MoveOn.Org is an Internet Activist Group
That Will Change The Way We Vote
Ask Joan Blades to show you her office and she gets a wild grin.
The co-founder of MoveOn.org bounds into her North Berkeley living room with its overflowing bookshelves and kids backpacks grabs an artfully lacquered hat box, returns to the dining room and places it on the table. With a flourish, she sets a Sony laptop on top of this base, throws out her arms with dramatic flair, and laughs. "Ta daaaa!"
Behold the workspace of a woman who is changing the world.
Blades and her husband and co-conspirator, Wes Boyd known in political circles as two of the most influential progressive leaders to hit the scene in a decade both work from home computers. So do their small band of hard-working MoveOn techies in New York, Washington and San Francisco. Together, the collection of cyber activists has set politics-as-usual on its head this past year in America.
Could it be that the most important political story of the year is being scripted by a handful of geeks on laptops?
Yeah, you bet. MoveOn has grown, over the past five years, from an e-mail Blades and Boyd sent to 300 friends, to an organization with 1.6 million active members whose goal is to do nothing less than "take back America" from an administration they believe has led the country down the wrong path. Basically, MoveOn uses the power of e-mail with its instantaneous speed and negligible expense to activate friend-to-friend alliances that can mobilize hundreds of thousands of citizens to send strategic e-mails and faxes in hours as well as raise millions on behalf of like-minded political candidates or campaigns.
Last year, MoveOn helped orchestrate thousands of anti-war rallies and vigils across the globe by getting word out on the Internet about coordinated actions. And last June, MoveOn held a "virtual" Democratic presidential primary that some pundits believe will forever change how we elect presidents.
So yes, when the history books get written about how the Internet changed politics in America, MoveOn will surely merit several early chapters. But, not surprisingly, the phenomenon of online activism is already spreading and migrating. Plenty of other groups both liberal and conservative are also attempting to tap the magic of grassroots online democracy. And interestingly, cyber visionaries and software innovators have been experimenting in ways that may soon come into play in mobilizing an otherwise passive citizenry to participate in its own democracy.
"People had stepped back from politics because they thought it was fruitless," says Blades, "but then along came the Internet."
Thrilled by the enthusiastic response to their can-do Web action alerts and multiple projects, both Blades and Boyd say they are optimistic about the future of online activism and determined to keep it all going. "We were shocked at the power of this," says Boyd, a soft-spoken businessman not known for hyperbole. "We can see the rough outlines here of something that is really amazing and hopeful."
From Toasters to Voters
It should come as no surprise in the eccentric world of the wired that the couple who created the flying toaster screensaver would go on to shake the halls of power in America. Yes, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, creators of a software firm called Berkeley Systems, contrived the unforgettable flying appliance program and also developed the After Dark screensaver. The latter made them a fortune. They sold the company in 1997 for $25 million and, within a year, became what they call "accidental activists."
It all started in 1998 when they got fed up with then-President Clintons imminent impeachment. The pair sent e-mails to a few hundred friends urging them to call upon Congress to censor Clinton and "move on" with the nations business. The e-mail zoomed way out there and back again on the Internet, gathering tens of thousands of names of like-minded people on a petition. The website MoveOn.org was born. The organization began to collect e-mail addresses, initiate quick civic actions and raise funds for politicians deemed worthy.
Then came September 11, the war on terrorism, the invasion of Afghanistan and talk of a war in Iraq. Enter Eli Pariser, a 22-year-old second-generation activist. Pariser was using the Web to accomplish anti-war networking with a success and style that seemed familiar to Boyd and Blades. They were impressed and offered him funds and assistance. Soon MoveOn entered heavily into the burgeoning anti-war movement; Pariser became its International Campaigns Director.
In September, during the long prelude to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Boyd, Blades, Pariser and a small but growing staff of MoveOn devotees asked members to cough up funds for a $50,000 New York Times ad. The request raised $200,000 in a few hours. They experimented successfully with new "meetings" technologies online that helped people, in Boyds words, "take a message" to their representatives. The group raised money to run national TV spots and newspaper ads mostly in the New York Times that went against the drumbeat for war. They collected millions of signatures on a petition to the United Nations Security Council and got 450,000 people to flood congressional phone lines in a single day, calling it a "virtual march." They joined forces with the Win Without War coalition, and became a key factor in orchestrating coordinated anti-war protests last February 15, followed by vigils across the globe. (No mean feat: were talking about the largest single day of protest in world history.)
Of course, none of this stopped the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But those orchestrating the war were certainly aware that a huge cohort of patriotic Americans were strongly opposed to what was happening. "We havent won on everything," says Blades. "But we made a difference."
