Liveblogging the Internet & Politics conference 1

Building Collective Capacity : New Forms of Political Organizing

I’m here at the Internet & Politics conference at Harvard University, co-hosted by the
Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Institute of Politics. The purpose of
this event is to gather leading practitioners and scholars to reflect on lessons
learned from the recent Presidential election and preliminary thoughts on moving
forward from here.

The majority of the conference will be held by Chatham House rules — no attribution.
But the keynotes are open, and here’s the first one, featuring Prof. Marshall Ganz
(Harvard Kennedy School) and Jeremy Bird (Obama for America).

Marshall is giving a backgrounder on organizing as a general matter. He has significant
resources available on this topic elsewhere, but here is the quick summary:

What’s needed for purposeful collective action?

1. Leadership: Achieving shared purpose in the face of uncertainty.

2. Community: A collective entity capable of exercising agency.

3. Power: A community able to use its resources to achieve its purposes.

Enablers:

1. Shared values (broader than interests — they are the sources of motivation)

2. Peer commitments

3. Shared structure

4. Shared strategy

5. Shared action

6. Action that is clear, specific, intentional, and can be learned from

To what extent can new technologies support these activities? (Or detract from?)

The Obama campaign emphasized carpenters, not tools.

Now for Jeremy’s response:

The “Jazz” and “Classical” metaphor from 2004 describes the connection well. Start with
the startegy and look at technology as a resource. Four stories that illustrate the
interdependence between technology and strategy.

1. April 11, 2007 — Florence, South Carolina. Not necessarily the most tech-savvy
state. In putting together tickets, were planning to capture emails, but then decided
to also capture cell phones. In December with Oprah, asked 30,000 to text the campaign
and also capture their numbers. Texting underappreciated — were able to text just the
team leaders. Or have volunteers send back pictures to keep other teams motivated. South Carolina house meeting program. Sam Graham-Feldson came to shoot video.
Despite the written program, no one knew what they were doing. What the video did was
tell the story: both to the rest of the campaign and to the community. (at 7:31, all the volunteers knew we’d won via the text message program).

3. Maryland. Teams who organized themselves using the MyBO tools. With two weeks left when Jeremy arrived to GOTV. This was a very different environment with much tighter connectedness. Through the ‘Net, bring together the volunteers into trainings, sufficient to hit every voter 3 times before the primary.

4. Pennsylvania. 8 weeks to go while TX and OH is going on. Took the online tool, PATeams tool, that allowed volunteers to log in and target neighbors. It was the “classical” and the “jazz” coming together. It enabled the volunteers to set and hit goals without setting up an office, to connect folks together and not just “go online and make calls” — they felt they were part of a community. Eventually led to the neighbor-to-neighbor tool.

5. Ohio (general election). We started to shoot all sorts of video. It was one of the most important things we did, because it told the story of what we were doing. Nationally, we set up VoteForChange.com that allowed people to download and turn in voter registration forms. As every individual downloaded the form, it gave organizers information about voters — but it turned out it was the most rich source of volunteers. These were young people who sought this out themselves.

These are still designed with field and new people sitting together. In 2008 we’re still figuring out if new media is a separate thing. We’re trying to figure out how to make organizing and online organizing work together.

In Maryland, a statewide group of 150 were already meeting every Saturday, all volunteers leading their own teams created through MyBO. Is it possible to use this technology for smaller campaigns? How to do it without the 2,500 paid campaign organizers that the Obama campaign had? The person who raises their hands first to be the leader may not be the best leader. One of the key questions is how to build leaders – how to define, how to select, are there tests? The hard part is that many of these are interpersonal skills; it’s not like learning geography. Marshall is trying to develop a distance course, but people will enroll as teams, not individuals. “Self-organization” is a chimera, a wish. It takes skill and practice. Buffy, in CA, was able to produce more calls per organizer than most other states using the technology to leverage. This was not the traditional leadership structure: we launched interdependent teams with shared norms, which diverged from the usual top-down individuals who burn out or have other issues. Coaching plays a critical role here. (Just because it’s face-to-face doesn’t mean it’s traditional).

