The ONE Campaign, a “grassroots campaign of more than 2 million people committed to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable diseases,” recently released an interesting iPhone app. (They aren’t the only one; IJM and 40 Hour Famine by World Vision Australia also have a do-gooder presence in the iTunes store.)
The app, which is designed to “help you lobby,” features almost exactly what you would expect from ONE—updates from mommy bloggers on a trip to Kenya and one-click driving directions to your nearest activist meet-up. My introduction to politics was interning for ONE, and I think they’re fabulous. Now, however, I’m a congressional staffer—a large part of my job is responding to people who contact our office, and what is this app designed to do? Get people to contact our office.
Our poor staff assistant, who bears the most responsibility for answering phones, read a Roll Call article about the app with horror. Meanwhile, interns searched frantically to see if it contains the ability to directly dial a user’s congressional office (it doesn’t—yet). I was torn, and not just because I’ll be the one crafting all those response letters to ONE members from our district.
On the one hand, this is truly the future of lobbying. ONE, IJM and other nonprofits are on the forefront of activism, pushing and changing its shape, and engaging thousands of people as a result. It’s only natural to bring the realm of civic engagement into the palm of your hand.
At the same time, as one of the federal employees answering the thousands of phone calls made to Washington each day, I can’t help but notice how many citizens click a button and pat themselves on the back for “expressing their opinion.”
Almost every organization with a significant membership generates millions of “form letters” to federal, state and local legislators’ offices each week. Usually these organizations’ mass emails ask the recipient to “Click Here to Make Your Voice Heard!” and are followed by a pre-written message, all ready for you to hit send.
If you do choose to take the bold, loud step called Clicking Here, your message will certainly make it to your representative. However, it will look exactly like the messages sent in by dozens of your neighbors that day. In fact, software will detect similarities in all of those emails for the staffers tasked with sorting them, even going so far as to flag them as duplicates for easy responding.
I could whine about the implications of turning advocacy into something to put in your “Whatever” folder next to Angry Birds. And I’m certainly not longing for the “good old days” of lobbying—so named for the pushy, salesman-like tactics of men who would wait in the lobby of the Willard hotel to pounce on legislators walking by. Lobbying, which is almost as important as voting, is the act of trying to influence a decision maker—and truthfully, there’s no way to stop organizations from trying to make it as easy as possible. Nor should anyone try. These nonprofits exist to convey a message.
Obviously, however, handing someone a script probably won’t turn them immediately into a lifelong, committed advocate. And as Malcolm Gladwell wrote last year for the New Yorker, social media is based on large networks of weak relationships, and “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” Nevertheless, social psychologists have found that such small steps may get them started down that path.
The “foot-in-the-door” effect shows that people are more likely to acquiesce with a large request when they have first voluntarily agreed to a smaller request. (Statistics show you are more likely to donate to an organization—a “large” act—if you have first signed one of their petition—a “small” act.) This means that from a nonprofit perspective, every “click” is not only generating one more touch to a decision maker—it is creating a more committed membership.
So the form emails will keep coming in, and your congressman’s or congresswoman’s staff will continue to tally them and send you a polite response. And while I’m super proud of Gen Y for caring so passionately about global issues, the thing that makes me nervous about condensing them down to thumb size is the continued danger of glamorizing global issues over local ones. It’s a bit easier to sign a petition asking for more funding for foreign aid than to form an educated opinion about how to fund Medicaid.
I’m guilty of it myself. I’ll admit it. It’s way more fun to get a report card for your sponsored child in Mozambique than to get fired up about your local school district’s test scores according to dollars-per-pupil-spent. But aren’t they both social justice issues?
Maybe this is an outcome of our obsession with short-term-missions, or maybe the domestic issues just haven’t hit home yet. Maybe we’re content to let our parents keep running the “boring stuff” for now. All I know is that while my peers are starting to have kids, they seem to have no interest in running for school board … yet.
But maybe there’s hope. We’re still young. If we have kids, they’re in diapers. When they are school age—when we are feeling the pinch of property taxes and seeing the effects of all the local issues that we’re leaving to the baby boomers for now—maybe then we’ll run for city council.
Maybe we’ll be the most civically engaged cohort in American history, because having a relationship with our elected officials will be as casual as a game of Angry Birds. Here’s hoping!