What can we say about a movement whose first public action was successfully hijacked by the Workers World Party? A lot of things to be sure. But we can’t accuse ourselves of being well organized. And this lack of organization, championed by so many as a key ingredient of Occupy Wall Street’s success, continues to trip us up.
In this (overly long and badly in need of more editing) article, three key problems are identified:
- The rate at which interested people (veteran activists and newcomers alike) interact with OWS but walk away without finding a place is too high and higher than it should be.
- Newcomers and participants in a movement need to find their place. Unfortunately, our ladder of engagement offers too few footholds.
- The combination of a high bounce rate and the lack of a well-designed ladder of engagement form an activist filter that attracts too few of the right kind of people.
A number of colleagues at Occupy Wall Street from the Tech Ops and Outreach Working Groups read a draft of this and encouraged me to post it. (Thank you!) If attracting, engaging and developing more leaders in our movement is important to you, please read on and comment below.
The Bounce Rate Is Too Damn High
On September 17th after a hard day’s marching around, I stood on Broadway and looked down into Zuccotti Park. The protesters were arranged in circles and holding conversations. This meant that passerby interested in the protest were looking at people absorbed in their own, difficult to hear conversations. What an excellent visual metaphor. Hey hey, ho ho, turning your backs on the people has got to go!
In the coming weeks and months, this pattern remained somewhat consistent, with a surprising twist. More and more people came down to the park to check it out, attracted because it felt important. They wanted to be part of it all. And the vast majority of them bounced.
Systems did emerge to engage newcomers. But those systems (the info tables and Info Working Group, for example) were not nearly as effective as the moment demanded. I’ve learned that some of the email addresses floated around as a primary point of contact were left unchecked, accumulating more than 11,000 unanswered emails. There is still no general OWS email list. Meetings would be announced at a particular location and then held somewhere else. Newcomers would show up for working group meetings, add their name to a list passed around for future contact, and never hear from anyone again. It’s nearly four months since the occupation and there still isn’t a clearly labeled sign up page. Hell, there isn’t even an official public facing website that represents OWS.
That said, many did find the OWS compelling enough to overcome the obstacles and stick around. Or perhaps the obstacles were part of what made the experience compelling. Either way, what we can call the ‘user experience’ for many of the activists drawn into the movement wasn’t very positive. Large numbers came for a meeting or two, never to return. Our collective strategy for attracting people worked wonderfully; the second part, keeping them around and meaningfully engaged, did not. It still doesn’t.
Just to give one example of how poorly we dealt with the ‘user experience,’ let’s look at the drummer’s circle. It was the subject of many complaints from an overwhelming majority of the active participants in the movement, generating bad press, ill-will from otherwise friendly neighbors, and complaints from OWS organizers suffering from the near constant elevated decibel levels. My impression was that in the competition for attention, newly recruited supporters got the least when they should have been getting the most.
How strong would we be if the bounce rate had been lower? The NYCGA website has around 8k registered users. Perhaps 15% show up to a meeting in a normal week, and roughly 200 form the backbone of our working groups system. What if we had 500 of those people? Or 1000? Well we don’t. Blame the bounce rate. At the peak of OWS popularity, thousands of well-meaning citizens reached out to us and then walked away, disappointed. Most of them will not be back. Thousands more might show up in the spring. Are we ready?
Our Ladder of Engagement Is Often a Snake
A ladder of engagement (you probably knew this) is a metaphor for how an organization or cause provides a path way for greater commitment over time. This is what a ladder of engagement for OWS might have looked like:
- Heard about OWS
- Visited Zuccotti Park
- Attended a General Assembly
- Attended a meeting of a specific working group or cause
- Owned a recurring responsibility within a working group
- Represents OWS to non-OWS communities
- Joins the core group of insiders with social capital
An organizer asks: what will move people up the ladder? What training, mentoring or resources can help? How does OWS transition from a place of weakness (dealing with whoever shows up) to a place of strength (recruiting for well-defined needs and roles)?
But OWS isn’t organized. We still have a ladder of engagement though. A crappy one. I’ve looked, but not found any working group, caucus or affinity group that consciously creates roles at each rung of the ladder or that strategizes about moving people from one rung to another. Since the ladder isn’t articulated, no one takes responsibility, and problems ensue:
- Meetings scheduled or cancelled on short notice, or moved to a new location at the last minute.
- Assumptions about the boundaries of OWS left unaddressed – resulting in firmly held but contradictory ideas about “who gets to be OWS.”
- No recourse to ‘the person in charge’ on matters of great import.
- Confusion and uncertainty about what is or isn’t happening.
- Bizarre and destructive behavior tolerated .
- Off putting rituals that clearly demarcate insiders from outsiders, to the detriment of absorbing newcomers.
