The Occupy Wall Street movement, now in its second month, is a protest force of nature. Unions, progressive organizations, community organizers, even big ‘D’ Democrats are coming out in support. If your nonprofit or political organization hasn’t come out with a public position on the #occupy movement, maybe you should check for a pulse.
But never mind our organizational homes. As individuals we can jump right in without further ado. And what better way than with our skill sets as digital strategists, online organizers, social media gurus, and branding experts? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Joining the movement can be a challenge. Existing systems are designed with full time occupiers in mind, not volunteers with an hour, a day, or a specific task in mind.
So here’s a guide, by a digital strategist, for digital strategists. If I've missed some useful tips, add them below.
The Organization of the Occupation
This description is based on the Wall St. crowd, but my understanding is that others are following similar models. While all major decisions are made by General Assemblies, most of the activists, including full- and part-timers, are part of Working Groups. Working Groups might be meeting more than once a week. Those meetings might not be efficient or accessible to newcomers. Still you'll want to join one or more that make sense for your interests, and start digging in to any documents they've posted online and listening to the conversation on their listserv. Finding WG's is easy for the Wall Street folks, might be harder for other cities. There is an effort to standardize names of WG's across occupation.
The Internet and Open Source Working Groups
Here in New York, we have an Internet Working Group (IWG) and a Free/Libre/Open Source Working Group (FLO). The former has mostly worked on developing the main website for internal coordination, www.nycga.net. This site will continue to evolve in ways that serve specific working groups, and developer help is much appreciated. The FLO folks are promoting ‘open sourcism’ as an embodiment of the true principles of the #occupy movement. They also work on the tech infrastructure: hosting, servers, LDAP, a future CRM, wiki and more. The vision is not just to assist #OWS with tech solutions, but to create replicable, robust and secure systems available for all occupations, in the U.S. and around the world. They also welcome your help. A number of core team members are part of both WG's.
On-Boarding for Newbies
Unfortunately, it’s been hard for the IWG and the FLO peeps to incorporate new people and new ideas. New ideas, even good ones, represent a challenge because of the pressure of uncompleted, previously agreed upon tasks. Some of the best work done by techies in support of the movement is being carried out by free agents (www.occupytogether.org) and outside/inside coalitions (www.occupytheboardroom.org) that don’t even try to interface with formal working groups. That said, a corner has been turned, and there are now systems in place to make it easier to onboard new volunteers – and even new ideas.
If you want to help, fill out the volunteer form for the Internet WG. If you want to propose something you’ve come up with, read this post first or you might come across as an egotistic time-waster. Finally, learn more about developments already underway at the wiki. (It's not as complete as it should be.) Be aware, that the project management tool Redmine is being used to track projects. Github is being used to manage development. There are listservs for all the WG's, and for even smaller things like the Digital Strategy Team within the Internet WG that I joined. (Follow the links above, and you'll reach the proper signup pages.)
That said, as an online organizer I’ve noticed that the IWG and FLO teams are full of web developers, sysadmins and coders. Not small dollar fundraisers, CRM experts, digital marketers and solutions consultants. That crowd is likely to wonder where the official public facing website is, or why no one seems to be taking advantage of SalsaLabs generous offer of free services. (Or the offer of a certain text messaging vendor....) As of this writing, no one seems to have the ability to send mass emails outside of a Googlegroup or Riseup listserv.
There are tech savvy organizers around (I’m refraining from mentioning names, but you've heard of them or their firms/organizations!) They seem to be attracted to the top level strategy questions involving press, media, and tactics for nonviolent direct action planning. I’ve also heard an argument firmly against the use of email list based organizing by #OccupyWallStreet. Who would write those emails? What messages could ‘the movement’ agree on, given the anti-hierarchical bias and refusal to issue specific demands?
While not all the organizers are young, or inexperienced, the vast majority associate CRM enabled organizing with groups like MoveOn or the Obama campaign. Liberals tainted by their focus on electoral or mainstream politics. Many associate the tools with top-down organizing, the antithesis of the General Assembly process.Personally, I think that position is incorrect. The 'movement' is using CRM all the time, as then they raised money on Kickstarter or chose Googlegroups as the primary listserv tool. They just aren't using their own CRM, or taking advantage of all the possibilities.
An emerging area where expertise is needed is in technical strategy more generally. For example: the accounting team was overwhelmed by the needs for trasparency and basic bookkeeping. An expert in nonprofit administration have been able to help with software suggestions. The Outreach Working Group is engaged in marketing, to be sure, but they aren’t far along in developing their marketing strategy. Given limited resources, which communications should be directed at which groups for the most immediate benefit? Folks I talked to weren't thinking that way.
The bottom line is, you don’t need to be physically present to contribute important online organizing skills to the movement. And you don’t have to start something on your own. If you'd like to understand more of what's going on, feel free to reach out to me - I'm easy to find.
Crossposted on Organizing 2.0.