Interview with Eli Pariser: Director of MoveOn

Interview with Eli Pariser: Director of MoveOn

Fri Jun. 29, 2007 12:00 AM PDT

Mother Jones: How has MoveOn's strategy changed since 2004?

Eli Pariser: One has been getting better and smarter about fieldwork, both in elections and in advocacy. We've still got an awful lot to learn, and we're still just beginning to figure out how you take online energy and turn it into effective, offline action. In 2006, we ran this Call for Change program, which was basically trying to solve this fundamental problem in American politics-that most people are not where the action is in an election. Call for Change basically allowed people to use their phones and the Internet to connect with people who were not inclined to vote and get them out to the polls.

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MJ: Like a phone bank, essentially?

EP: Yes, like a virtual phone bank. You can go on a website, find the phone number of a voter who is in a district near you and call him or her and have a conversation about why getting out and voting is so important. Over the course of the campaign, people made about 7 million volunteer phone calls. What's exciting about this is not the number of calls, but also the quality. Rather than having some 15-year-old at a call center somewhere being paid $6.50 an hour to speak in a monotone about voting, you had people who really cared and were really excited. And instead of having that 15-year-old do that day in and day out, you had 100 people, each making 20 phone calls during their lunch break to turn people out. Not only did we find that those calls were more effective than standard phone bank phone calls, we also found that people liked doing it. And at the end of the campaign, they felt a great ownership. Those people felt like they were really tangibly part of what happened in November.

MJ: Any other big efforts since 2004?

EP: We've been experimenting with SMS, you know, text messaging. We did a virtual march on the Senate after Bush announced the escalation, to call on Congress to stop the escalation and stop the war. We had people sign up for shifts, so there was a constant stream of calls into the Senate office. Everyone is still trying to figure out what you can do when you're organizing in a medium where you have 145 characters to make your whole pitch.

MJ: Are you planning to use cell phones in campaign-related efforts leading up to the 2008 election?

EP: We'll do something like Call for Change again. People's cell phones were integral to that effort because one of the main ways people made calls was calling parties. Everyone brought their phones over to a friend's house and made calls together for a couple hours. It was kind of like a roving phone bank. Nobody has 20 phone lines at their house, but if everyone brings their cell phone, it can be done. MJ: How does MoveOn balance a top-down versus bottom-up approach?

EP: I disagree with the sort of Web 2.0 extremists who feel like the only legitimate organization is no organization. And I also disagree with people who say you can't trust people to do anything or produce anything good or remember to find the right questions to ask. There are great advantages to having everyone doing the same thing at the same time. Certainly, if we had not provided the targeting for Call for Change, and not provided a script, some people would have made really excellent calls to exactly the right people. But some people would have made really pointless, ineffective calls to the wrong people. It's about taking the wisdom of crowds, isolating it, and then sending it out there where people will respond to it.

MJ: So you serve an important role in amplifying certain ideas?

EP: Specifically, strategies, techniques, and tactics that can amplify that energy that people have at the grassroots. It's a feedback loop. It's a back-and-forth between us and our members, moving from the bottom to the top and from the top to the bottom, both ways.

MJ: Is MoveOn interfacing in any way with other Web 2.0 platforms out there like MySpace, or Wikipedia, or YouTube?

EP: When our members report back from events, they send photos to Flickr, and when we make ads, we put them on YouTube. The next few years, and especially this next presidential cycle, are going to be about separating the wheat from the chaff. There are clearly very important and exciting ideas floating around with MySpace and YouTube and all the rest of it. We're interested in what's actually going to change minds and change votes. It's going to be an exciting couple of years, because we are going to find out what is hype and what changes things.

MJ: What do you think is the most exciting new use of technology in politics?

EP: I am very excited about video and the popularization of video, because it's the language people speak in these days. It's the language certainly that the powerful speak in, and to democratize that, to make it possible for anyone to speak in that language and make an ad, or make a piece of commentary so easily-I think that is a game changer.

MJ: What do you think is the most over-hyped technology in politics?

EP: This is probably the thing I'll be famously remembered for misjudging, but people haven't really cracked how to really use [social networking] for politics. It's exciting that there was a Facebook group with 300,000 for Barack Obama, but it doesn't translate into anything beyond a Facebook group. They can only contact about 300,000 people. I hope there is immense power in these groups, but it is of limited value, unfortunately. Facebook has specifically disabled the functionality that would enable people to organize or do something. It's deliberate because Facebook doesn't want people spamming each other. It's limiting from an organizing perspective. There's an incredible amount of cultural capital that you really want that is in escrow, that's not able to be used.

MJ: Which candidate is doing the most important things online?

EP: None of the candidates have done yet what Howard Dean was able to do, which is to make people feel like it is their campaign-that they were responsible, that they had the power to elect someone president. There is a lot of room for growth in the next couple of months. I don't think anybody has figured out how to really involve people in the campaign in a deeper way.

MJ: What part of the political use of new web tools makes it less democratic, and what part makes it more democratic?

EP: The basic fact of the Internet developing into one of our primary mass media outlets greatly increases the potential for any given citizen to affect the political landscape. It's only because I sent out an email five years ago and a bunch of people responded that I am doing this job. I didn't necessarily do anything remarkable; I just happened to have the right message at the right time, and people responded. That could happen to anyone. And it does happen to anyone. You see new leadership all the time that's coming up-in the blogs, online organizing-that quickly allows people who had no insider connections to have an impact. In terms of what makes things less democratic, I worry that politics are microtargeted. I worry about the prospect of essentially micropandering-you know, politicians pandering to audiences, telling them exactly what to think, instead of engaging in a big discussion with the entire country about what we ought to do. The fact that those tools, like Internet data, which is at the heart of a lot of the political machinery-from Karl Rove's 72-hour program to what we did in Call for Change-ought to be accessible to everyone. But instead it costs hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to acquire. That is very undemocratizing.

MJ: Conservatives are creating their own version of MoveOn, which they're calling TheVanguard. Think it will work?

EP: I'm not too worried. So far it's been about sending out glorified press releases instead of really trying to engage people. It's not an easy moment right now to be running a conservative counterinsurgency.

MJ: Peter Leyden's feeling, he told me, was that the left has more experience dealing with disparate groups of people. He doesn't think the right is as equipped to do that, and that is why they can't create a MoveOn of their own. What are your thoughts on that?

EP: One of the big problems if you're a conservative umbrella group is that the coalition is falling apart. Far be it from me to say that all progressives and Democrats march to the same drum; that certainly isn't the case. But on a philosophical level, there is actually a deeper unity than there is between the evangelicals and the business conservatives, which is really a marriage of convenience.

MJ: Why has it taken Republicans so long to get to the limited point they are at now vis-à-vis technology and the Internet? Four years ago, when MoveOn was going strong, why didn't they launch then?

EP: Well, clearly they were fat and happy. They had a very popular president and there were stories being written about how Republicans were going to dominate politics for the next 50 years. So as a conservative activist, why would I want to do something when it already seemed to be happening?

 

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