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Up and at them

The growth and success of online political activist groups like MoveOn, GetUp! and Avaaz present valuable lessons for anyone looking to engage communities using the internet. Tom Dawkins and Josh Mehlman talk to GetUp! and Avaaz co-founder Jeremy Heimans.

Australian activists Jeremy Heimans and David Madden started local activists site GetUp! in August 2005. By the November 2007 Federal election, it had signed up more than 230,000 members, and as of February 2010, that number has risen to over 343,000.

The changing role of activism

Heimans worked at international consulting firm McKinsey and Company and studied at Sydney University, the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government and Oxford University. While working on a PhD in international relations at Oxford, Heimans’s ideas about political activism began to change.

“You can’t force the development of an online community; growth has to happen organically.”

“When I was younger I thought about change in very conventional, modernist terms, that you went through institutions and organisation at the global level, the United Nations or the World Bank or the government,” he says.

“I still think those institutions are important, but my conception of how change happens has definitely become much less institutional, less based on formal authority and more on the ways in which you can change people at the level of ideas and building movements.

“When I was looking at the impact of the internet, I saw a huge opportunity to make progress on the issues I cared about this way, through mass mobilisation.

Getting up to speed locally

Despite the prominent role online activism had played in the United States elections, introducing the concept to Australia proved difficult.

“No-one had heard of online activism in Australia and there was a lot of fear, even among natural allies, about how this might change things,” says Heimans.

The major political parties had difficulty deciding whether to ignore, support or stick the boot into the idea. In the end, they did all three to varying degrees.

“GetUp! is a fly in the ointment of the party system,” says Heimans. “It’s a way to keep people accountable and a way that real people can advocate for progressives policies without the party system.”

Heimans says one of GetUp!’s great achievements was engaging a new constituency who were interested in social issues but not involved in the political process.

“They have gone through the experience of being incredibly empowered, and that that has gone across age ranges, across the community, across geography,” he says. “I’m proud of the stuff that GetUp! has done that’s cultural, not just political, like the Aboriginal reconciliation.”

Lessons learned

Forming and running the group was a learning experience for Heimans and the rest of GetUp!’s staff.

“We were surprised by how viciously we were attacked by the Howard Government and parts of the media,” he explains. “If we had our time again, we would have probably been more aware of how new this concept was.

“I don’t know how much of this was cynicism or genuine concern, but it took a long time for people to understand that this was not a party, it was not a stalking horse for a party, but it was a progressive movement. We wanted to pull together all progressives. That is what allowed us to work with everyone from Malcolm Fraser to Bill Shorten to Bob Brown.

“I think the other lesson is to trust your membership. You can’t force the development of an online community; growth has to happen organically.

“Some of the things GetUp! has done haven’t pleased everybody, but they have still been the right decisions. GetUp! has been very careful about who it partnered with to maintain its nimbleness and independence. We haven’t formed big, general coalitions we’ve only collaborated on specific campaigns. But I know there are some people in the non-government organisation community who wish GetUp! would act more like other NGOs.”

Heimans has parlayed the skills and lessons learned into a new venture, avaaz.org, an international online activist group which claims to have acquired more than 3.5 million members since its launch in January 2007.

The lessons Heimans learned from harnessing disengaged people into a potent political force apply to anyone looking to use the web and social communities to develop a committed and active audience.

“You have to let a thousand flowers bloom to some extent,” he says. “You learn to accept that that’s where the real power of a community is. So when you have an impulse to be controlling, you have to really let that go.”

And like many online entrepreneurs, Heimans believes the next step is to develop a real-world infrastructure that matches the online success.

“The political parties aren’t really interested in investing in genuine local infrastructure,” he says. “There are branches of the parties, they have meetings, but they are very internally focused on turf wars.

“GetUp! now has enough members that it could now have local groups campaigning door-to-door and face-to-face and directly to local decision-makers in every seat in the country.

“We have this extraordinary ability to get people out. For example, we said we wanted to have a national conversation about reconciliation and we were able to organise three or four hundred of these events to be held around the country simultaneously. The next step is to make that more permanent.”

Social networks the next phase

If the 2004 US election campaign was about online activism, the 2008 Presidential election was a resounding endorsement of the power of social networking. However, Heimans warns that single-purpose social networks around a political candidate or a company are vastly different to general-purpose networks like Facebook and MySpace.

“Barack Obama’s website is not really functioning as a social network in the sense that Facebook or MySpace are social networks,” he explains.

“A social network that’s based around a narrow vertical like politics will never have the thickness that Facebook has.

“There’s a structural question about whether we try to use these existing social networks which have the scale and try to tap into them, or try to create a social network around your own little vertical.

“The purpose of Facebook is for people to socialise and communicate with each other and the purpose of GetUp! or Avaaz is to mobilise people to action.

“I think in the medium-to-long term, some sort of thicker social networking functionality is bound to develop around these organisations just because they have so much depth and scale, but I’m not totally convinced that it will look like Facebook.”

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