The MoveOn Effect: Ten Years Later
Introducing a new, limited Substack series
I’m going to be writing a series of posts over the next month, broadly on the subject of how the organizational layer of American politics has changed over the past decade. Today I just want to provide some scaffolding for what ties the posts together.
My first book, The MoveOn Effect, was published a decade ago. The book describes the internet-driven transformation of the organizational layer of American politics. It’s a thorough study of then-fairly-new groups like MoveOn.org and the DailyKos political blogging community, discussing how they differ from “legacy” organizations like the Sierra Club. My central insight was that these “netroots” groups had redefined organizational membership, and that this redefinition had a cascading effect on their issue selection, political tactics, and strategies.
It was a good book. It won an award. It has been well-cited in the literature. It has been assigned in classes. Practitioners pointed to it as a good explanation of how political advocacy and activism was changing. It launched me into a career that I feel lucky and grateful to have.
It’s also a book from a very different time, though. It’s based on research that I conducted from 2006-2010. Those were peak Web 2.0 years, and peak blogosphere years. They were late George W. Bush years and early Obama years. There were a lot of ambient hopes, expectations, and assumptions about how citizens might use digital technology to reclaim and improve upon liberal democracy that now feel like a bygone era.
My entire research agenda over the past few years has been centered on reading old tech writers and evaluating their depictions of the digital future. So, in keeping with that theme, I have decided to subject myself to the same scrutiny. A few months ago, I reread the book with the critical distance that comes from living through and paying close attention to the events of an exceptionally wearying decade. How does the book hold up, ten years later? Which ideas hold up well and which ones deserve serious rethinking?
As with the WIRED project, I’m less interested here in assigning accuracy scores to the predictions in the book than I am in recapturing a sense of how the political world looked then, and extrapolating from there some original ideas about either (a) what I got wrong or (b) what has changed in the interim.
What follows will be a four- or five-part series. My plan is to write each essay to appeal to people who have not read the book itself. I suspect I’ll be more successful with some than with others. (There will be an essay on the collapse of the neo-federated organizational model, which I suspect will be intensely interesting to an exceptionally narrow audience and complete gibberish to the rest of you. Caveat emptor.)
First I’ll be writing about the problem with focusing on political innovation. A decade post-MoveOn Effect, one of the major things that stands out to me is how the Democratic Party network has been weakened by placing greater emphasis on political innovation than on political maintenance.
I’ll also write about how the massive downstream effects that political valence (which party controls government) has on tactical repertoires. I’ve written bits and pieces in the past about the “politics of opposition versus the politics of articulation.” This will be a longer essay on that topic. I’ll also revisit digital petitions and discuss what use they served during the Trump and post-Trump years.
Then there will be a piece revisiting the three netroots “ideal-types” that I outlined in the book (The MoveOn hub-and-spokes model, the neo-federated model, and the online community model) and discussing why the latter two collapsed. Why did all the netroots organizations eventually emulate MoveOn’s structure and tactics? If the federated model is potentially so powerful, why is it so vanishingly rare?
I might write a piece about the concept of beneficial inefficiencies, since it’s the idea in the book that resonates more today than it did when I wrote it. I haven’t quite determined whether I have enough to say on that topic to merit a whole essay, though. We’ll see how the writing goes.
Then I’ll conclude with some meta-reflection on the value of making predictions and getting things wrong. That final essay will pull back the curtain a bit on my broader approach to social science. It should serve as a useful bridge into some of the deeper dives that I have planned for the History of the Digital future/WIREDarchive project.
These probably won’t be the only posts I write over the next month. Something is going to happen in the Elon-Twitter saga that I’ll surely need to vent about. And I’ll likely have a few things to say immediately before and after the November election. But, just as a programming note, this is what to expect in your inbox over the next several weeks.
Thanks for reading/hope you enjoy,