Working for MoveOn from 2005-2008, I wrote lots of emails inviting people to take action.
I know as well as anyone that some emails that you expect to work simply flop. Others that you expect to be par for the course go gangbusters -- inspiring droves of activism. Innovation and creativity are key, so I'll never fault anyone for trying weird, wacky new things -- even if they fail.
With one caveat: Every activist email must have a plausible "theory of change." People should see some concrete theory about why taking action could lead to a desired result.
But some people choose to inflame people's passions just to get their email addresses (and, more likely than not, to fundraise from them -- as opposed to later engaging them in quality activism). This sullys the online activism process for the rest of us.
That's why getting emails like this one from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recently was both insulting and maddening:
First they counted the votes. Then they recounted them. Then they painstakingly went over every disputed ballot by hand. It was the most thorough and exhaustive recount process Minnesota has ever seen.
It's time to give it up, Norm. President Obama needs Al Franken in the Senate. It's time to concede the race. Click here to add your voice.
First the bipartisan canvassing board declared Al Franken the winner of the U.S. Senate race in Minnesota.
But Norm Coleman didn't like that result, so he took it to court. And now when even his own lawyers are predicting he'll lose, Coleman's threatening to keep appealing to more and more courts.
How many more recounts does Norm Coleman want? How many more delays? How much longer will the Republican Party hold Minnesota's Senate seat hostage?
Coleman can end it today and give Minnesota the two Senators it's entitled to. But he's not going to give up unless we convince him to act. So let's speak with one voice and tell Norm Coleman it's time to go.
It then links to a page with a "petition" to Norm Coleman. If you sign, you land on a donate page. If you scroll to the bottom of the email, you also see a donate button -- and a tell-a-friend button, so the DSCC can get your friends' emails.
Nowhere in the entire email is there a theory for why a DSCC petition to Norm Coleman will make any impact.
And, if you think about it, why on earth would Norm Coleman listen to the DSCC? Can you think of a less credible messenger than the DC committee whose sole role is to defeat Senate Republicans like Coleman?
I'm not saying the DSCC has no role to play in getting Coleman to step down. I'm just saying they should p
lay an honest and effective role.
Imagine if the DSCC's email said:
Republicans in DC are bankrolling Norm Coleman's continued court challenge in Minnesota and are encouraging him to drag this thing out forever.
They know Al Franken won. But for them, it's worth it to keep shelling out money to block the seating of Senator Franken.
Put simply, the incentives are all wrong. So let's set the incentives right.
Today, we're launching "Norm's Democratic Dollar A Day." We're asking people across the country to donate $1 to the DSCC every day that Norm Coleman refuses to concede (up to 100 days max, in case he's completely delusional).
Think about how this would change the game. If 1 million people signed up, and Senate Republicans up for re-election in 2010 saw the committee charged with defeating them getting $1 million each day that Coleman is obstinate, what do you think would happen?
First, they may be in denial. But after a couple days, you'd have Republican Senators, operatives, strategists, and lobbyists all calling Coleman saying, "Your time is up. Concede!"
Here's the ironic thing: Unlike the DSCC "petition" to Coleman, I'd probably pass that email on to my friends. And, instead of a thinly veiled fundraising attempt, I'd (for one of the first times ever) be genuinely psyched to give the DSCC money.
This concludes part 1 of a new series: Profiles in Bad Online Organizing. (Cross-posted at OpenLeft.)