“Democracy is not an app”

For three days at Netroots Nation 2012, a festival of online media and innovative tech in the service of progressive politics (June 7-9 in Providence, RI), I stuffed my head.

I gazed into the infinite depths of Google Analytics, pondered how to run useful A/B testing on Facebook and absorbed tips that promised to squeeze my every insight into a tight viral bomb of social media.

Each new tool and technique opened up exciting new possibilities. Yet each new app and opportunity demanded time and attention I’d already committed to something else. By the third day, I felt stretched.

Early Saturday, I wandered into a small knot of early arrivers at the convention center, groggy from Friday night revelry. I was balancing coffee in one hand and an iPhone in the other, trying to recall every insight of the last 48 hours while planning for the day’s sessions. Like everyone around me, I monitored the live discussion with one ear, while really focusing on the tiny screen and keypad in my hand.

Then something penetrated. One of the panelists, Van Jones of Rebuild the Dream told us, “I’ve got news for you: democracy is not an app.”

Van Jones

Jones said that no matter how many views, clicks or retweets we get, the results that matter still happen in the voting booth, in the legislative halls and on the streets. He urged us to “climb into that screen” and take real action to influence the events so many people spend so much time merely reacting to online.

I thought about our grassroots clients at Cause & Effect. Community centers and homeless shelters, land trusts and children’s theaters. Most of them have web sites. Some have Facebook pages. But very few have an active engagement with the online world or any strategy to achieve it.

Yet, our clients feed and house and educate real children. They save and protect real rivers and trees. They hold live performances witdh real audiences. They bring real constituents together face to face and raise real dollars. They do these things every day.

Of course, they could and should get even better results with an effective social media strategy.  But not if they let mere tools distract them from real work and real results.

I put my iPhone back in my pocket and listened to Van Jones with all my attention. I felt better immediately.

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