Online Community Organizing Take 3: "Start Small" Says Amy Sample Ward
The third post in the February Net2 series features Amy Sample Ward's reflections on online community organizing. Amy is an experienced online and offline organizer, speaker, and writer. She also the person who lead the strategy for the global NetSquared Community both on and offline until March 2011 when she joined NTEN as the membership director.
Amy’s expertise combines the grassroot feeling with online narrative. She understands the bigger scope of technology driven change while remaining focused on the specific causes of social projects. Read this interview to understand Amy’s point of view, and whether you agree or disagree -- join the conversation by leaving a comment or tweeting @netsquared and @amyrsward
Q: What does “online” add to the community organizing?
Successful community organizing across history has always been networked. It may have been a network of organizers in various towns or locations coordinating with each other and then operating locally. Or a team of volunteers that manage communications (from phone trees to canvassing). Or even the networked influence from news coverage and stories from one group or city to the next.
When you bring the Internet, online social tools, mobile technologies, and all the rest into the equation, you do not fundamentally change how communities organize or make change. You do, though, change the scale and the opportunity. Online networking means communities can form that aren't based in the same physical place. It means community organizers and leaders can communicate with their communities and with other leaders asynchronously. It even means that individuals and groups who thought they "were the only ones" before, are now able to find each other, work together, and do even more.
In the most basic sense, online organizing gives figurative legs to impact and reach.
Q: What makes a community?
To me, a community is a group of people (even if it is organizations, it is still the people within them) who have opted in to participate. It may be a community of geography, cause, or topic. But the opt-in is essential. Simply because I live in a given city, does not mean that I am participating in organized decision making, meeting and collaborating with my neighbors, or even communicating with those around me. Similarly, because I am a certain age, have a certain allergy, favor a specific political party, or even care about a certain social issue, I do not automatically belong to a community with a shared experience. I find that community (today, most likely online) and opt in.
Q: How do you combine working on the ground with online organizing? Anything that works differently in e.g. Europe and the US?
We should approach offline action as one of many channels available to us to reach our mission. Many organizations and groups currently consider multi-channel approaches for a message to include email, website, social media, and blogs. We should expand that view and definition of multi-channel to include offline action and mobile messaging/text. If we put out a call to action and want to organize our community to not just respond but share and distribute the call, we need to think both about where we send the message, but also how the action can be completed. For many organizations and groups, the offline actions are most critical and yet most often forgotten.
Q: What are the current trends in the online community organizing? What is changing and why?
The biggest shift with cause-specific organizing is that organizations don't necessarily need to be involved. This can be great, or it can be scary. With campaigning tools readily available, and the economy of the web centered on content and adoption, if passionate individuals work together to create compelling content, achievable and measurable goals, and clear calls to action, they can make an impact - from fundraising to policy change - without an organization being involved. Note, though, that those same steps to success are true for an organization. Basically, online organizing tools have leveled the playing field between for-profit and nonprofit groups, as well as between organizations and communities.
Q: Any advice you’d like to share with the other online community organizers?
Start small. Don't be afraid of failing. And invite people to lead with you at every stage.
This is the last blog in the Feb Net2 series. Another one is coming up at the end of March, and will focus on gender in tech matters. Stay tuned!
- Read all of the Feb Net2 series posts
- Check out Amy’s blog
- Look into Amy’s tips on using social technologies for social impact in the Social by Social book