| We have a Mainstream Media Complex and a Right-Wing Media Complex; we have a "centrist" political machine and a conservative political machine. The progressive movement is overshadowed by these other two. We have activists and organizations, there are progressive politicians, and our most potent advantage is that our arguments tend to be vindicated over time; but we do not have the massive, dense, hegemonic political assembly that the center/elite and the right each have. These other two are able to consistently bend the government to their will, even when their cause is unpopular; we are seldom able to move the government in our direction even when supermajorities of the public demand it. These other two are in a position to define the debate and frequently win it; we get to resist what they want and often lose. I do not mean to degrade our movement, our people, or our efforts; but the progressive movement simply does not have or exert power on the scale that the conservative movement and the center/elite do.
(In case it needs to be said, the Obama campaign and Administration and our Congressional majorities rely on a current alliance of the center/elite and the progressive movement. This was necessary, but is not ideal, and we have yet to see which of these two is the senior partner and which the junior.)
This must change, of course, for the good of the country and the world. And it can be changed; I believe the progressive movement can exert power over public opinion, electorates, and politicians that would rival or exceed the other groups, and that would allow much of what we know the country needs to be achieved. But we will have to be much more powerful than we are at present to do it.
Though the internet has already been the vehicle through which many of our recent gains were realized, I believe there is a great deal of potential power here that still remains to be tapped. A great population of talented, creative, politically-engaged people have gathered in the blogs, but the overwhelming majority of them are still not in a position to do really meaningful work through the internet. A lot of real work has been done in the blogosphere, but it has almost all been done by the bloggers themselves -- a tiny slice of the total human resources of the netroots, the most dedicated among them certainly, but also those who are willing to meet the peculiar and demanding requirements of blogging. To become a blogger is to commit to producing original content several times per day, every day, all year, for years. Even this commitment doesn't guarantee any real visibility or impact, but anything less and you're probably going to get more readers in someone else's comment section than at your blog. That's ok, except someone else's comment section is not a particularly great place for productively organizing yourself or others. There is a very large gap between being a commenter and being a blogger, with not many reliable or useful points in between, and into that gap falls the potential productivity of thousands of people who could be doing so much more than commenting, though they would rather do less or other than multi-year blogging.
What are needed are spaces that are expressly designed to allow people to collaborate on specific, defined, short-term projects. Blogs are a powerful platform because of their speed, their permanence, and because they rely on the action of individual free agents -- both bloggers and commenters. They are very good; but we should add to them the ability to facilitate and support group productivity, by adding connected spaces designed for that purpose.
Defined, intentional group work has some basic patterns. A project is chartered when a group of people already have discovered and agreed upon a common mission. Brainstorming and wide-ranging suggestion resolve toward a smaller number of workable ideas, whose merits are debated and eventually agreed upon. A plan of action is developed; work is divided, monitored, improved, and then integrated. If there is a final product then it is polished and eventually released; if work is ongoing then results continue to be collated and conclusions, criticism and new directions discussed. Each part of this process is necessary both to manage and to take advantage of the contribution of many people. This model can integrate up to two or three dozen people working more or less as equals, and remains roughly the same across many different types of undertakings -- for instance, conducting an investigation or research project; creating a multi-part publicity campaign; developing a proposal for legislation; co-ordinating pressure on Congress; identifying under-appreciated information or narratives; or producing video segments to disseminate an argument widely.
Projects of this size are broken into lots of bite-size pieces, but these must be properly connected to each other, be seen by all who are involved, be easy to find over time, and have readily apparent structure and relationships. The diary section of a large or medium blog is unsuitable on almost all these grounds. Even an expressly-created blog or a list of tagged diaries in a large one still offers no internal structure beyond "most recent at the top." Organizing a very complex effort under these conditions requires an exceedingly gifted leader, an exceedingly compelling purpose, or both; in the last four years only Gina Cooper's YearlyKos and SusanG's Gannon investigation come to mind, and I'm not sure how much of YearlyKos was actually organized on DailyKos messageboards. Beyond those, very little has been done by people who were not established bloggers; a great many ideas have been generated, including a proposal almost identical to Chris and Natasha's back in 2006, but the ability to manage the efforts and maintain the momentum of many people has evidently been absent.
Instead of a diary sidebar or a comment section or even a purpose-made blog, structured as all of these are around novelty alone, what are needed are spaces specifically designed to support group work. A number of internet-based group productivity platforms are already used successfully in the business world. Not being a businessman, I don't know anything about any of them; I can guarantee though that in the talent pool of the netroots are a great many people who do. Setting those aside though, anyone can invent a simple system that would be more helpful than what we have now. Using the already-developed diary-and-comments model, but rearranging how the diaries fall across the page, I produced this simple blueprint in about fifteen minutes.
Click on image for larger, legible version.
I'm sure others could improve this or invent something better. I don't know anything of Soapblox or Drupal or Scoop, but I imagine that using the current diary-and-comments system and rearranging the flow of diaries across the page in this way would be a relatively simple change. Add the ability for an administrator of an existing blog to open one of these workrooms when a group of people offer a serious proposal, and in short order the ability of a community like Open Left to support self-organizing small groups has been born.
I believe that empowering the larger population of the netroots to work on projects of this scale and complexity is a great advance for all of us. The progressive movement currently relies on the efforts of a fairly small "career activist" class that survives on tenuous funding. The bloggers are a new and effective addition to this class, but they too are a fairly small group of people for whom online activism is mostly a full-time pursuit. The political energy of the larger progressive base -- talented, creative, committed, bright people with flourishing minds and diverse experience -- mostly lies unused. The modes of political engagement they have been offered -- canvassing neighborhoods, cold-calling voters, haranguing senators, donating money -- tend to be ninth-inning strategies, effective mostly at the margins, and rely on numeric superiority rather than advanced ability. Offering these people a way to collaborate on defined, short-term projects with sophisticated political aims both honors their higher abilities, and opens the door to what I think will be a flood of political activity for our side. Having power; having the ability to influence the world around you in ways that matter to you; can be a thrilling experience. I think if we give people the chance to do more than they have been able to do, they will take it. The political activity that results will be profoundly democratic, and I think will become very influential. It will also expand and enlarge the capacity of the progressive movement, perhaps several times over. In a world that badly needs American progressives to be stronger, in a country that badly needs the imbalance between the progressive movement, the conservative movement, and the ruling class to be righted, I think it is imperative that we do it.
Your thoughts? Agree, disagree, long overdue, completely unworkable? Let's have a discussion in the comments!