Digital “Tools” for Organizing Protests and Building the Movements that Follow

New Orleans    Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina, wrote an interesting op-ed in the Times, headlined, “Does a Protest’s Size Matter?” The answer is easy: of course it does!

But, that’s not the point she wants to underline. The professor wants to underscore the fact that a protest about something is different than the outcomes it produces. And, once again, of course that’s right as well.

Although this is not the answer the professor wants on this quiz, she is comparing apples and oranges. A protest is not a movement. In fact it is just what it says it is, an expression of dissent, a tactic hopefully in a larger strategy. Make no mistake, when communicating dissent, the numbers matter hugely. Say what anyone will from the President and his people on down, when an estimated 3.5 million women in the United States stepped to the street that sent a powerful message of protest, and that’s what it was meant to do. Mission accomplished.

The professor makes the case in a digital age that organizing such protests are hard work, but easier. Gee, I wish I believed that, I really, really do. Communication is quicker and cheaper for sure in a digital world, but nothing is really easier, partly because too many will think it’s easier and put more pressure on organizers to produce eye-popping, mind-boggling numbers. If one could spare one nanosecond of empathy for the anti-abortion protestors heading to Washington now, their numbers will be compared to the American-record historic numbers of the Women’s March, and they don’t have a prayer, no matter how much they hosanna in DC.

A protest is not a movement and neither are organizations, though both require huge levels of organizing. Where the professor is correct is that now even more work is needed to take the energy and anger and forge actual social change.

A related point was made by Columbia professor Todd Gitlin after the march that other historic marches were the product of organizations and their efforts to highlight long struggles with significant protest. Professor Tufekci almost paints the picture that the women’s marchers would be starting from scratch to building what Gitlin called a “full service movement.”

Talking on Wade’s World to Mark Fleischman, the president of Corporate Action Network, whose supplied the digital platform for the Women’s March, there is an easy answer to one of the professor’s questions. She says, “But if those protests are not exchanging contact information and setting up local strategy meetings, their large numbers are unlikely to translate…” In this case names of all of the people who registered for the march in DC or the sister marchers were turned over to local organizers in each city to use as the building blocks for the future. An item on their website also provides tools for organizing follow-up.

Fleischman, an old comrade from the labor movement, talked extensively about the “tools” the network is building for many purposes not just these kinds of mobilizations, but more importantly building real movements, real organizations, and real social change. Of course tools only work if there are people ready and able to wield them, so everyone can agree that remains the open question and real challenge.