Talking About Online Organizing With Jeremy Heimans

Jeremy Heimans is in the business of creating 21st Century Movements.  As he explained it during his talk at #BIF8 “We organize people around major global issues and try to deploy their collective power using technology in really smart ways.” 

Consider that, you would think that Jeremy’s work, which uses technology to help build and mobilize individuals and communities on a global scale, puts him at odds with the argument that Sherry Turkle is making about the need to re-connect offline, face-to-face.  When I asked Jeremy, he reconciled the two different views this way:

“I totally agree with most of what Sherry Turkle says, and I agree with her general argument about the corrosive effects of digital overload.  But in this case, I don’t think they are as mutually exclusive as they seem.  When we do these large mobilizations online, a smaller sub-section self select to participate in high touch offline activities.  What the online gives you is the ability to get more people doing the offline stuff than would otherwise have done so.  So it gives you scale and the ability to get new people into the system more fluidly.

That’s not to say that every time someone signs an online position they are creating deep connection – but over time you can build brands and organizations that people begin to attach some identify to.  The experience of seeing the $30 you raised going into a television ad that influences the outcome of some legislative battle – that’s actually very reinforcing.  So there is a lot you can do to build community online, that is a different set of things that the offline interaction gives you.  The comparison is not apples to apples.”

Jeremy acknowledged that there are limits to what basic online actions people will take, and how valuable those actions can be when applied in an organizing context.  But is it possible for organizers to create online activities that are equally valuable to the types of offline, high-touch activities that smaller groups are doing, but in larger numbers? Jeremy answered:

“There is certainly a need for more tactical innovation in the online organizing space.  There is also a risk of the space becoming commoditized, when everyone becomes so good at the testing and refining that cynicism creeps into the process.  And I think you are seeing some of that already. That said, I think the key is to continuously find new ways to deploy scale in politically useful ways.

There are some situations where scale really does matter. If you want to coordinate in a very short period of time a large number of simultaneous offline events or a calling campaign at a very critical moment, or to raise a huge amount of money [Jeremy cited a recent project where money was raised to help get a group of gay Iraqis out of Iraq at a speed that a traditional foundation would never be able to handle] – all those things rely on scale, not necessarily on the actions of the small, high-touch groups.

I think you just have to recognize that there is a set of things that scale gets you – among those things is not the deepest forms of community and connection, but you can still conduct a set of activities that are really valuable to movement building and generating political power.“

Finally, I asked Jeremy about how to prevent the commoditization of online organizing.  He replied:

“One risk is things become too sensationalized. You want to appeal to a broad audience, but you don’t want to sensationalize or trivialize.  Sometimes sensationalizing something will lead to a bigger response, but that can also lead to a diminution of the brand.  So I think that’s a big risk.

I also think we need to find new ways to reach people – email is still highly effective, but in the United States people are sick of it, so there is a need to reach people in ways that are potentially different. That’s an area of opportunity.”

I am still not convinced that online organizing will help us to solve the problems facing our society – not as it is currently conceived or executed. But I have known Jeremy for many years and worked with him directly on one occasion (on a campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons that launched in late 2007/early 2008) – and if his work proves anything, its that we have the potential to figure this stuff out.  Now we just have to do it.