Videos to ask people to sign up were very effective – saw great numbers. A good video, connected to a real narrative, and a way to capture people who say they want to do something connected to that. One of the real challenges is communication of emotion, affect, via the Internet. It’s easy to express emotion but harder to experience it, lacking the empathetic component. Video enables empathetic communication.

Counterfactually, what if Cesar Chavez had different tools – what difference do the tools vs. the carpenter make? If the Farmworkers collapsed because of a lack of accountability, then this risk is heightened without empathetic interaction. There was a time when the Farmworkers tried to market rather than organize the boycott – disastrous – perhaps the Internet would make this worse.

What to do when the wrong person becomes a team leader? Fire them. In PA, with only 8 weeks, we messed up. We spent too much time trying to figure out how to support bad leaders. Is there was more transparency because of the Internet tools – more data to measure outcomes.

 Change.gov is, with “deliberate haste,” trying to figure out how to move forward. Still going through 500,000 responses to the survey, much of it qualitative. Last week’s conference of best team leaders to figure out what worked in the campaign. This weekend another round of house parties to keep getting more feedback. All of this is to figure out what the community wants. We’re not just asking the house parties to meet but do a service project around the holidays.

Re: Marshall’s interview with TechPresident – Marshall now states he perhaps was being impatient without an understanding of “deliberate haste.” The campaign is gathering lessons learned, which is wise.

But governance is different than both campaign mobilizing and community organizing. It’s key for us to know how to set up the organization. Also, the campaign was doing a lot of learning from mistakes and successes, and this has some resemblance to gathering feedback from the citizenry. A movement hasn’t emerged within an administration before – but why can’t government get people involved in the same way that the campaign trained team leaders.

The Obama campaign had enormous resources – “Don’t expect that to be the norm.” People contributed because they wanted to know that there’d be an office in their community – they could see the results. Alinksy: “There’s organized people, and there’s organized money.” Barack figured out how to do both.

You can offer tools, but you have to get people into the tools. The context was vital.

My.BarackObama.com — 2008 Game of the Year

It featured minimal graphics, no sound effects, and deeply flawed gameplay. Yet one of the most important game titles of 2008 was played by thousands and helped change the face of American politics. I’m writing about My.BarackObama.com.

Game designer and scholar Ian Bogost considered it a washout election cycle for political games. McCain had his “Pork Invaders” arcade gimmick, and Obama bought ads in Xbox Live (largely an indulgence). But I would argue that 2008 represents a watershed moment for video games, a moment when the medium showed that it can, indeed, change the world. My.BarackObama.com (“MyBO”) didn’t just communicate ideas. It encouraged people to go and do something.

MyBO awarded Obama supporters with points for taking real-world actions that would likely help the candidate win the primaries and the general election: making phone calls to voters, hosting gatherings, and donating money. MyBO wasn’t the first website to use game mechanics to stimulate real-world action. In 2004, ILoveBees sent thousands of players on a worldwide treasure hunt to promote the traditional console game Halo 2. In 2007, World Without Oil had participants imagine a world where oil prices become astronomical, then adjust their lifestyles in response. Over 18,000 people joined in, recording changes large and small that prefigured what people really did do in the actual oil shock of 2008. These Augmented (or Alternative) Reality Games all found ways to blend the virtual and real.

MyBO was the first serious ARG deployed by a political campaign. Sure, I’m stretching the term “augmented” a bit (unless you’re one of those who believed that all Obamabots lived in an alternate reality). And aren’t fundraising thermometers also a reality-based game where putting in $50 makes the mercury rise? I suppose – but what made MyBO revolutionary, and what puts it in the same category as World Without Oil, is that it also asked participants to engage in non-digital, non-virtual activity. You can donate money without leaving your bed or interacting with another human being. But calling voters requires an authentic human touch, even if the medium is digital (as it was for a colleague who Skyped voters on November 3 from Cairo, where she was at a conference).

