Mobilizing the Entire Planet - Interview with Phil Aroneanu from 350.org

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Phil Aroneanu Phil Aroneanu from 350.org shares some secrets about using the Internet to mobilize people to fight climate change as well as what it's like to run a campaign in 10 different languages.

Jed Sundwall: Are you in D.C.?

Phil Aroneanu: I am. I'm the only one in our crew in D.C., except for a couple of our interns. We're all spread out. There are a couple of us in San Francisco, well four of us in San Francisco, two of us in Vermont and one in Budapest. And we'll be hiring elsewhere around the world.

Exactly. Anyway, so can you tell me how long has 350 has been around?

Well, 350 (350.org), in its current incarnation, started up in March, so we haven't been around for too long. But, the same crew helped run a campaign called Step It Up 2007, last year, which was basically a similar campaign, but only focused on the U.S. So, we helped facilitate more than 2,000 events around the country. Last year, focused on really strong carbon cuts and climate legislation on two different days of action.

And how did that work? Was it successful?

Yeah, it was very successful. If you check it out, StepItUp2007.org, you'll pretty much see what happened because the whole idea was to have everybody around the country on the same day have the same message. And that message was step it up, Congress, cut carbon 80 percent, by 2050, which was a pretty radical goal at the time, April, 2007, January, 2007, when we launched that campaign. It was a very radical goal. We would have been laughed off Capitol Hill if we ever brought that up, but it's what the science was saying at that moment. And we wanted to get that point across that it's not OK to compromise on this. This is what we need, this is what the science is saying. We need Congress to really work and have the debate on the level of where the science was at.

And so, we had everybody hold a banner that said, "Step it up, Congress, cut carbon 80 percent by 2050." We had a bunch of organizing tools available on the Internet that we developed, in concert with activists on the ground, who were attracted to this because of its simplicity and because of how we organized it with real people and the Internet. Then, we had them upload their videos and their photos from their actions around the country. And we ended up getting more than 2,000 uploads of videos. We probably touched hundreds of thousands of people because each rally had anywhere between 30 and 5,000 people.

What do you attribute this to, other than, obviously, the importance of the cause and the fact that other people are passionate about it? Were there any online tools that really allowed you to pull this off in a way that you couldn't, otherwise?

Yeah, a lot of the Web 2.0 stuff that had been coming out at the time, we sort of took on in a big way. It's not that we necessarily used like new tools, per se, but we really used them in a new way. I don't know if you're familiar with Democracy in Action. We used their tool set, their sort of like data base back end thing. We worked with some web developers at Radical Designs, which is a pretty small shop out of San Francisco. And they developed a bunch of basic list management tools like profile tools that are available on Facebook, where you can sort of have your own list serve, you can have your own chapter, your own group, you can add people, take people off. You can edit your profile minimally. So, it had a basic sort of social networking kind of feel to it, even though it was very much focused on taking action in your community.

We never said it's OK to just post your profile. We said you need to take action in your community, you need to organize your community. These are the tools that you have available for you. And a lot of people use those tools, and a lot of people use more tools, texting and stuff like that in their own communities. We called Step It Up the first open source environmental campaign ever, basically because we weren't telling people what to do. We were basically just telling them whatever you do, whatever you think is important, whatever you think will resonate in your community, hold a banner, take a picture or a video and upload it to our website. And that way, we can link everything together.

Right. But, here's my question, how did you get people to upload stuff? I've talked to other people who do campaigns and they're like, "Yeah, we want you to get on Flickr," or try to teach people how to use Twitter. And it's a ton of education that people don't go for. How did you get people to upload stuff?

Well, just because of the nature of how we got people on board, a lot of people who were organizing events were semi-tech savvy. Some were definitely not tech savvy, I can tell you that. We got tons of phone calls from people unsure about how to even write an e-mail. But, I think we just made our website simple enough and straightforward enough that people got over that hump. We had all the uploading tools, we had the photo uploading tools on our website. It would synchronize with our Flickr account. So, they didn't have to go to Flickr and upload their photos; they just uploaded them on our website.

We had a map. We had things that were very user-friendly. And more importantly, and this is what I tell everybody who asks us how we got people to report back, we didn't just have a website. We had like eight people behind the scenes organizing. We're organizers. So, any time anybody had a problem, they'd e-mail us or they'd call us. And we would get back to them within like anywhere between five minutes and a day. So, more than anything, to get people to do something and to do it effectively, you need actual organizers, who understand them like right where they need it, meet them where they need it, which is what we try to do.

Which is interesting because I think a whole dream software is oh, you set up the system and you walk away from it. It runs itself. With social media, the social part is the key component; you have to have people up on it all the time. Obviously, it helped you a lot.

