August 19, 2009

Who's Left Out Of The Netroots?

At Netroots Nation 2009, more than a hundred caucuses, panels, and workshops grappled with an overwhelmingly broad spectrum of issues: new media strategies, web organizing tactics, and all kinds of modern progressive thinking. But as I wrote on Monday, there wasn't much being said about poverty and the empowerment of poor Americans.

The primary reason for this is very simple: poor people don't attend these conferences, and they're not participating in the netroots' movement. That simple reason is symptomatic of a very complex problem.

To the conference's credit, there was a lively panel about exactly that: "Who's Left Out: Taking a Critical Look at Online Organizing" was organized by Campus Progress, moderated by Erica Williams, and tweeted about profusely by participants (via the #leftout hashtag).

The panelists started off by pointing out that people engage with the internet in patterns that reflect their stations in "real life." As a result, the internet is stratified in ways that mirror real life -- and the nature of your engagement is shaped by your class, race, sexuality and so on. The kicker is that even though most everything on the internet is only a couple clicks away, it's even easier for users to lose sight of all the other different people out there in the world.

The danger to the many strands of social movement that coalesce every year around Netroots Nation is that they tend to talk to and agitate themselves, in virtual spaces where most Americans have never clicked a mouse. (For instance, panelist Matthew Hindman noted that porn sites get 100 times the traffic than the entire political blogosphere.)

From the perspective of campaigns that organize communities to move towards social change, this is a tactical problem with readily available solutions. "Left Out" panelists and participants pointed to a number of ways in which organizers can target their communications to reach people where they are: like text messaging campaigns, which can directly connect with huge numbers of people who don't often or ever access the world wide web, but who will engage via mobile device.

And of course there's the greatest example of internet-enabled social movement to date: the Obama campaign used the web to mobilize large numbers of people, who then went offline to organize much, much larger numbers of people, the largest numbers in recent American history. Many of those Obama supporters never visited a political website -- but they nevertheless showed up to help elect a liberal, wonky, African-American President.

Speaking from the crowd, Alan Rosenblatt of the Center For American Progress suggested that the real question we need to ask "is not 'who is being left out of online organizing?' but 'who is being left out of democracy?'"

You can find the answer to that here at Bread for the City. What's more, I think organizations like ours could play a key role in a solution to the problem. The question, though, is much trickier for us than it is for a campaign manager. Our mission is to help people. As we help meet their immediate needs, we also want to help empower them. But when the full extent of our resources are hardly enough to meet the those immediate needs, how can we help our clients actually engage in the virtual channels through which power increasingly travels?

The "Left Out" panel underscored how difficult this is. It's not just a matter of giving our clients access to extremely cheap desktop computers - we currently offer that opportunity through partnership with First Time Computers, but it's rarely used. (Few of our clients could even afford a monthly bill for dial-up, let alone know how to install and operate the machine.) Meanwhile, readers of this blog know that public libraries are embattled and endangered sites. It's not even a matter of just building more computer-capacity into our own facilities, since our clients often lack the skills that make computers effective tools.

We started this blog with the idea of creating a virtual space in which we could foster discussion about the realities of our clients' lives -- discussion that isn't happening in the media or elsewhere online. But the value of this space is limited by the fact that our clients themselves by and large won't access it. Where to begin solving this problem?

We don't have good answers to this question--yet. We're ready to start figuring it out.


RichardKS said...

good post. thanks for the summary. very important to think about in/exclusivity of online organizing and how it relates to offline results. one of the things I like most about the idea of integrating online with canvassing, meet-ups, town halls, etc. is that you can organize the organizers online and give them tools to reach a much broader spectrum.

biko said...

great post. online organizing is just one tool that we need to use to make america a more democratic place

Ben said...

Great posts on this event Greg! You're taking on a vitally important issue. Just like your clients, adult learners are often "left out" of many important conversations as well. We will probably also may have the same problem with our forthcoming adult literacy blog - that adult learners may not access it as well. I think this is a great conversation to keep pushing!