Of course these obstacles only drive away MOST wannabe occupiers. Not all of them. In other words, we’ve constructed an activist filter better at attracting certain kinds of people while driving others away.
A Filter For Disruptive Newcomers and Empowered Insiders
The absence of anyone minding the bounce rate or implementing a coherent ladder of engagement are structural weaknesses. Looking at them together, it’s possible to identify a filter at work. What kind of person is most likely to survive and thrive in a movement that is so hard to join? Or that ofers such a high noise to signal ratio?
It would have to be someone very committed, with a lot of self-confidence, and a willingness to tolerate or relish the absence of structure and institutions. Two types of activists seem to do especially well. The first I call the ‘empowered insiders.’ These are movement veterans who come to the table with strong skills, powerful networks, and enough time to navigate the many working groups, subcommittees, conference calls and protests of the movement. Most of the groups that get anything done have a few of these folks, but I’ve come across many who aren’t strongly attached to any specific working group. They don’t need to be – the social capital of their networks extends to unions, funding sources, nonprofits, consulting firms and each other. They work inside – but mostly outside – the OWS infrastructure.
At the other extreme we find the disruptive outsider. These are folks with a high tolerance for chaos, interpersonal conflict, unproductive meetings, and the narcissism of small differences. Many of this type are quite open about valuing OWS insofar as it meets some other, more important goal. Because the ethos of OWS values transparency, horizontalism and diversity, it’s easy for these individuals to manipulate or disrupt group process. That’s not to say that most of them aren’t hardworking and sincere.
In large numbers (a handful at a time) the disruptive insider drives away people with higher and more normative standards of activism – or public behavior. Addressing their needs consumes a great deal of energy from other activists. These outsiders might be perfectly normative in other settings, especially those built around more extreme sets of ideas or insular communities. (To the disruptive outsider, those extreme sensibilities represent a strongly desired norm for the OWS community.)
It’s as if the original invite to Occupy Wall Street said: “Calling all movement diehards and newcomers willing to give it all up in the freezing cold!” But movements needs wider circles of support representing many different kinds of people. Successful movements give many people a feeling of community – ranging from the diehards to the one hour a week volunteer. At this point, we seem to be offering a lot more community to the needy and desperate than to those able to sustain it for the long haul.
So that’s the filter in place – one that produces an over-abundance of empowered insiders and disruptive outsiders. In between are many just like you. We need more of you, and that means building a better and more deliberate filter. It should reduce the number of disruptive outsiders, increase the numbers of ‘everyone else’ at all the rungs of our engagement ladder and force the empowered insiders to be full participants in OWS institutions – the working groups, General Assembly and Spokescouncil.
Take This Medicine
So what to do? First, the mechanics of the ladder of engagement need to be in place for every working group.
- Welcome protocols for newcomers
- More reliance on low-traffic announcement lists instead of discussion lists
- Strongly respected community agreements on acceptable behavior – designed to reduce the ability of disruptive outsiders to set the tone
- Increase the use of formal titles, denoting responsibilities for which an activist will be held accountable. (This is not a call for elected representatives!)
- Better meeting spaces, with heat, light, and fewer distractions.
Second, we need to develop metrics and leading indicators that help us measure our progress. Examples include:
- # of donors
- new volunteer sign ups
- growth of email lists
- # of attendees at meetings
- # of canvassing raps made
None of these measures are important in and of themselves; what’s important is our frame of mind. Measuring things and evaluating our progress help create a sense of day to day, week to week progress. They force our attention on systems and infrastructure, in contrast to quick hits of adrenaline from street actions or the rush of mass attention in the media.
Third, we need sustained focus on our institutions: the GA, the Spokescouncil, the operations working groups. They are our building blocks, for better or worse. Lack attention of causes them to wither and die. But why would a rational person choose to spend time at a GA? Or a disjointed, haphazard working group meeting with no set agenda? A large proportion of our meetings are awful.
So let’s put on the agenda items that can and will inspire participation. To this end, I call upon our empowered insiders. There’s precedent for replacing a Spokescouncil meeting with an anti-racism training. What about a mass direct action simulation? A debate between opposing yet valid viewpoints not meant to result in consensus? A facilitated brainstorm? A 15 minute lecture by a celebrity fan/supporter? A decision on a long range plan that will require months of focus by many working groups? We can reduce much of the nonsense with meeting agendas full of meaty and attractive content.
None of these prescriptions take away from the important and worthy efforts currently underway. GA reforms, movement building conversations, inter-occupy collaborations, mediations – all great. And clearly not enough.
Note: This article started as a way of introducing the use of a constituent relationship manager (CRM) software program. CRM’s are used to manage bounce rates, ladders of engagement, and activist filters.