Yeah, actually I'd say that most of what we learned, most of what we did, and most of how we connected with organizers was not through our website, but mostly through e-mail and phone calls. We phone bank to every single one of our organizers and we're like, "Did you go to the website? Did you check out the news? Did you upload your photo? Do you know how to upload your photo? We can walk you through it; we're here for you."

We had volunteers doing that. We, ourselves, did that. And we tried to develop the smoothest, cleanest web tools as possible, but obviously, there's always things that go wrong. There's always people who don't understand how to use them. More than anything, you're totally right. The social aspect of it is the most important. And from an organizing perspective, we don't want the software to take over. People aren't going to, necessarily, reach each other. Obviously, the software is the means with which they'll reach each other. But, to actually get people to take action, you need to have that sort of voice that people will listen to, that convincing thing. And that's just a neighbor, a friend, a family member talking to another neighbor, friend or family member. So, just recognizing that as part of just organizing, in general.

And there's sort of two silos in a way. There's like tech people who are interested in doing non-profit stuff, and there's non-profit people interested in tapping technology, which is like this dream tool. And neither belief is really accurate. And something that we did effectively, I think, is that we are all tech-savvy, but we're also all community organizers. We came out of organizing around climate in college. We were community organizers around the Presidential Primaries. We've been doing community organizing. And yet, we all sort of know the basics of CSS and HTML. We know how to blog, we know how to use all these social media tools. And that's the new organizing, I think. It's like doing both at the same time. And not having these silos of knowledge and practice.

Exactly, so basically those two sides that you talk about, the tech people and the organizing people, you have to meet halfway. So, it sounds like you're basically halfway there. It's not like you have to go from one silo to the other to figure out how to blog, how to rally people.

Right, exactly.

I'm interested to know where did you guys come from? You say your team has this background doing other stuff. Are there other projects that you work on? Is 350 run by a group that runs other campaigns, or is it its own thing? You've talked about how you did Step It Up. Before that, did you all do something together, as well?

Yeah, we all went to Middlebury College up in Vermont. We graduated a few years ago, a couple years ago, actually. We worked there to get our college carbon neutral, which was a big campaign. We sort of learned the ropes, organizing on climate there. I've been a climate organizer for a while before that in high school and college. And we worked with organizations like Energy Action, which is this huge coalition that works on climate change on campuses and off campuses.

And so, we learned the ropes sort of by doing. That's one of our things, too, we like learning by doing. So, we all learned how to blog and use social media on the fly, how to code and how to fix web stuff, use all these tools. Yeah, we didn't have any like formal training or anything.

What I'm really curious about is I'm calling it 350, is there a better name for it?

No, it's just 350 or 350.org for ease of translation.

Which reminds me that I'm wondering how on earth are you trying to do this in so many languages!? How is that going?

It's a big project. Even though it's sort of the same premise as Step it Up, in that we're trying to get people to take action in their communities, upload their videos and photos and we're having some success doing that, it's a totally different beast. We're running it in, I think, here, let me count, 10 languages right now. And obviously, we don't have dynamic content all the time in all the languages, but we just e-mail blasted in seven languages. And our lists are still growing in a lot of the places outside the U.S. Our list is still primarily U.S.-based.

The idea is it's a global problem. Again, with the silo thing, we can't just focus on the U.S., without focusing on the rest of the world, as well, and hold leaders accountable for their actions on the International level. Technologically, we went sort of a bit of a different route. We have a Drupal website now, which makes it easier to do the language translations and sort of the multiple user log-ins and stuff like that. To build our lists abroad, we're trying to use a lot more social media and social networking, as well as mobile stuff that we're still investigating, but really excited to start using.

On which social networks have you had the most success?

Facebook has been really good. We've got a page we launched a couple months ago. It's already got a couple thousand fans, and we haven't even started advertising yet. That's been pretty successful. MySpace France has been really successful. We've got like a couple thousand friends there, and we've gotten some actions and some interests through MySpace. And we're looking sort of country by country, through those folks on our team that speak those languages, to really set up profiles on social networks in those languages and start spreading the word that way.

What is it about Drupal that makes it easy to translate? I've never used Drupal.

This is the first time I've used Drupal, as well. We just launched our website a month and a half ago. So, I'm still learning a lot. I guess Drupal has a lot of user management customizations that you can do. So, we can have the same page and then, have different people log in and translate different parts of it in different language just by selecting a translation. So, the back end would be like the English. And from a drop down, you would select Portuguese. It's the same page. You're editing the same page, but in a different language.

