PoliticsOnline: From Bowling Alone To Bowling Online: How Online Tools Can Build Community and Increase Voter Turnout in 2004
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The e-journal of politicking on the Internet
Volume 8, Number 6
April 5, 2004
A project of PoliticsOnline -
News, Tools, And Strategies
Phil Noble - Publisher
David Abel - Editor
From Bowling Alone To Bowling Online
How Online Tools Can Build Community and Increase Voter Turnout in 2004
By Jo Lee
The Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has famously argued that the quality of America's civic life has declined over the past few decades, and with it trust and participation in America's political institutions. Perhaps he most colorfully captures this decline of social connectedness by pointing to the fact that more Americans bowl today but they do so alone rather than as members of leagues.
My family is a textbook example of Putnam's argument. The traditional family structure, job stability and long-term homeownership that defined my parents' suburban lifestyle afforded them the time and incentive to invest in local associations like the PTA, Lions Club, and their neighborhood association.
According to Putnam, my parents' participation reflected norms that characterized a more socially connected period in America's history; norms that made my parents feel part of a civic-minded community that valued public engagement and saw voting as a duty.
Fast forward to their baby boomer/Internet offspring, and you see two-income earning families with high mobility and stress rates. There simply isn't enough time in the day to fulfill family and job demands let alone community or voting responsibilities - and these are the economically privileged families in the US. The result of this frenetic and atomized existence has been massive declines over the last generation in voter turnout and in almost all other forms of direct civic engagement.
MoveOn - Connecting Online. Leveraging CRM tools, the ubiquity of email, and new online consumer habits, organizations like MoveOn found a way to politically tap this wired but socially disengaged generation. From Putnam's perspective, MoveOn might not qualify as a conventional association where members meet in person. However, I would argue that MoveOn, while accommodating time limits and new expectations for online and immediate communications, addresses members in a more personal way than traditional national organizations, and as such, builds a greater sense of community and civic mindedness amongst its members.
Traditional organizations solicit member support by arguing that they are the most qualified to represent members' views and act on their behalf. Individuals, in effect, delegate representation, and communication is one-way. MoveOn, on the other hand, interacts individually and continuously with members, providing a constant flow of feedback that draws members in, making them part of a larger community.
For example, MoveOn:
* Allows me from the convenience of my office or home to become informed about national issues and individually express my concerns to decision-makers.
* Lets me know that I'm not alone - that 50,000 other people participated in the same online action as me.
* Sends personal communications to me from individuals (we all know the ten MoveOn employees' names) rather than a monolithic bureaucracy.
* Respects my opinion by asking me which actions I want to fund, like a TV commercial, rather than simply solicit a generic donation at the end of the year.
* Provides meetup tools for face-to-face interactions with neighbors at local officials' offices and events such as the anti-war candle light vigil.
MoveOn gave me a new found sense of social connectedness that, in part, inspired me for the first time to join my local neighborhood association and take a far more active role and interest in the current primary election.
Local Online Organizing Tools. With MoveOn as a role model there has been a growing trend in the development of online tools for local organizing. For example, based on exposure to MoveOn's email campaigns and participation in my neighborhood's struggle against a hospital's expansion, we launched CitizenSpeak - a non-profit that offers a free email advocacy service for grassroots organizing. With CitizenSpeak, anyone or any organization can set up a MoveOn-like email campaign and invite their contacts or members to participate.
At the time, I thought that CitizenSpeak's value was that it empowered individuals to express their concerns about local issues to targeted decision-makers. I soon realized that CitizenSpeak's real value was that it let grassroots organizations build capacity by tracking participation and expanding their list of supporters.
With CitizenSpeak, organizations can download reports that include participants' contact information and personal statements. With this information, organizations can learn who their more ardent supporters are and what concerns them. Because CitizenSpeak allows participants to forward email campaigns to their circle of friends, CitizenSpeak reports also include new contacts that can be added to an organization's database. Online campaigns provide a cost-effective way for organizations to empower their members and broaden their pool of potential donors and supporters for future actions.
Increasing Voter Turnout in 2004.
But now that the 2004 election is around the corner, I'm realizing that there is another value to CitizenSpeak. Getting back to Putnam, he claims that members of associations are much more likely than nonmembers to participate in other forms of civic engagement such as voting. If that's the case, than a "get out the vote" tactic for 2004 should include efforts to increase associational affiliations. Online tools for local organizing can play an important role, perhaps more so than national email campaigns, in fostering a more civic-minded electorate and in turn reversing the trend in declining voter turnout. Local email campaigns can:
Reach More People: Local campaigns often address niche issues that tap into a pool of people who might otherwise not get involved in national issues. These individuals may be more motivated by activities in their neighborhood that directly impact the value of their house, the quality of their drinking water or safety of their children. Participants in local email campaigns may also be less inhibited and feel less intrusive about forwarding a local email campaign to neighbors to get them involved.
Build Stronger Networks: Based on reasons of proximity, these same people are more likely to attend a local meeting where face-to-face deliberation can take place and stronger ties formed.
Demonstrate Politics and People Matter: A successful local campaign (getting a toxic dump removed) is a learning process and can produce very visible and tangible results. As people get involved they become better informed and have a better understanding of how the system of government works. A successful campaign demonstrates that people can make a difference and that politics isn't just for politicians and special interests.
Increase Accountability: Democracy isn't just about voting once every four years, and delegating all power to representatives. It's about continuously exercising your rights and ensuring that representatives and officials do their job. Through local campaigns people can have a continuous input into the decision-making processes. Just by looking out their windows, they can see whether or not their elected officials are representing their interests. This not only increases accountability, but it also builds trust in our political institutions.
Robert Putnam writes, "There is reason to believe that deep-seated technological trends are radically 'privatizing' or 'individualizing' our use of leisure time and thus disrupting many opportunities for social-capital formation."1 No doubt Putnam is right. Between Tivo and cable, why bother leaving our homes. On the other hand, technology can be used to draw us back into the public sphere both virtually and physically where, like my parents, we can enjoy a sense of shared responsibility with fellow citizens and a reinvigorated calling to exercise and protect our civic rights.
For more information about CitizenSpeak, please visit http://www.citizenspeak.org or email Jo Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Putnam, Robert, "Bowling Alone; America's Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy, Volume 6, Number 1, January 1995, p. 75.