Next came MoveOns online Democratic presidential primary of last June. In just 48 hours, more votes were cast online (317,000) than in the early caucus and primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina combined. The event attracted national media coverage and was seen by pundits as a glimpse of a possible future where traditional primaries might be replaced by online voting. The fortunes of Howard Dean who who placed first in the MoveOn primary seemed quickly to ascend because of his strong showing in the contest.
Recently, MoveOn has been involved in battles involving everything from congressional redistricting in Texas to new media ownership rules by the Federal Communications Commission and the recall election in California. But, with these constant battles, will MoveOn and the other online organizations burn out members with too many requests to take action on too many issues?
"Theyre too smart to burn people out," responds Don Hazen, Director of the Independent Media Institute, which runs the alternative news syndicate AlterNet.org. "MoveOn moves fast and doesnt worry about what people think. Theyre jumping on all sorts of things and there seems to be no limit in sight."
Wired and Willing
"I dont have geek training," says Andrew Greenblatt, webmaster for TrueMajority, one of two other progressive organizations aggressively attempting to tap the potential of online activism. A Harvard-educated lawyer, Greenblatt passed on practicing law and instead turned to his innate and singular ability to "translate geek" into language regular people could understand. "I was an activist looking for new ways to fight back," he said, "and Ive finally found one."
Five years ago, Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerrys began TrueMajority "in order to compound the power of all those who believe in social justice," says Cohen on his website. The organization now boasts 325,000 members who receive "take action" e-mails and flood Congress with faxes on key issues. "You used to at least have to write a check or attend meetings to be active," said Greenblatt. "Now you just have to check your e-mail." The phenomenon has opened the door of activism to countless new people who want to get involved. TrueMajority spurred 71,000 people to fax their members of Congress to communicate their feelings about the war. Though MoveOn is clearly in the lead when it comes to membership numbers and clout, the groups work cooperatively on some projects.
Another organization promoting cyber activism is Working Assets, a long-distance telephone company with a social conscience and revenue of $133 million in 2002. Since 1985, Working Assets has raised $35 million for donations to progressive nonprofit groups. With its "flash activism network," Working Assets under their ActForChange banner organized almost 100,000 people to e-mail congressional leaders about the war. "Online activism is crucial," says ActForChange Director Jennifer Willis, who is now working on a massive voter registration effort for the coming presidential race. "Online activism is evolving and its here to stay."
"Weve already had some huge victories," says Willis, noting that the campaign to get ultraconservative Miguel Estradas name withdrawn from nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C., was largely won on the strength of the cyber campaign.
These three organizations MoveOn, TrueMajority and ActForChange together dominate the current field of cyber activism. They were each founded by entrepreneurs and are therefore observed to have certain traits in common, including a high tolerance for risk, a passion for hard work and efficiency, a willingness to fail, and a knowledge that failure can lead to big things. (The same cannot be said for most nonprofit organizations, whose leaders typically need to spend lots of time building consensus and pleasing funders.)
This approach might also explain why MoveOn and the others are adept at using tools created for the business community, such as conference-calling online, because the same technology that can hook business people up with each other can hook citizens up to members of Congress. "Businesses invented the technology, saying how can we use it to make money?" says Greenblatt. "Activists are taking the technology and saying how can we use it to change the world?"
But progressives are not the only ones trying to boot up citizen activism. Just a few months ago, the Republican National Committee launched an "on-line toolbox for Republican organizers." And another conservative group named Citizen Outreach put up a website in late July with the specific goal of becoming "a mainstream alternative to MoveOn.org" a group they characterize as "radical" and "left-wing."
"MoveOn.org has a five-year start on us," says Citizen Outreach president Chuck Muth, "but they lost in their effort to stop the impeachment and they lost in their effort to stop the U.S. from removing Saddam Hussein. Zero for two is not a very impressive record."
The Citizen Outreach website features "brushfire alerts," online petitions and pre-written letter templates for those who want to take action from the right side of the spectrum. And clearly the positions heralded by Citizen Outreach benefit from the "echo" effect it engenders from Fox network and the conservative talk-show circuit. But so far, nothing on the actual website or in the groups rhetoric indicates that action is being sparked online at anywhere near the level that is has been on any of the three leading progressive sites. Still, according to their website, the group does have 25,000 people receiving regular "e-briefings."
