Bridging The On-Line Real-World Gap

As I was Googling for something from an old work project, I stumbled across this interview with Marshall Kirkpatrick from 2006. Marshall and I had met a few years before at the Nonprofit Technology Conference. He has gone on to become a leading blogger on new media issues and is now a Senior Writer at ReadWriteWeb. I’m pleased to say that I think what I said still makes sense over 5 years later, and I would give nearly the same advice today (in principle).

Bridging The On-Line Real-World Gap: An Interview With Ruby Sinreich Of Netcentric Campaigns

Ruby Sinreich is the Web Maven at Netcentric Campaigns, a division of Green Media Toolshed. She is also the founder and editor of OrangePolitics.org, a progressive multi-author blog about politics based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Previously, she was the Online Organizing Manager in the Public Policy Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.Ruby and I talked in the following interview about Netcentric Campaigns and building an effective on-line strategy to support off-line, real world political organizing.

Ruby:

Network-centric advocacy is based on a philosophy of empowering the grassroots, your supporters, the “network.” We try to build strong networks between activists so they collectively form an effective movement. There are five aspects that we think are necessary for effective social networks

  1. You must have strong social ties so that the members trust each other and know who (with what skills) is in the network. Friendster/MySpace/Orkut/etc. are one way to build social ties, but so are in-person gatherings. Happy hours can also build your movement.
  2. There needs to be a common story that ties members together. They should have a shared sense of what the problem or what the goal is. This can vary widely, it might be a generally shared value, or it might be a mutual bad guy.
  3. There has to be a dense communication grid so folks have many ways to meet and communicate with each other. Blogs and social networking tools are a part of this, so are instant messaging and face-to-face gatherings.
  4. The members should share resources with each other. This could be money, space, information, etc. Like a directory that members can access, or sharing expertise.
  5. Finally there should be a sense of purpose so the network members know what the network is for. So they think of it as a tools for collective action or whatever the goal is.

Marshall:

It seems that there has been work to bridge the online world and the offline world for progressive causes for at least a few years now. Are there specific lessons that have been learned that have changed the way that you now advise organizations to, for example, build strong social ties with online and off or build a common story?

Ruby:

I don’t really think much about the distinction between on- and off-line. When we know our goal and our strategy, that leads us to tools which may or may not be online. We want to use a lot of online social networking and self-publishing because it’s very supportive of the kind of ties we want to build.

The internet itself is very network-centric (at least right now) so it lends itself to organizing in this way.

Marshall:

How do you advise people to use those tools to build ties in light of age and tech comfort level differences?

Ruby:

I try to connect new tools to old methodologies.

Marshall:

Can you give me examples of new tools/old methodologies that have made the most sense to people new to tech but familiar with old methods of political organizing? Analogies perhaps?

Ruby:

For example, I think Saul Alinsky was a great and strategic community organizer. Baby boomers are more familiar with him. So I talk about how his goal was to build local leaders that would speak out on behalf of themselves instead of doing it for them. Helping your supporters blog about your issue is that same thing – you are raising up their voice to advance the cause and empower them at the same time.

Marshall:

Are there opportunities afforded by these new tools to respond to some of the problems of traditional organizing? Like loud voices having undue influence or male dominance of planning?

Ruby:

Yes, but the digital divide makes new problems. In some ways, the Internet is a level playing field, but only if you are there.

As the New Yorker cartoon quipped “on the internet, no-one knows you’re a dog.” or a lesbian, or disabled, or African American, or an immigrant. BUT…There are still cliques that form, and sometimes they can be insular groups of straight, white guys.

But sometimes they’re not. It really depends on who listens to who. Does the media mostly read the authoritative-seeming blogs of the power elite? Or do they read the blogs of regular folks, activists, people who are just as authoritative but may not have as high of a Technorati ranking.

Marshall:

How do you, or how do you advise others to, change this dynamic of who gets read?

Ruby:

Well to some extent the machines that confer authority (like Google and Technorati) are neutral (ie they don’t know or care that you are a dog), so if more “outsider” voices use the tools that sway them, like hyperlinking and tagging, they can promote the voices they choose.

But I also think we should be building our own networks. Like, do I have to care about myTechnorati ranking? There are more important factors than just numbers of readers.

On my local politics blog (orangepolitics.org) I care much more about the quality than the quantity of readers.

Are the folks YOU want to talk to reading your blog? If not, what are they reading? Try to hang out at the sites they hang out at.

Marshall:

How other than readership numbers and numbers of inbound links can a person quickly evaluate the credibility/authoritativeness of a blog they discover?

Ruby:

It’s also about trust. I usually discover a blog because someone else links to it. If a lot of people I like link to it, or if I personally know and trust the person who links to it, I trust that blog more. You can also look at how much commenting is going on, but that’s not always a good indicator. You have to decide for yourself ultimately.

Marshall:

That sounds realistic for sure. Can you provide me another example of old political methods and new communication tools working together beyond building local voices through blogs?

Ruby:

Door-to-door canvassing and phone banking are old methods. Increasingly folks do not want to be bothered at home, and are turned off by what might be perceived as an intrusion. The new methods are house parties and viral e-mail. Note that both of these come from your own social network, not just a stranger who wants to talk to you.

I trust the people I know more. If they tell something is important, I believe them. If the TV tells me… not so much.

Marshall:

So this new era of communication technologies is actually re-emphasizing the importance of face to face connections?

Ruby:

It’s emphasizing social connections which are often built in person and can be enhanced online.

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