Web Tech for Small-Scale Organizing
I’ve been describing CoActivate.org lately as “online collaboration and knowledge-management tools for small- to medium-scale organizing.”
The other day someone asked me, why small- to medium-scale? Would it scale to large-scale organizing? Why not? And why focus on small-scale?
I like that question. Here are some answers.
Low Cost Actions
CoActivate focuses on projects where a group of people is already engaged with its topic, like a group that meets semi-regularly and need a way to keep in touch outside of their meetings.
The key characteristic here is that the group doesn’t need help getting its members to come back - it needs help keeping its members in touch.
That means that we avoid low-cost activities designed to create habits in the users that encourage them to come back. So for example we don’t do Facebook-style “likes.” We don’t do levels of project membership like “watcher” vs “member” that model degrees of engagement.
Those kinds of features can be important when you’re trying to solve the problem of getting people to become and stay involved from a starting point of very low engagement. For our target users and needs, we assume those problems are already being solved offline, or just aren’t relevant.
High Cost Actions
Corollary: the people whose needs we focus on most heavily are highly engaged doing high-cost activities: the project organizers themselves, or members in a group who are taking the lead on some group project — content creators and group managers.
For these people, we need to get out of the way as much as possible and make sure they have easy tools for getting their work done.
Media vs Tools
So the web-tech components of small-scale organizing are about using tools effectively. For large-scale organizing it becomes a lot more about using media effectively.
For large-scale organizing you need email blasting, online petitions, and low-cost social activities that create buzz and capture, as a primary component of the message, the fact that people are interested at all levels of engagement — social networks as an object.
For small-scale organizing, media isn’t the problem. In the case of working groups, getting your message out to an audience outside the group isn’t even a goal. (It might be a goal of some organization that the working group is associated with. But it’s the working group itself that we’re targeting here.) In the case of local campaigns, the most effective ways of getting your message out to a broader audience are offline.
Priorities & Resources
If you’re doing large-scale organizing, you probably have or can get the resources to maintain your own online components. Projects on CoActivate might start small and eventually scale out of CoActivate.
There are some other projects on CoActivate which are part-way in transition — they still have a core small-scale working-group or local-organizing component, but they are also beginning to have some online media and publicity requirements, and might enough funds and expertise within the group to maintain a custom website. (I’d like CoActivate to work well for both of these use-cases: projects that outgrow CoActivate, and projects in transition. Providing some tools for theming, and for publishing content to a static website, might help for projects in transition. So would better RSS feeds. And really solid content export is necessary.)