Want to Understand Online Activism? Follow the Money

Let's see if we can write a post about social media and activism without mentioning M_____ G______.

Whoops! OK, nope.

But that'll be the only one in this article because other researchers are exploring distinctly different aspects of online organizing. Dave Karpf, a Rutgers assistant professor, studies how organizations are changing as the Internet becomes the primary means by which they reach and solicit their members.

The Berkman Center is a leading institution for important research into the uses and impacts of digital technologies. We'll be previewing their regular brownbag lunches here on The Atlantic Technology Channel.

"Internet-mediated organizations like MoveOn, Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Organizing for America differ from the older organizations that have typified American politics over the last few decades," Karpf said. "We have underlying shifts in how organizations view members and how they raise money."

He'll be describing these shifts in a talk at the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard today. And, as he sees it, a similar shift has already occurred once before in the rise of direct mail during the 1970s.

"Membership went from I show up to the meeting and I'm an Elk to I write a check and send money. That changed the types of groups that we had and the new fundraising scheme led to the single-issue advocacy groups," Karpf said.

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In the direct mail era of advocacy, large organizations with a lot of overhead developed funded by money from supporters around the country. Now, organizations are smaller and more nimble. A place like MoveOn has 30 staffers and a relatively tiny budget, but they can reach five million people with their email blasts.

Meanwhile, direct mail's fundraising efficacy has fallen as more people communicate and pay bills online. The physical mail has assumed secondary importance, which has directly impacted the ability of old organizations to raise money.

Karpf sees these simultaneous changes in fundraising technology bringing big changes to the way advocacy is done. "That's leading to generational disruption within the advocacy group community," he said. "Not only are the older groups being outpaced by groups like MoveOn but they are having more and more difficulty paying for the programming."

The takeaway is that the possibilities for organizational structures afforded by new tech tools reach far beyond any narrow conception of the political efficacy of the Facebook like. The Internet is changing the way organizations fund themselves, and that's likely to yield profound changes in the details of those places.

"If we want to understand the ways the Internet is changing politics, we need to look at the organizational bases of activism," Karpf concluded.