Gameplay on MyBO was far from perfect. Part of the problem is that the boundary between digital and real remains only semi-permeable. For example, in January, my partner and I drove down to South Carolina and spent a week in the trenches, eventually helping to run a bellwether staging location. For this – and for our subsequent work in MA, VT, and PA, we scored a big fat zero, because there was no way to let MyBO know what were doing. Meanwhile, others were apparently gaming the system by hosting bogus events or flipping through phone numbers without actually calling anyone, perhaps hoping to win various awards. (The site did limit the number of numbers it would give you within a specific period of time to limit this kind of abuse – or, I suppose, wholesale data-mining).

A typical quest (note the in-game manual):
MyBO -- call quest

MyBO pointsPerhaps the biggest problem of MyBO as a game was its failure to scale. It was disheartening to log in and see that you were in 266,442nd place. True, the points and ranking were meaningless (except for the ten lucky phonebankers who got to meet Sen. Obama), as they are in any game, and I suppose you could argue that the fact that there were 266,441 other people doing more work than you also said something important about the campaign. But the system would have been far more motivating if your cohort group was more local: all Obama supporters in your state, city, or your MyBO groups. After all, the strength of the grassroots resides in its person-to-person connections.

MyBO - Activity TrackerThe scoring system never did go local, but in early August 2008 the developers swapped out points in exchange for an Activity Tracker. Instead of winning absolute points, supporters “leveled up” the ranks from 1 to 10 (10 being highest). Groups as well as individuals also scored points, which helped people find others who were actually doing real work. Previously, it was hard to get a sense of how you compared to other volunteers: 266,442 sounds pretty low on the totem pole, but not if there are over a million registered users!

Some were upset by the change, which demonstrated that the points really did motivate some. Wrote one of the top 500: “GIVE ME MY POINTS BACK!!!! THEY DO NOT BELONG TO YOU!!!!!” – words not unlike an MMO player whose epic weapon has been nerfed. But for those lower on the scale – which would include all n00bs, the lifeblood of any campaign or MMO – the switch removed the sense of futility that pervaded the game before. (Points also decayed over time, which also gave n00bs a fighting chance. Consider it an estate tax for scores).

For most supporters, the points likely functioned as a curiosity. Still, the point system helped signal what kinds of activities really mattered, and it probably had something to do with the over 200,000 events hosted and 27,000 groups created on MyBO – an impressive number even after you discount some set of bogus ones put on to game the system. And then there’s two other scores, 203 and 8,481,030, the margin of victory for Obama in the electoral college and the popular vote, respectively.

A resounding victory for President-Elect Obama. And, I suspect, for the future of reality games in political and civic campaigns. (Full disclosure: including one I’m now working on a civic engagement game for Fair Trade).

From campaigning to governance 1: civic engagement

“Yes we can,” as an election slogan, implies a relatively simple mission: get more people to cast a ballot for your candidate than for the other one. But as Barack Obama’s creed pivots from a battle cry to a governing philosophy, what, exactly, “we can” becomes a much larger and more complex matter. So, too, is the potential role technology can play in an Obama administration.

In this series of essays I’ll look at how Obama’s new CTO might transform American democracy in three areas: civic engagement, administrative transparency, and legislative advocacy.

(Cross-posted at techPresident)
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The future of campaign technology: the ground game

Canvass sheets, re-imagined

Dawn in Hillsborough, NHThe morning of November 4, 2008 found me — like thousands of others all across the nation — rushing from door to door the final phase of the get-out-the-vote (GOTV) effort. In those pre-dawn hours in rural New Hampshire, the fate of the election came down to the mundane work of footsoldiers armed with low-tech (yet high-gloss) door hangers and paper walksheets.

Low-tech, High-glossBut only this literal last mile was low-tech. Everything leading up to this moment was built on a solid, database-driven foundation. And so it’s easy to imagine how the mechanics of campaigning might evolve over the next four years:
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