By now, most people have heard of the "six degrees of separation" idea: that it doesnt take much just six links of personal acquaintance or less to make a connection from any one person on the planet to any other. But when Bioneers founder Kenny Ausubel starts talking about those six degrees, get ready to take the concept of online activism to an entirely new level. Thats because, says Ausubel, the six-degrees principle holds true on the Internet as well. "Its all about connectivity," he said. "Everything is connected, theres no throwing anything away."
Bioneers, a New Mexico nonprofit dedicated to environmental restoration and progressive activism, convened its first conference in 1990 and has held one each year ever since. The gathering, with its mission to help create a sustainable ecology, is tied inextricably into what has been happening on the Internet, according to Ausubel. Thats because the "connectivity" of the ecological and biological world is clearly mimicked by the Internet.
"The Internet was originally designed as a decentralized system," he says. "The medium is steeped in feedback and connectivity," just like the human body, just like the earth. "The surest way to heal our ecosystem is to connect it to more of itself," said Ausubel. And now the Internet is doing just that, with its ablity to connect like-minded people together with each other in unprecedented numbers.
Another visionary entrepreneur and author, Paul Hawken, chairs Groxis, an emerging data-mapping software program that reveals, according to its website, "the discovery of unknown or unnoticed relationships." Hawkens "grokker" uses visual bubbles as a tool to allow people to understand information that otherwise seems disconnected. The goal: nothing less than a transformation of the industrial system into one that understands the whole and as Ausubel said in relation to his approach in the natural world "looks at all the connections." On the subject of todays online political activism, Hawken said simply, "I do it. I do it. Thats about all I can say."
Yet another high-tech activist pioneer is Jim Fournier of Planetwork, a nonprofit organization based in Marin which is exploring the role of the Internet in empowering individuals and revitalizing democracy through social networking. Fournier is especially keen on the role of a next-generation wave of Internet software. "Most of the computer software that exists now works in a way that can be described as "one to many," he says. MoveOn is using that software very effectively. "We really support what theyre doing," and he believes this will soon help people communicate "many to many." According to Fournier, several such software programs are now being beta-tested. "This year is going to be a powerful time," he predicts, explaining that network technology in this area is maturing simultaneously with a growing, global motivation for change.
"We are very optimistic," he says. "Many people have learned about this and tell me that, for the first time in years, they feel hope."
So far, for the front-line online activists back at MoveOn, TrueMajority and ActForChange, hope in relation to the Internet and its power to change the world is a commodity that seems stocked in abundance. "What youre looking at is a democratizing technology," says Greenblatt. "With the old way, if you have a lot of money, you have a lot of power. With the new way, if you have a lot of people support, you have a lot of power."
Back in her North Berkeley home, her laptop placed securely on her hat box, Joan Blades checked her e-mail and prepared to respond to a slate of new messages from compatriots across the globe, from MoveOn members around the country, from Eli Pariser on the other coast, from various staffers closer by ... and from her own husband, Wes Boyd, who had sent her a communique from the other side of the house.
"With the Internet, its all connected," said this woman sitting before her computer, preparing to change the world. "Its not a system of scarcity. You can change, you can learn, you can fix.... It does resonate. And it is powerful." n
Melinda Welsh is an editor-at-large for the Sacramento News & Review, and was the founding editor of that publication. She teaches college journalism and is working on a novel.
© 2003, Dragonfly Media. (www.dragonflymedia.com)
SITES FOR THE INTERNET ACTIVIST
There are many places to start if you want to become an Internet citizen activist. Here are some ideas:
www.snowcoalition.org : The local gathering site for more than 100 community action groups in the Puget Sound area. SNOW stands for Sound Nonviolent Opponents of War.
www.truemajority.org (or action.truemajority.org): Started by ice cream socially responsible entrepreneur Ben Cohen. Lots of good presentation ideas for local activists to copy.
www.mvp-seattle.org: Another local site, the acronym translates Majority Visibility Project. One clever item shows the "war cost of the Potomac Empire" as a running total (every few seconds) that was approaching $80 billion at presstime.
Here are other Web addresses for organizations mentioned in the accompanying article about MoveOn, which, of course, can be found at www.moveon.org.:
www.ActForChange.com (sponsored by Working Assets): Find a steady supply of activism alerts, plus Working Assets radio programming.
www.alternet.org : Best site for news junkies. Covers wide range of environmental, health, social justice and other topics that run deep in the alternative media.
www.bioneers.org: Haven for environmental activists and visionaries. Check out the Bioneers radio program schedule.
www.groxis.com: Top data and research site for the serious activist.
www. citizenoutreach.org: The conservative answer to MoveOn and other progressive sites. Slogan is "putting the public back in public policy."