June 07, 2004
Notes from Planetwork 2004: Other Sessions

Here are the highlights of the other sessions I attended at Planetwork. (I could only stay for Saturday’s session, so I missed out on all the stuff they did Sunday, unfortunately.)

“Emerging Technologies and the Future of Activism”: several good presentations here, and lots of good Q and A. Markos Zuniga of Daily Kos fame, who was scheduled to be on this panel, couldn’t make it, which was too bad, but the other panelists certainly picked up the slack. Gideon Rosenblatt of ONE Northwest spoke eloquently of his “Movement as Network” vision — how embarrassing is it that I had never even seen his paper on this subject until I walked into this discussion? Pretty f*#@ing embarrassing, that’s how, considering that the reason I run this site is to alert you to things precisely like that paper, dear reader! (Go read it if you are as clueless as I was.)

Another memorable panelist from this session was Alex Steffen, the editor of WorldChanging, a fascinating site that aggregates ideas about sustainability. Alex and I had an incredible offline conversation about the challenges non-profits and social action groups face in the modern media/communications world after our respective panels were finished. He is frighteningly intelligent and it was cool to discover how many things we were on the same wavelength on. (I’m adding both Movement as Network and WorldChanging to the blogroll.)

“Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Organizing”: Is there a new law that says every e-activism conference has to have a “debate” about this false dichotomy? They did the same thing at the Politics Online conference I attended at GWU in the spring, with similarly muddy results. But I digress.

The panelists for this discussion were uniformly sharp people: Marty Kearns of Green Media Toolshed and Network-Centric Advocacy fame, Brad de Graf of the Media Venture Collective, Jon Stahl of ONE/Northwest, Bill Pease of GetActive Software, and Zephyr Teachout of America Coming Together (and, of course, of the now-legendary Howard Dean Web team).

Each of these people individually had interesting things to say. Marty talked about his model of network-centric advocacy, explaining how organizers could look to the recent flap over “Spider-Man” ads on bases in Major League Baseball to see how future campaigns might take shape. Jon talked about the work they’ve done with ONE/Northwest trying to find ways to connect up the huge number of small environmental groups in the Pacific Northwest. Brad talked about emergent democracy and the characteristics of top-down vs. bottom up organizations. Bill stood up for top-down organizing, pointing to its proven record of success. And Zephyr described the chaotic nature of a political campaign, and how campaigns hew towards what works rather than following a grand plan or philosophy.

Like I said, all good points. And yet, and yet… I came away from this session feeling pretty unsatisfied, mostly because of the sense I got that there were some unexamined assumptions central to the whole false “top-down vs. bottom-up” dichotomy that needed to be examined. I’m working on a “Pushback” post where I’ll talk about the things I encountered at Planetwork that I thought needed challenging; I will talk more about these assumptions there.

Joan Blades, MoveOn.org: The featured speaker on Saturday was Joan Blades of MoveOn.org. She gave a good recap of MoveOn’s history, hitting the highlights and describing the things they’re up to today. She then talked about what MoveOn is doing for the upcoming election, stressing that their polling had found that, contrary to the “Two Americas” rhetoric of John Edwards and others, Americans can be united around the right message: “Progressive values are America’s values.” Drawing on their experiences with citizen activism, she called on John Kerry and other progressive leaders to ask more from people, promising “they will answer”.

Her speaking style was somewhat reserved — I got the sense that she wasn’t really at home at the podium — but her message was interesting, and she included some nice bits of humor to keep things moving along. An especially effective bit was when she played her favorite entries from their recent “Bush in 30 Seconds” campaign, where they asked people to create their own anti-Bush commercials for a chance to have them played during the Super Bowl (a chance which CBS ultimately denied).

The spots she picked to show demonstrated just how sophisticated amateur media can be — they were uniformly high-quality both in production values and in concept. Here’s a few of the ones she showed us:

Joan’s basic message was familiar, and I have some issues with assertions she made that I’ll save for the “Pushback” post. But it was good to hear what’s up at MoveOn nonethless.

That’s the wrapup of the major stuff from Saturday. Next up: pushing back on some ideas that feel like they need it.

Posted by Jason Lefkowitz at June 07, 2004
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