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The Netroots Impact: what online movements reveal about the state of advocacy -- David Karpf discusses

David Karpf

Door-to-door get out the vote and issue awareness efforts are photo candy for newpapers. The image of motivated and passionate citizens involving themselves in the political process connecting directly with other citizens constitutes a narrative of American democracy that just looks and feels right.  While such efforts continue on today, the succusseful advocacy campaigns of the 21st century begin and thrive through a different kind of connection -- an internet connection. Embracing the connective opportunites of the digital era is importatnt for advocacy groups to remain vital, but are legacy techinques and legacy groups done altogether? Who's running the show?

David Karpf, Assistant Professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, dropped by SOC to talk netroots advocacy and his new book, The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of  American Political Advocacy.

Hosted by SOC Associate Professor Laura DeNardis, Karpf walked his audience through an examination of internet age advocacy organizations: examining their effectiveness in running campaigns; how they run campaigns as compared to legacy advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club (an organization that predates the internet by nearly 100 years); and what the future of the netroots movements means for the future of all who are involved in advocacy work.  Karpf, who served on the Sierra Club board of directors in graduate school, came equipped with a perspective that combines the physical experience of his grassroots campaign work and the intellectual experience of meticulously mapping the behavior and patterns of online groups such as DailyKos and MoveOn.  

There is a popular school of thought that construes the internet and its activity as the product of organizing without organization.  In the realm of activism, Facebook (for example), as a platform, allows groups and individuals to organize through their own direct efforts and communication, displacing the necessity of a managerial intermediary to orchestrate and coordinate connectivity and consistent activity.  Some find the lack of an organizing presence liberating, others find it to be unsettling.  

MoveOn EffectKarpf believes this characterization of the internet as the medium that nullified the importance and effectiveness of advocacy organizations is a misrepresentation. Karpf argues that there has been a change "in the types of organizations that get involved."  Advocacy groups have had to adapt to the internet and some have chosen to do so in ways that others have not.  Interestingly, within the adaptation, we see the emergence of a new set of political advocacy groups, but not necessarily a new generation of activists.  The active MoveOne activist (on average, around 50 years old) might only differ from the Sierra Club activist (60 years old) by 10 years according to Karpf.  

Other demographic nuances within the evolution of online advocacy movements occur at the level of ideological implementation -- that is to say, which political parties and groups choose, or not chose, to engage netroots activism in mobilizing campaigns/movements, and the ways in which different groups engage netroots models, or opt for legacy stratagies.  David Karpf and his data provide unique insight into the modern online advocacy landscape including the thoughts, patterns, and behaviors of that landscapes biggest role players. Check out the whole lecture below and see more videos on the Center for Social Media's YouTube channel.