Personal Democracy Forum was over two weeks ago, so this post is a little overdue, but perhaps as a result I’ll only remember the standout learnings from the two days. This year, PDF was held at New York University, with hundreds of people from both the left and right of the political spectrum. PDF bills itself as “the world’s leading conference exploring and analyzing technology’s impact on politics and government.” I liked the way the conference was curated, and the way the curation decisions were explained to participants in a blog post beforehand here. I loved the fact that there was parity in the number of male and female speakers. I won’t summarise the whole conference here (there’s a great Huffpost piece here that does that), but rather just recall a few standouts:
- Jim Gilliam’s speech was very moving. I’ve been thinking a lot about the sense of connection and community, hope and strong belief that people in past, deeply connected movements often found in religion. Gilliam argues this same strength can now be found in each other as we connect online. “God is just what happens when humanity is connected. Humanity connected is God.” I strongly suggest watching his full speech here.
- There was good discussion on the connections between “communities of care” and progressive activist communities who campaign to increase support for people who need care (e.g. to strengthen the social safety need, increase public education and health funding, campaign for a better mental health system). There are massive built up constituencies around first aid, supporting cancer victims, supporting elderly people etc who we will lose from the progressive side if we only engage them through a political lens. If we can engage these people in service and direct care work it can both make the world a better place and strengthen the progressive narrative by highlighting care and empathy. This is something that my friend Bec Wilson is interested in exploring in Australia soon.
- I’ve been thinking a lot the past few years about the interaction between online and offline organizing. It reinforced the idea that small groups are the way to build connections between people. The best panel I went to was one called Beyond Clicktivism to On-the-Ground Action, with Marianne Manilov (Engage Network), Ori Brafman (author of the Starfish and the Spider) and Jenny Beth Martin (The Tea Party). It was interesting to hear how the Tea Party is using decentralised organising to make decisions. For example, their manifesto was written through a wiki and the national Tea Party movement doesn’t endorse an action or event unless 60% of local coordinators want to.
- Good discussion around micro-targeted political ads – and whether it’s possible for online ads to be an effective persuasion mechanism. Thesedays there’s so much self-selecting filtering of how people consume information that it’s hard to reach people who think differently to you through blogs or mainstream media (they only consume media they already agree with), but you can specifically target online ads to them. More broadly, buying media (ads in any format) is not enough to guarantee attention. Control over attention in the media market is waning, as people learn to tune out ads. This means we need better content, messages and creative to cut through.
- The speakers from the Middle East were really inspiring. They reminded us that movement infrastructure had been built up for many years before the uprisings. Dr Rasha Abdulla stated that in Egypt’s case, “The revolution did not start in 2011. It started years ago, and accelerated in 2003 with web 2.0 technologies.” She argued that blogs and Facebook were important in reducing the sense of isolation that anti-Government protesters felt. People could literally RSVP on Facebook – “I’m attending The Revolution” – and see that thousands of others were “attending the Revolution” as well.
- Some standout quotes: “States are resource-constrained actors, unlike mass uprisings” (Zeynep Tufekci Zana). “Corporations care more about their brands than governments care about their citizens” (Jeremy Heimans). “May the bridges I burn light the way” (Marko Rakar).”There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root” (Thoreau as quoted by Larry Lessig). “Let’s revisit the McDonalds network of thousands of emails served” (Marianne Manilov). “Much online news falls into the category of ‘interesting if true'” (Jay Rosen).