Cooking with the Internet -- A Recipe for Grassroots Success

"What this shows is that building and maintaining momentum with web-based tools and approaches does work. It's simply the key ingredient of leadership that promotes the breakthrough process of winning an issue by using this momentum to best effect. A movement with critical mass, technology and resources is lost without charismatic leadership, whether online or off. "   (MediaChannel, March 2004)


Forget the media post-mortems. Howard Dean's much-ballyhooed online campaign may have gone bust, but other web-based initiatives are still networking on. Just as the dot-com bust removed many of e-commerce's kinks, so, too, does the defunct Dean campaign offer important lessons about how to use the Internet to change the world in new and interesting ways.

Successful online advocacy through social networking is about having the right ingredients to organize, communicate, and, most importantly, win the day. There are five main ingredients:


1. A Salient Issue

This may be the most difficult part of the puzzle. You can't artificially contrive issues -- they either capture people's attention and imagination or they don't. Each issue also has a ceiling for participation. There are only so many people interested in helping spawning salmon or the spotted owl. And there's only a limited number of people beyond these issues core adherents that can be whipped into rabid passion on the subject. But you might succeed in joining the spotted owl, salmon and even the baby seal adherents behind a single broad-based concern that affects them all -- such as global warming. Only "mega" issues of immediate importance, like antipathy towards the war in Iraq and its far reaching implications that the Dean campaign tapped into, succeeds in bringing people with truly disparate interests together.


2. Effective Organizers

Organizing is an art form and some people are truly more effective at organizing individuals and groups than others. The senior people working with the Dean campaign were effective organizers as well as Internet savvy. When these people were paired with the new technology tools available, a potent combination of skill and logistical support was achieved.


3. An Efficient Platform for Organizing

The Internet excels as an organizing and advocacy technology because of the flexibility and immediacy it offers interacting with a geographically dispersed constituency. A variety of simple tools like Meetup.org, blogs, online signups, listservs, etc. can be used to quickly and easily "collect" people across great distances and swathes of society, communicate with them and facilitate organizing and advocacy around salient issues. Yet one does not survive through an online existence alone.


While the Internet allows people to reach out to each other on a broader and more efficient basis, in the end there is no substitute for real human contact. Large-scale actions cannot sustain themselves on a variety of disparate online platforms without some central "aggregator hub" site (or sites) to help coordinate the activities once an action has reached critical mass either. Busy people wishing to engage in a variety of activities often require one-stop shopping online to learn what is going on and to connect with those disparate activities through some centralized links.


4. Resources

This translates into time and money to pay organizers, develop particular technology platforms, and advocate effectively. By using the Internet and a number of free or low-cost online technologies, a campaign can find opportunities to create and build initial momentum. However, a serious, sustained national or international issue campaign needs substantial resources behind it for both online and offline advocacy.


5. Charismatic Leadership

This ingredient is key, and unfortunately, all too often minimized as an important factor in deploying online social networking for advocacy work. Bricks and mortar stores were similarly, and mistakenly, minimized in importance during the dot-com boom -- until their institutional presence in the equation was better understood. Human beings seek leadership and leaders on issues of importance to them. The decentralized approach of organizing through online networking doesn't negate the need for charismatic leadership even if the approach is the linear opposite of the hierarchical model one finds in traditional static organizations.


The Internet is all about reaching out, communicating and connecting with others. It's simply a less personal way of making personal connections. Once those connections are made however, issues of direction, organization and leadership are just as important -- regardless of what model you choose when advocating or campaigning.


I would argue that the Dean campaign had the first four ingredients but lacked leadership -- at least, leadership that convinced sufficient numbers of supporters to maintain his momentum as a candidate.

Many people were already incensed by the war effort; that is, the issue already existed pre-Dean. The real question now is if the momentum Dean built upon can be shifted to another, more charismatic leader who can use it to greater effect.


While some of the most popular grassroots advocacy sites have lost just about every major issue they've organized around, (the Clinton impeachment, election 2000, media ownership regulation, etc.), they, nevertheless, have managed to attract and grow a critical mass of constituents.


What this shows is that building and maintaining momentum with web-based tools and approaches does work. It's simply the key ingredient of leadership that promotes the breakthrough process of winning an issue by using this momentum to best effect. A movement with critical mass, technology and resources is lost without charismatic leadership, whether online or off.

- Jonathan Peizer -