Photography: Tracy Russo
Much of the Web today seems to be focused on making friends, keeping them close – and making something out of them. Ironic perhaps, for an activity that is essentially done alone. MySpace lets everyone see a communication thread so that talking feels more like an open café chat than a private phone call. Facebook offers gazillions of daft apps intended to help its members play together in the hope that they may eventually build something in common with each other.
But despite the plethora of fancy tools and games, what they all lack is a common goal. Members of Facebook, MySpace and Bebo are always individuals looking for a reason to stay on the site.
That’s slightly different for Digg, where contributors are a more homogeneous group united by their enthusiasm for certain websites and their belief in Ron Paul as the new messiah. That might give the site a cliquey feel – you’re either with them or with StumbleUpon – but it does create a sense of community, which as singing Digger Kina Grannis found when she competed and won a competition to perform at the Superbowl, can be extremely powerful.
So how much more power might be packed into netroots – the sort of online collaboration in which participants are united by similar ideas and a desire for political change?
It’s All Down to Dean
Participants in sites like MoveOn.org and the DailyKos have the advantage of being self-selected. They’re all politically active and share similar points of view. If Howard Dean’s campaign – the activity that put netroots on the map and even coined the term – is anything to go by, they’re also mostly young and educated. That should make the connections easier to build and more likely to stick. Unlike the more general social networking sites, netroots focus on one group and attract people who already have something in common.
And the participants work together too – an important difference. There’s only so much that zombie-biting can do to unite web surfers, but organizing campaigns, registering voters and getting people to turn up to rallies and events will always be much more effective at creating a sense of shared history and achievement. Netroots don’t just put people in touch. It also creates teams, the sort of bonds that are most likely to remain even after the goal has been reached.
The degree of activity can vary. Leaving an occasional comment at the end of a DailyKos thread is fairly simple. Leaving them regularly takes a little more effort but does bring you into the site. After a while, commenters become known, their views expected and sometimes even respected too. It’s not unusual to see commenters naming each other more than the author of the original post. The site’s user diary can then let you toss in references to your non-political activities so that other people can see who you are and what you do when you’re not trying to change the system.
The real power of netroots though comes when you shut the computer and hit the streets. MoveOn might be great bringing people together but it’s when everyone meets together through MeetUp that things can really start happening. This requires a different level of commitment. You’re no longer a blogger, commenter or someone with a general political interest. You’re a political activist.
Save America, Win a Client
The networking advantages here have the potential to be huge. You’ll be working with a close group of people and have access to a series of new networks that stretch into other activists’ workplaces and social circles. Those networks are even likely to reach into the world of politics. While it wouldn’t be advisable to become politically active for the sole purpose of finding a new job, hunting down an investor for your new business idea or landing a new client, it’s not unreasonable to believe that a small group united by a sense that they’re battling for the common good would lend a hand to a member in need. You can’t demand but you might be able to expect that as word spread along the network about what you can do – and what you want to do – offers would come in.
That’s especially true if you use your skills to help the campaign. For graphic designers, netroot campaigns are a fantastic opportunity to show off the quality of your work to millions of people and contribute to a cause they believe in. The same is true of copywriters and even programmers and technicians. Giving away free samples to win business isn’t new. Netroots just put those samples into the hands of more people – and people who will appreciate them too.
There are disadvantages as well, of course. When you become a leading contributor to a netroots campaign, you nail your political colors to the mast, a position that might put off some potential clients. You also have to commit a certain amount of time depending on your level of activity – a cost which needs to be weighed up against the business benefits.
And you have to work people who might be a little, well… strange. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, founder of Daily Kos, has called netroots people “the crazy political junkies that hang out in blogs.” That can make the experience a little overwhelming. On the other hand, they’re still likely to be better company than the rabid zombies on Facebook.