California
and me, Karl Singer (Populista), MN Progressive Project

And here's the description if you want to get a better sense of what we will be discussing.

What is it like to have one foot in two different worlds--the world of campaign field organizing and the world of progressive blogs? Our panelists straddled the Netroots and the grassroots working for Obama, often serving as a translator between these worlds. Through an open discussion, this panel aims to determine the best ways to bring more people out from behind their computer screens into the field. We also seek to expand the online dialogue about campaigns with a broader set of voices and experiences. We will cover lessons learned, potential limits to supporting campaigns on the "big blogs" (messaging and fundraising vs. volunteer recruitment), roles of campaign blogs and third-party blogs; and how to gauge the effectiveness of blogging efforts.

Here's the thing - we not only want you to come to our panel if you are in Pittsburgh (If you are in Pittsburgh, do come!), but we also need your help even if you won't make it.  Because although we all have good experiences and perspectives to share, a lot of you do too.  We are curious about whether any of you were motivated by what you read on the blogs or the ownership of the campaign you took by donating to get out in the field and do more traditional work. Or if you were a "offline" volunteer, whether you followed or participated in the online conversation.  What do you think works, and doesn't in melding these two kinds of activism together?  And do you think it even matters whether we work to close the gap between the offline and online forms of activism?  We want you to come and tell us your thoughts at the panel - and give us ideas and stories right now about how to shape our presentation.

So let us have it! Weigh in in the comments, e-mail us at YesWeDidNN09 at gmail dot com or do it in person. Also, read Femlaw's diary from yesterday and keep a eye out for more from other panelists in the coming days. And in Pittsburgh or not join us on Saturday for the panel, it's going to be livestreamed for those of you that can't make it. It will be great.

RSVP!

Tags: Action, Activism, canvassing, Netroots Nation, NN09, Obamathon, organizing, Slacktivism, Yes We Did? (all tags)

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