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The New Netroots

The netroots story can seem so, well, 2006. But this is actually a remarkably fertile time for online activism. Witness the Internet's January revolt against the SOPA and PIPA anti-piracy bills, the web-based protest against the Susan G. Komen foundation, and the Kony 2012 video (see my recent piece "Game Change?")

But these high-profile campaigns are just part of the story. Yesterday afternoon, at the Netroots Nation conference, a few of the most intriguing sites - building the same sort of rapid-response, people-powered groundswells that powered the anti-SOPA and Komen fights - were front and center on a panel titled "Emerging Movements: The Face of New Progressive Online Communities."

One of the big takeaways was the panelists' net-native appreciation for the rapid evolution of the web: the models we're building, they said, may not be relevant in a year or two. And that's OK. The netroots must adapt.

But there were other interesting insights from the panelists, too. 

Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, the razor-sharp founder and executive director of six-month old corporate accountability site SumOfUs.org, spoke of the opportunity to tap a broad constituency that may be jaded about politics, but quite interested in responsible consumption. Just think, she said, about how many people take their own bags to the supermarket.

And corporate accountability is becoming ever more central to progressive politics; yesterday morning, on a different panel, environmental activist Bill McKibben spoke of the importance of directly confronting fossil fuel companies which have held up conservative politicians like pillows until now, he maintained, allowing activists to wear themselves out with all the punching.

Stinebrickner-Kauffman also spoke of the importance of mounting international campaigns - a task made infinitely easier by the web. Corporations are international animals and targeting the US market alone means making just a small dent in their bottom line.

Moreover, she said, corporate accountability is as powerful a tool as any in building an international movement - what unites the world more than the big brands, after all? Coca-Cola, she said, may be the single best-known word on the planet.

Shaunna Thomas of four-month-old UltraViolet, which focuses on women's issues, spoke of the arrival of a more targeted online activism. Some of the most prominent sites to date - MoveOn and, more recently, change.org - are multi-issue sites. But the new netroots is not just about exploiting niches - it's also about adding new capabilities to the long-running movements.

UltraViolet, one of several organizations that helped push advertisers to drop the Rush Limbaugh show after he labeled Georgetown law school student Sandra Fluke a "slut," has added a nimble, media-based, rapid-response wing to the broader women's movement.

But does all this stuff work?

Some campaigns - like the Limbaugh advertiser boycott - seem relatively easy to measure at first blush. Consumers probably wouldn't have mobilized without a few key organizers leading the way. But were those consumers a big difference-maker? Advertisers may have backed away from Limbaugh because of the bad press alone. As Stinebrickner-Kauffman said near the end of the session, how do you know if your email really made a difference?

It's easy to point to membership numbers and dollars raised, but impact is the real metric. And measuring impact is no easy task.

 

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