Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Political social-networking in the US

George W. Bush's recent immigration address was described as an attempt to assert 'presidential leadership.' The White House, like most governments, must have been unaware that the leading role in the immigration debate was already taken.

After years of Minuteman militias' preening 'border patrol' exercises, months of Congressional grandstanding and weeks of debate over a House bill to crack down on immigrants, the immigrant movement struck back.

In March, demonstrations and boycotts mashed millions of people together. Critics assailed the protests as futile symbolism but in fact, the protests were so massive - the mainstream media reported that Los Angeles's 500,000 demonstrators made up one of the largest marches for any cause in recent US history - that opponents rushed to offer concessions.

BusinessWeek, a predictable barometer of establishment opinion, observed that the protests forced the US government leaders to repudiate a controversial component of a bill criminalizing assistance to illegal immigrants.

The public also noticed.

While the policy debate continues, some progressives are wondering how this movement quickly organized such large and effective protests. How did so many young people and apolitical Americans get involved?

Many factors were in play, but two innovative facets of the movement may offer lessons for for future social movement organisers.

Common base:

The protests drew huge numbers because they embraced people who are typically shunned by the political process and some of the gatherings benefited from technology-driven grassroots organizing, using everything from text messaging to social networking on the Internet.

Conventional campaigns are targeted at people who already exert influence in the political process, namely activists, voters and donors. But the immigration protest was the rare effort that welcomed the apolitical, who do not usually vote and those who cannot vote.

The rallies and marches drew nonvoters, students and illegal immigrants into their mashed coalition.

Many students got involved through MySpace.com, a social networking website that lets people link to friends and create profiles with photos and music. With 70 million members, most of whom are teenagers, it is one of the top ten most popular destinations on the Internet.

Students were already communicating about their lives through MySpace, so when immigration became a hot issue, why not that too? Sprinkled through the website's millions of pages, comments cropped up about the protests, the national boycott and how students felt about Congress trying to criminalize their parents' existence.

For example, May1--san anto against 4437 - a page mobilizing San Antonio protests against HR 4437. The site is run by an unnamed 36-year-old woman in San Antonio who provides updates on legislation and local events; it is plastered with colorful fliers, protest pictures, editorial cartoons and snippets of conversation from visitors.

The week before the May 1 boycott, Carl Webb, a 40-year-old in Austin, posted an open request for related events in his area. Webb, whose page greets visitors with a recording of Gil Scott-Heron's 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised'.

Yet the messages also spread to young people who showed little interest in immigration or activism. The MySpace page of G, a student at Marshall Senior High in Los Angeles, is devoted to Nike sneakers and rap music. But by late April, G posted what appeared to be his first political message, advising his friends to participate in the 'National Boycott for Immigrant Rights No Work! No School! No Business as Usual!'

The immigration protests suggest that fairly apolitical young people can quickly be moved from politics online to activism in the streets if the issue is salient and if the information comes from trusted sources.

With millions of young people connected through these social networking sites, is it time for a political MySpace? A social MySpace? A gender-based MySpace?

One cool website, Essembly.com is betting the answer is yes.

Founded by Harvard senior Joe Green with venture capital, the start-up is billed as a networking site for the politically interested to debate ideas and organize.

While social sites tend to connect people based on where they live and what they like to do, Essembly adds ideological links to the matrix.

Let's face it - people usually visit social networking sites because they're trying to get laid or have a conversation.

Essembly encourages the latter by asking users to vote on simple statements, called resolves, which are provided by both the website and users. They range from offhand musings, like 'I can't stand kids who think its cool to hate America' to policy pronouncements such as 'The United States should continue with its plans to build a wall on its southern border to help slow the flow of illegal immigration from coming into our nation.'

After voting, users can see the aggregate results and search for people, informal groups and organizations that are ideologically close and define friends, allies and even nemeses.

While many popular Essembly groups have been created by users, such as 'Socially Conscious Surfers' and 'Proponents of Minor's Rights' - several organizations are experimenting with top-down recruitment through the site.

It is still too early to tell whether social networking sites will engage and empower a significant number of new activists or young people. Essembly may provide a dynamic space for new people across the political spectrum to debate ideas and take action but it could also reveal that ideological social networking appeals mostly to the activists who are already engaged.

The immigrant protests did prove that young people in America can still mobilize for massive, coordinated and effective progressive action. Whether that will happen again soon does not simply depend on the issues at stake.

It depends on how political leaders regard traditionally powerless groups, and whether the Internet generation decides politics is so personal that it is worth pushing on their friends.

I hope the fever catches on.


Anonymous Polzoo said...

Check out polzoo.com, a new political social networking site. Still in beta testing mode, but things are being wrapped up. Polzoo.com's goal is to keep things simple, lively and focus on good content.

9:50 AM, February 16, 2008  

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