Monday, November 17, 2008

So now what?

Okay, the crowd's all here. The cause-wired came out for Barack Obama. They delivered. They're still hanging around, for the most part. So now what?

Is this crowd-force sustainable? Can it be turned into a perpetual vox populi for the soon-to-be Obama administration? Or, more significantly, can any crowd amassed via the Web for any purpose be persuaded to stick around as a cohesive group for a while? It's the question of the hour as nonprofit advocacy groups (and corporate America) look to evolve their as-yet-untested social media strategies to raise new money and court more supporters, Obama-style. Obama proved it's possible to build an effective viral marketing machine and an online mega-fundraising army for a cause. Can nonprofits apply some of those same strategies to, say, saving the whales?

Yes—and no, not yet. Even Obama's people are locked in a spirited debate over how to keep everyone engaged post-election. (According to Los Angeles Times reporters Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten, some Democratic Party insiders are pushing to make Obama's Internet operation part of the party apparatus, while deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand fears that pulling it into the DNC might alienate Obama's cause-wired following: many of Obama's Net faithful have not necessarily seen themselves as party devotees, and could easily flee if they felt that someone or some group was trying to co-opt or control them, insiders say. Click here to see that LA Times piece.)

Jeff Howe, the author of the book, Crowdsourcing, is asking the same questions. In an interview earlier today, Howe says that "building a community is really, really hard; maintaining a community is much, much harder." Sustainability of any crowd-sourced group, he says, depends on the ability of the cause—in this case, Obama's social media gurus—to keep engaging group members in ways that reassure them that they're truly having an impact. One has a much better chance of being able to influence a volunteer army of supporters via social media if the cause or candidate keeps winning ongoing victories. (There's a cause-and-effect momentum in a campaign primary season that's easy to exploit.) But when it comes to governing, that input-equals-results factor that feeds the self-organized might not be so easy to demonstrate and maintain—at least not in a system where change can often take months, if not years, to accomplish.

Perhaps, then, the Web is ushering us into a new era of hyper-incrementalism, a time when it will be more important than ever in social advocacy and politics, alike, to tout—if not to really start sweating—the small stuff. "You have to give the people in a crowd-sourced group lots of stuff to do, all the time, and they have to feel like they're genuinely having an affect...or they'll dissipate and move on," Howe says. "Communities form as long as they're needed or feel like they're having an affect day-to-day." It's a crowd-management challenge, at the very least. It used to be said that all politics is local. Now it's becoming even more important, in a digital world, to make it feel that way to potential supporters.

As a hopeful campaign blogger, Christopher Hass, recently wrote on "The tools here are your tools now—they always have been."

The promise of social media in politics and advocacy is empowerment, for better or worse. It's all about engagement. Social media make it easier to organize a group to make change. (See the four-day-old, a flash-reaction to California's anti-gay Proposition 8.) Now let's see if social media can help to make the often more tedious, sticky business of democracy and compromise easier, too.

(Illustration: "Expectant Crowd" by Philip Atherton for

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