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2007 Webby Awards

Re-Wiring the Future of Community Organizing
Author: Francis Raven, A Sense Of Place Network | February 10th, 2005
Communities: Cool Tools

In the last election cycle, virtually everyone commented about how the Internet was affecting the election. The campaign most cited for exceptional Internet use was that of Howard Dean. Increased publicity and new technology allowed blogging and new software which allowed more community interaction (culminating in the DeanSpace project) to push Howard Dean to the front of the Democratic pack, reminding voters of the power of high-tech grassroots organizing.

The founder of CivicSpace Labs, Zack Rosen, was partly responsible for the architecture of Dean’s Internet presence. CivicSpace Labs offers a non-profit open-source community organizing software which provides a framework for organizing. The tool features software that allows community organizations to create customizable community websites with blogs, photo galleries, user profiles, friend/buddy tracking, polls, and file storage. Groups can send targeted emails, import and aggregate remote content, share users, manage group membership, organize events, and collaboratively create, edit, and publish documents.

Rosen is a college dropout (formerly of the computer science department) who believes firmly that the Internet is re-wiring our culture from a citizenry of consumers to a citizenry of producers. "Everything that is derived from its construct, such as political power, will be deeply affected," says Rosen. “The Internet changes the nature of political participation fundamentally. Small dollar donations are eclipsing big donors. This changes the fundamentals of politics.”

Rosen began on the Dean campaign as a volunteer in Pittsburgh. He moved on to start the DeanSpace project and then took a job at the Dean Campaign headquarters where he worked as a web developer, technical volunteer coordinator, and web-radio producer. He was responsible for servicing the web-technology needs of the state campaign offices, constituency groups, and grassroots web developers. These interests in community organizing through use of the Internet were sustained because, as Rosen proclaims on the CivicSpace Labs website, he “gets his kicks from figuring out how to marshal together empowering, extremely low cost / free, and innovative tech solutions for the public sector.”

After the Dean campaign ended, CivicSpace Labs was born as a funded continuation of the DeanSpace project. The CivicSpace platform is a flexible grassroots organizing platform that empowers collective action inside communities and cohesively connects remote groups of supporters. An email interview with Rosen reinforced the idea that the Internet will allow more people to become involved in the political process only if the digital divide is meaningfully solved. Rosen said that the CivicSpace platform helps do this by proving that “the 'Net can serve as very powerful and cheap social infrastructure.” However, in order to more fully bridge the digital divide, it must be politicized.

As Rosen wrote, we need to “make it an issue in elections. The Internet should be a public utility. It is something you could get people rallied around. In order for politicians to take the digital divide seriously their constituents and funders will have to push them to take it seriously. I hope the Internet is the dominant medium for candidates to reach their constituents by the next election. One way that politicians should do this is to blog themselves.”

Their main platform, CivicSpace, is a grassroots organizing platform that empowers collective action inside communities and cohesively connects remote groups of supporters. It uses a Drupal-based web-app framework that currently has modules implemented to manage contacts, web site content, events, newsletters, and social spaces such as blogs / forums.

The issue of central control is a major challenge of community organizing using the Internet. To address this issue, the CivicSpace platform uses a granulated permissions system, which allows an administrator to lock down parts of her site while allowing users control of other features on the site. Rosen claims that anyone trying to create and organize community will want to use the CivicSpace platform. The organization already has 100 sites up and running, including Change for America , I do in 30 Seconds, and Music for America. A list of the other sites they have created is located on their website. But real world interactions are still vital when attempting to shape people’s political will. As Rosen said, “We've proven community catalyzed on the 'Net can spill out onto the streets. CivicSpace is built to do exactly that.”

As a result of this view and the work they have already done, CivicSpace Labs is poised to make a powerful difference in the future of community organizing.

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