Right now I’m pondering media and public relations strategies for two groups – Take Back NYU! and the Brecht Forum – and I wanted to put down here some of my thoughts on how to transition grassroots organizing onto the web without devolving into the ‘netroots’ inanity I’ve described before in previous posts about the drawbacks of net-organizing (political impotency, undue obsession with the internet as an organizing tool).
An idea tossing around in my head for a while is the idea of all-access, ‘open-source’ movement building. Essentially, I’d like to see grassroots organizations pursue their struggles while maintaining a constant presence on the web, turning their activities into content for blogs, video/audio channels and more. This idea stems from two trends: the rise of all-access TV and web content, and the development open-source software, both of which grassroots organizations can capitalize on to expand their support at their base, and in mass/mainstream environments.
First, the problem: left grassroots groups primarily use the internet now as a cluttered bulletin board, or as a platform for alternative journalism/theoretical work. Sites like Indymedia or the NY Activist Calendar embody the first use – posting events, actions or upcoming fundraisers for a specific audience, but with little specialization or diversity in content. The theoretical/alt journalism sites include the online editions of traditional left journals, such as New Left Review or Left Turn.
This simplistic attitude towards the web fails on a variety of levels. First, it maintains the basic gap between theory and action that serious activists should struggle to mind, particularly when doing battle with well theorized and planned PR strategies used to particularly devastating effect by corporate powers. The web helps bridge the gap by turning theoretical thought into content that movements can use to build support for their struggle, turning theory into action. For instance, someone writing for a blog maintained by a grassroots group can use that space to examine their ideological foundations in a way that allows for open comment and critique. At the same time, they can tag, promote and distribute that post as a way to gain the attention of potential supporters. The writing space encourages regular, critical theoretical reflection, a process often lost in the fray of day-to-day movement building.
Second, the current face of the left on the web fails to play to the strengths and aesthetic of the internet. Both of the functions described above treat their subjects from a detached, non-participatory perspective. The bulletin boards never address their audience as potential organizers, and the theoretical/alternative journalism work only occasionally writes from the perspective of someone participating in a struggle (with some exceptions, to excellent effect, I might add). I think this stance encourages apathy, particularly in a web environment chock full of sites that encourage personalization and participation, even in movement building (my.barakobama.com).
This is what I mean by all access organizing: movement leaders should boost their online presence in order to appear more like everyday human beings, while at the same time striving to produce original and creative content that distinguishes and builds their movement in a chaotic media world online.
Online work should strive towards ‘branding’ a movement or its organizers. Brands work because they get consumers to identify with the idea of a product, rather than its actual function. Why Pepsi over Coke? Edgier and more cutting edge, not because it is more or less thirst quenching. (The whole fashion industry – which is a big fucking deal – runs on this idea). Same with Barack over Hillary – Obama branded himself as a progressive with his ear to the grassroots, despite being largely indistinguishable from Clinton on many policy issues. Radical organizing needs this type of work – advertising how and why movements work, rather than merely treating PR as a job for after decisions are made. The openness and accountability of the web means that organizers can use multiple platforms to show off the innerworkings of their operation, with exposure to a potentially wide audience as a method of ensuring accountability.
This is just the start to some thoughts on how this could (not) work – we’ll see where the next few months takes us.