At dinner the night before this conference, I sat by Micah Sifry and Dave Weinberger and we were talking about the challenges of collecting what a large-scale constituency thinks and distilling it in a usable way.
In online dialogue and online advocacy, we obsess about how best to sift through thousands of messages from thousands of people and derive priorities, consensus and strongly-held views. AmericaSpeaks has a process they call “theming” for their face-to-face town meetings, in which a team of real people reads a raw feed of notes from meeting participants and creates a real-time report back to the larger group.
There’s tremendous power in seeing what you say and feel reflected back to you and knowing that there are others who feel similarly. But it often remains hard to see how that emergent opinion can escalate into the hands of decision-makers and directly influence policy. The decision-maker audience may or may not be able to take what the group is saying – or, let’s face it, trying to figure out – and do anything with it.
But Dave pointed out that the most important audience for a newly activate e-constituency may be the constituency itself.
You hear different things about how permeable Dean HQ really was to what the Deaniacs were saying (despite the red bat, “you did it” story). There are all sorts of cultural, political and technological barriers to bottom-up priority-setting.
What Dave was getting at is that with a good platform beneath it, a large-scale community gets the opportunity to connect with each other and make visible to each other their passions, convictions, opinions and priorities. And even if those opinions don’t make their way up the still-traditional hierachy and change an organization’s immediate plans, the connectedness and reflexivity change the constituency, and presumably eventually the culture.
Maybe the primary audience of this audience activity is the audience, whose sense of momentum, self-efficacy and possibility is galvanized not by one-shot moments like the red bat in Bryant Park, but the ongoing energy of connecting with each other.
Just this weekend I was reading some great thinking by Dave about this kind of thing, what he calls the overtaking of trees by webs.