My first campaign was in 1988 when I might have been the only person in America who thought that Michael Dukakis could win. (Spoiler alert: he couldn’t.) When I was assured that he was pro-choice, I agreed to knock on some doors.
Since then, my understanding of campaigns and the campaigns themselves have evolved. Do you know a [clears throat awkwardly] seasoned campaign person who insists that the only real organizing is in person and all that social media stuff is superficial? Do you know a [clears throat awkwardly] junior organizer who insists that social is the new organizing?
Trigger warning for organizing purists (like me): For simplicity’s sake, I refer here to campaign tactics as “organizing.” In our jargon-y, insider’s club, we might be more comfortable calling them “mobilizing.” But that’s a subject for a different post. (Hint: the difference has to do with consensus and ownership.) Please feel free to disagree in the comments.
Newsflash: they’re both right. As I work to adapt my pre-Internet campaign training to the digital era, I’ve come up with four “translations” between IRL organizing and digital.
First, through campaigns with feminists, union members, teachers and a lot of candidates, I’ve learned that if something is too easy, it probably won’t work. Tacking a flyer for a meeting on a bulletin board? Anyone can do it and no one will come. Knocking on a worker’s door, asking to come in and engaging in a conversation about her work and what she would change (read: start a relationship)? That’s different. Same with social media. The easy stuff rarely moves anyone. Building two-way engagement is hard, but it’s the only thing that works. In my friend’s race for the California Assembly, he’s followed up several Instagram follows with a DM. And every one of those followers said they filled out their vote-by-mail ballot for him.
Remember that flyer on the bulletin board? It’s part of what we call “creating the environment.” Social media is a great way to create the environment. If I want someone to come to a canvass, it’s unlikely they’ll do it from a Facebook post alone. But if they see a post, plus an Instagram story from the last canvass, plus an email from an organization they trust, then get a personal text or phone call, they might do it.
Next, people take action for lots of reasons, but one of the most important is a relationship. We build relationships through stories and video is the most effective one-way medium to tell a story. It’s the closest we get to a relationship on a passive platform. Some of the presidential campaigns have learned this lesson. Think about those videos of Elizabeth Warren making phone calls on camera to a supporter or taking hundreds of selfies with supporters. Do you feel like you know her just a little bit better than you would from reading her website? (Also, remember that part about if it’s too easy, it won’t work? Good video is hard.)
Also, volume. Back in the day when the only method of recruiting volunteers was to call and ask them, we had a formula:
10 live bodies = 20 confirmed = 100 asked = list of 400 names and numbers
It’s not that different with social media, except that the ask is a lot less personal, so the volume has to be that much greater. Instead of a direct personal ask of 100 people to get 20 yeses, any kind of digital ask has to reach exponentially more people to get the same result. The 2018 midterms were a good example. Many campaigns and organizations built tremendous lists of followers. When they posted volunteer opportunities, complete strangers showed up to canvass or phonebank from social media posts alone — partly because the pool of followers was so deep. Also, remember that part about creating the environment? It really helps.
When the senior and junior campaign organizers argue over tactics, you can be the peacemaker. They are both working at similar concepts with different applications. We can’t silo the organizing and digital (or anything else for that matter). The most successful progressive campaigns are based on building relationships with a combination of online visibility and personal communication.