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Keynote: MoveOn.org

Filed in: politics, SXSW2004, Web, Sun, Mar 14 2004 21:00 PT

I want Molly Ivins to introduce me someday. Ivins, the most consistent anti-Bush voice in the media, said she was looking around for organizations to get Bush ousted, because, as she said, “these people cannot govern worth shit.” Then, she discovered MoveOn, and said to herself, “Sonofabitch, the cavalry has arrived.” MoveOn, she says, “has almost single-handedly put people back into politics.”

She had a local political corruption anecdote: the Texas Speaker of the House is under grand jury investigation. She says, “We are rooting for an indictment just out of Texas political tradition.” Five out of the last six Texas Speakers of the House have been indicted, and the sixth was shot to death by his wife, who, Ivins says, was not charged, because Texans “recognize public service when we see it.” (Big laughs.)

And without further ado, Zach Exley and Eli Pariser.

Eli had an announcement. He got a call from the White House exchange. It was Karl Rove. They spent a long time talking, and as a result, he’s endorsing Bush. (More big laughs.) But he could say that, and it wouldn’t matter, because MoveOn is about the people doing the work. There is so much concern about Bush brewing that the force is just there to be applied.

Zach pointed out how easy it is to harness that force online, and pointed out Joe Trippi in the crowd as another example.

Eli says MoveOn was a “total accident”. He was working for a nonprofit in Boston on September 11, 2001. He started thinking about the consequences. He tried to think about what to do. They didn’t need blood, his family was safe. So, being a Web guy (and, Ivins interjected, after doing his patriotic shopping), he put together the site, with some basic advice on how not to prosecute a war. Put up a petition, sent it off to friends, and he thought he was done. The next Monday, he had 3,000 messages in his inbox. Then the guy who put up the site for free called, freaking out. There were 40,000 signatories to the petition he put up. BBC calls, and says, we’re hearing a lot about this, who are you? (Zach adds, “I’m 23 years old. I don’t know who I am.”)

He said “It was clear that people wanted to stay involved.” So he got hooked up with MoveOn, which was already established as a result of the Clinton impeachment.

Zach took over, saying, imagine what this would have been like if Eli had to do this before the Web, with a snail-mail chain-letter petition. “The thing that made it work, was that it was just so damn simple… to click forward on an email.” There are 2.1 million people on the MoveOn list. They said they can “use this as a way to rebuild the community that we have lost” over the years. Dean had people meeting in coffee shops, and they weren’t working together before. Exley was a union organizer before this, and they had to organize the leaders to show up in the same place together to sign up for the same issue. But it was like herding cats.

They had the idea of a candlelight vigil, and set up a site to pick a location for their city’s vigil. They had 6,500 vigils worldwide, and as many as a half-million people. Without being able to contact people, it never would have happened. And people knew that they wouldn’t be the only ones there, which is powerful in and of itself. Eli says there was a vigil every 20 blocks in New York City. And he had a story of someone in the Midwest who was convinced she was the only one in her area who felt this way, and then discovered that there were a whole lot of others in the same zip code.

Exley says there are vestiges of community still around, like the Elks Club, but they’re dying off. Even political parties, which had a similar role, are suffering.

They have tried to emphasize the accidental nature of their phenomenon. They don’t want to be known as political geniuses. Thousands of movements are attempted and fail. But “you gotta get out there,” says Eli, because “the potential for this medium is huge.”

They had someone come on for a one-minute keynote. (This was a lottery they organized beforehand.) Someone from VoterVirgin presented their platform, “Everybody’s doin’ it in ’04.” People can get packets from them to get out the vote in a very anti-conservative sort of way.

Exley got an idea out of the question period: they could set up a voting system where people could vote with their dollars, literally, for a given ad. When it reaches a certain threshold of support, MoveOn could run it. Interesting. Dangerous, too, if you think about it.

There’s only one thing I wanted to say to add to all this, which is: mailing list are not votes. Money is not votes. Only votes are votes. MoveOn, and other political organizations, need to get voters as close to a ballot as humanly possible. The Dean campaign is exemplary in this respect: the support they felt online simply didn’t materialize when it came time to, you know, show up. I suggested getting people and absentee ballots together in a serious way as a means of countering this, but I’m sure there’s more to be done to turn the potential energy of 2.1 million subscribers into the kinetic energy of 2.1 million or more voters.

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