So, that's how we've set it up. And we have lots of volunteers, interns and staff that are working on translation, which has been a huge sort of capacity thing. It's a huge outlay of time, effort and money to translate it, but we feel like it's really important to give all those folks their respect and not just put it in English. You really can't mobilize the world in English. It's sort of disrespectful.

I actually work for an online Hispanic marketing agency called Captura Group. We're helping the Federal government use Facebook. Captura originally started working the the government while working on GobiernoUSA.gov, which is a Spanish language version of USA.gov, redid everything. Anyway, doing Hispanic marketing online, it goes far beyond translation. What I notice on your blog is you have some girl from Spain and another from Hungary?

Those are right, you've got it.

So, you have liaisons there and I imagine they're doing some of the translating?

They are. Actually, they're from those places, but many of them are students in the U.S., so they're like foreign students studying in the U.S., and they're doing this either as an internship or part-time. We prefer working with students because we feel they're really open to new things. They're really savvy about social networking. They know how to set up a Facebook page. And if they don't, they've used Facebook, so at least they can figure it out. They understand how to talk to young people who are probably like one of the most important constituencies that we're trying to get to.

We feel really strongly about working with folks from around the world and we'll be hiring people from around the world. But just for our launch, we felt that using exchange students as our staff and our translators and our cultural liaisons was the best way to do it. And it's proven to be really helpful and definitely true.

The point I was trying to make is it's not just translation. You have to have somebody in culture working on it, as well, to obviously make the translation more effective, but also, to know how to speak to their own people.

It's funny you mentioned that because we're just about to put some Facebook ads out targeting Spain because it's actually the third highest visitation rates to our website. Spain is actually the number one, if you look at the polls, of people who care about climate change and people who understand climate change. And so, we're going to be targeting with our Facebook ads Spanish folks who are interested in climate change. And I was just talking to our two interns who speak Spanish, one who's from Spain, about what would be like a cultural pun that we could use to have a really good hook in our Facebook campaign and how to really make that happen. So, I've been thinking about that just the last couple days.

That's great that you have the people in the organization to do it.

Yeah, it's been totally great to have folks from all around the world involved because we think we're pretty liberal. We've traveled quite a bit and understand stuff. But, more than once, our interns, our translators and volunteers have called us out on stuff that we just obviously are blowing and don't understand. And they know way more about it. And we're totally excited to have their input and work with them, as well as the people who are users of our website. We get e-mails all the time, people saying this translation doesn't work, why don't you do this in our country, this works better? And we're trying to be as super responsive as we can.

There's actually a theory we have in house that so many Spanish speakers are sick of U.S. Hispanics. They prefer Spanish. They're so sick of poorly translated sites that they're starting to give up on them. So, they'll go to a site like, "Check out our site in Spanish." And they're forget it, I don't want to look at it, because they know things aren't going to be translated properly.

I didn't realize that.

Yeah, it's so pervasive how much sloppy translation gets put out there. And it's just like sloppy efforts. What you guys are doing, it's clearly up front. Your mission is to run a global campaign. And so, you're obviously putting the resources in to make sure that works. But for so many other organizations, it's like an after thought. It's like oh, yeah, not everybody speaks English, let's use Babblefish.

And even on our end, we put a lot of capacity and a lot of time into it. And we still have quality problems. It's just really difficult to translate stuff effectively as I'm sure you know.

And what you're doing, maintaining all these translations.

Yeah, we're trying our best to. Obviously, some stuff is missing. We found out that we mixed up the URL's for this Chinese Traditional and Chinese Simplified. We just got it wrong, so we're going to have to fix that. They're the right characters, but the names of the URL's are wrong, I guess, in some way. So, we still have like lots of work to do on that, but we're trying our best.

Anything else you'd like to say?

I think what we're trying to do is really, again, with that silo idea, take web organizing out of that web silo and take organizing out of that like on the ground silo and really jumble it up, mix it up and see what we can come up with that's really effective. We're all about trying new ideas, and we're trying to use technology in a way that it's really never been used before. We feel like the Internet was invented to connect people together, not for watching porn or sharing stupid You Tube videos, but for really making social change. We feel like this is the opportunity and it's just gotten to that point in that Web 2.0 world that we're verging on connecting tons and tons of people in the world, not everybody, but a lot of people. And if we can just reach them through this technology and then, really take it to the next level and help organize them, then we've won the battle. And that's what we're trying to do. It's like taking this new pervasive technology and applying it to this really critical global problem, taking these sort of two global things and mushing them together and really trying to build a movement that way.

That's great, thank you.

Oh, and I should probably talk about how 350 is the most important number on the planet, right?

Of course!