Web Thinking: a call to arms

I’ve been at a new media/organizing training for the past couple of days (shout out to the New Organizing Institute) and we had a great discussion about EchoDitto’s and Biro Creative’s Web Thinking Manifesto. Sharing with you all…

Our field is maturing rapidly. The next generation of movement leaders is overcoming its fetish with technology and expertise as secrets to online success. Indeed, now faced with existential challenges from a fast shifting landscape, the time has come for us all to rethink our most deeply held tenets in this struggle to remain relevant. Thankfully, a brave few are trying – and they’re finding answers. Looking beyond traditional online strategy, they’re fundamentally transforming how they and their organizations work – shifting their entire perspective towards what we call “Web Thinking” – to better reflect the reality of our time. And they’re winning. They’re charting a path forward for us all.

The teams at EchoDitto and Biro Creative have been tracking and studying this shift for more than six years through their work with a wide range of leading social change organizations. After a decade of obsessive technology consumption, the sector is ready for a new chapter. This manifesto reveals new tenets for success. It is a call to arms for our next generation of leaders.

How We Got Here

From the mid ’90s, when non-profits first got serious about the web, a powerful story emerged among early adopters. The biggest barrier to success, it went, was lack of buy-in from management. Skeptical EDs, VPs and Campaign Managers who didn’t “get it” were stifling our movements – holding us back from the great potential of the Internet.

By the early 2000s, this “buy-in” story (both real and imagined) had mostly vanished. Thanks to the mind-bending success of early wired orgs – from MoveOn.orgto Howard Dean to Adbusters – our leadership’s commitment to the web solidified, becoming largely a matter of degree.

What followed? A period of massive online expenditure. The “buy-in” story caved to a powerful new story about investment. Its simple and seductive premise is that technology is key to growing movements online. (And to a lesser degree, technical staff and outside expertise.) In its basest form, it equates investing online with online success. Does it sound familiar? Funders love this story. Consultants earn their living perpetuating it. There are entire conferences dedicated to this story. For almost a decade it has guided our field.

Times Have Changed. The New Reality.

The trouble is, as we enter 2010, we find ourselves in dramatically different terrain. And yet despite mounting evidence, few are critically examining the tech investment story or questioning its relevance. This basic tenet of first generation online strategy has remained unchallenged for almost a decade. At least two factors suggest it’s time for a rethink:

First, the playing field for technology has leveled dramatically. Even the most humble non-profits now harness social media, mobile and e-advocacy tools – sometimes to massive success. This leveling represents a boon for new players, as barriers to entry fall. And for those early adopters who reaped huge rewards from early investments, it means a loss of monopoly. It’s an erosion of competitive advantage. A basic level of infrastructure has been laid for us all.

Second, people no longer depend on organizations to affect change. A frightening idea perhaps, but true. Organizations once provided the sole gateway to politicians, media, movements and power. Now people reach them on their own. They act themselves and also galvanize their peers, especially the millennial generation so accustomed to the web’s DIY ethos. The role of organizations is being fundamentally redefined – something online investment simply can’t address alone.

The Way Forward

There is a new breed of organization that seems to more consistently and dramatically win online, while the rest seem to stumble around in the darkness. They make up a fraction of the non-profit world but can claim a disproportionate stake of success – generating funds, growing memberships and winning legislative change online.

You likely have your own list of heroes that fits this category. Recent, high-profile examples include the likes of Obama350 and Basta Dobbs.

These organizations and their ilk are a source of great promise. And indeed, our research over the past six years suggests that their most significant, defining variable goes beyond what is traditionally understood as online strategy – beyond technology and technical expertise. Rather, their success is tied most strongly to a willingness to break from the status quo, to make brave moves to fundamentally transform how they and their organizations work – their very perspective – to better reflect the reality of our time. We call it “Web Thinking.”

What follows are ten proclamations for the next generation of movement leaders – it is a summary of our findings and a manifesto for our space. It’s an unfinished guide and an invitation. It’s also a challenge.

Head over to EchoDitto to continue and read the 10 Proclamations (download PDF here). Thanks to Tim Walker and Michael Silberman.