Get FISA Right: Nomadic Democracy

[Note: My essay, published on techPresident today.]

In some ways, it’s too early to write this post. Usually reflection takes place at the end of an event, but, as part of the Get FISA Right movement, I’m not so sure where the end really is…in fact, it’s moved so fast, I’m not even sure where it started.

The story of the Get FISA Right group has already been covered heavily in the press. Here’s the 30 second version: A group protesting Barack Obama’s decision to support the current FISA legislation appeared on his campaign website, and as tens of thousands of individuals joined, it became not only the largest group on his site, but a movement strong enough to force Obama to take notice. His response to the Get FISA Right group was a moment of validation; this became something real.

Maybe a bit too real, as I found myself on Fourth of July weekend sitting alone in a room on a conference call with 10 or so people I had never met before in my life, logged into my email, editing a wiki, organizing a political movement at breakneck speed — all while my family ate barbecue without me.

It was at this point I began thinking about Clay Shirky.

I recently attended techPresident‘s Personal Democracy Forum in New York City, and heard Shirky talk about his book, Here Comes Everybody. He started his speech off with this:

The thesis of the book is, in five words: Group Action just got easier…The idea is that the transaction costs, the difficulty of simply getting a group of people together to accomplish anything of value has historically been high, and what we have now with the internet and mobile phones are tools that lower those transaction costs. And there’s been this explosion of what people are doing with it.

Those words have been resonating with me over the last few days, because organizing and participating in the Get FISA Right movement has been “ridiculously” easy. We’re using free, social software tools to connect, to think through ideas, to collaborate, all with the aim of taking the passion and energy created on Barack Obama’s website and shape it into political action.

So we’re using email and a listserv. We have a wiki from Wetpaint. We’re using Google Groups and Google Docs to create initial drafts before posting them for public review. And we’re using social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to get the word out.

Group action really did just get easier.

Yet it’s not perfect, and mistakes have been made, and we’re questioning ourselves every step of the way. For example, once a (very) rough draft of our “response to the response” was created, we posted it on the wiki. But there was uncertainty — we knew there would be increased attention from the press after The New York Times published its recent piece on one of the group’s members, Mike Stark. Was it a good idea to put such a rough draft out in public, for reporters to potentially see?

We also had a long discussion about changing the email messaging function on the “My Barack Obama” site. The reasoning was that, once the group hit 18,000+ members, the flood of email the list produced was turning off a large number of people from the activist campaign. There were also questions about how “productive” a list that large could be. So it become “moderated,” meaning one of the group’s administrators would need to approve each and every message that went out. While there was some support for this change, many of the group members became upset, and disenchanted — there were charges of censorship.

Whether or not this was a mistake is still not known, but something had to be done. A happy medium was hopefully reached by applying an extremely “loose” form of moderation, essentially weeding out only obvious trolls. A Discussion Forum was also setup, and myBO group members were encouraged to move their conversations over to the new platform.

All part of a day’s work when running an open source political movement by the seat of our pants.

While the group has only been working together for a short time, there have already been some lessons learned:

Technology Must Be Boring

To borrow again from Clay Shirky, “Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” By this, he means that it’s not until technologies become ubiquitous and commonplace and, indeed, boring, do they enable profound social changes. For the Get FISA Right group, this meant two things. First, the technologies themselves had to be free, readily available, and easy to use. Tools like Wetpaint and Google Groups “pages,” and sites like Facebook meant there were platforms around which we could collaborate. But beyond the tools themselves, for this group, collaborating online was “boring.” Many of the group members were already well-versed in blogs and wikis, and were able to quickly acclimate to the unique social norms and cohesiveness required to be productive online.

Transparency Over Perfection

As mentioned above, draft statements were posted out in the public domain well before they were ready. If we worked for a political campaign, this would never happen. But we decided transparency was something we valued, and conducting our business out in the open, we felt, only added to our credibility. That said, not everything was completely public. Certainly email discussions aren’t “public” in the sense of a wiki, nor are the pages in the Google Group; clearly, not everything can be done by committee. But every effort was made whenever possible to forgo perfection, get a draft of something together, and post it quickly.

Don’t Take It Personally

What is striking about the Get FISA Right group is the level of “professionalism” involved. By that, I mean every single member of the team is able to both give and receive constructive criticism extremely well. To an extent, the sense of urgency around the group’s mission — mobilizing the citizenry in the days before the July FISA vote in the Senate — forced an environment of quick decision making. But there was also a level of honesty that was palpable, as folks gave their opinions and hashed out decisions in real-time. For me, I think years of participating (pseudonymously) in the political blogosphere helped me become better at this sort of give-and-take — the blogs are no place for thin skins.

18 (Or Thereabout…) Is The Magic Number

The planning group was around 18-20 people, and this seems like just about the right size for this kind of effort. The group is large enough to bring varied backgrounds, expertise, and interests to the table, and also allows for work to get done across time zones. Whether it was two in the afternoon or two in the morning, others were available to work through whatever issues came up.

Hopefully these lessons can serve in some ways as a template for more efforts like ours. It genuinely feels like something new is being created here. I once heard PressThink‘s Jay Rosen comment that citizen journalism is all about “extending the news space” into new territories. What we are doing with Get FISA Right is extending the political space in new directions.

But is this anything new? Haven’t blogs have been opening up politics to ordinary citizens for years now?

While that may be true, blogs, with the Dean campaign and, even more so, the first YearlyKos convention, have also become part of the political landscape. At this year’s Democratic Convention, bloggers will be reporting from The Big Tent. Politicians like Barbara Boxer, Russ Feingold, and John Kerry have posted frequently on Daily Kos. And blogs have become an important aspect of professional journalism too, as increasingly we see articles written primarily based on comments in the blogosphere.

But perhaps the most important distinction between blogs and the Get FISA Right movement is that bloggers have a home — a blog has roots. While the blogosphere hasn’t quite become arborescent, it’s 28 years later and we’re still tired of trees.

The Get FISA Right group has no home. We’re distributed; nomadic. We’re a Google group and a chat room and a wiki that is constantly changing. We’re a collection of email messages in the ether.

Perhaps that will change. Since our work started, we’ve created an Internet domain. We have a logo. Perhaps one day, there will be some roots.

But, for now, we’re rewriting the rules. We’re walking a tightrope.

We’re nomads. And it feels pretty darn good.


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