Former Occupiers Are Building a Network for Liberation, One Movement at a Time
The group Movement Netlab says Liberation.Network, which is being built on the open-source Activist Network Platform, will solve a big problem in decentralized movements: group-to-group communication.
If you ask activists where they organize online, you’re almost guaranteed to hear them recite familiar, name-brand platforms: Facebook, Google, Twitter. They might extol the platforms’ virtues, or they might grimace and say grudgingly that they have to go where the people are, but for better or worse, social movements and campaigns like Black Lives Matter, the Fight for $15, and Strike Debt are reliant on commercial social networks.
Yet Gan Golan, an artist and activist, argues that these platforms are not enough. “The tools that these social movements need to function do not actually exist,” he told Civicist last year. “People are organizing right now ahead of where the technology is.”
Golan and his colleagues at the activist-led “think-make-and-do tank” Movement Netlab have set their sights on fixing that.
In January, the group officially partnered with the technology worker cooperative Glocal to build Liberation.Network, an open-source “network of networks” that they believe can help solve one of the biggest problems they have encountered within decentralized movements like Occupy: group-to-group communication.
If everything goes well, Liberation.Network could become a place where participants from different but interrelated movements could connect and collaborate online. Of course, different levels of cross-movement support already exist. For example, 2014 protests in Ferguson, MO, prompted Palestinians to reach out to protesters via Twitter with advice on protecting oneself from teargas; activists from the climate movement showed their support by organizing a contingent to travel to the city for Ferguson October. But Movement Netlab members believe that there are untapped stores of solidarity that a platform like Liberation.Network could help unleash. The goal is to move conversations currently happening in silos—in private Facebook groups or email threads, for example—to someplace accessible to the entire network of social movements.
Movimiento Cosecha, a movement for migrant rights, and If Not Now, a movement to end the American Jewish community’s support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine, are the first groups to sign up for Movement Netlab’s Liberation.Network. Movement Netlab plans to onboard them this spring.
By and for activists
Sam Corbin, Gan Golan, and Tammy Shapiro founded Movement Netlab in 2013. The three met during Occupy Wall Street and stayed in each other’s circles after the movement was almost-universally said to have dissolved. Then Hurricane Sandy hit and they saw the Occupy network in New York re-coalesce as Occupy Sandy and provide a grassroots relief effort that put the official response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross to shame.
“We were amazed at what we achieved but still had no coherent way to explain what we did or how we did it,” Gan Golan told Civicist. Articulating an explanation was one of the first things Golan and company tasked themselves with upon starting Movement Netlab. But their long-term goal is to build the tools needed to support and grow today’s social movements.
Since the founding members started Movement Netlab in 2013 the core group has grown from three to six. In addition to concept development, they have working groups tackling: trainings for activists; digital tool development, including Liberation.Network; research into funding for movements; and research into how they might replicate Spain’s success electing candidates from insurgent parties like Podemos. (Last May, Tammy Shapiro and Pablo Benson, one of the newest members of Movement Netlab, traveled to Spain with representatives from labor unions, the Working Families party, and community organizations like the Mayday Space to meet with movement leaders.)
Although much of their work can sound rather academic, Movement Netlab is run by and for activists and is focused on practical solutions. “We offer ourselves up to anything that we see as a genuine social movement…from climate justice to racial justice to economic justice,” Golan told Civicist.
Platform under construction
Liberation.Network will be built on top of Glocal’s Activist Network Platform, a pre-configured WordPress multisite that consists of a single umbrella site and an unlimited number of sub-sites that feed information to the main site. The platform consists of a number of open-source tools that can be assembled like widgets as part of a bigger package.
Each sub-site will have features like a blog, an event calendar, and display feeds for social media accounts. The main Liberation.Network site will display aggregated news from the sub-sites in the network. Glocal can also activate a number of optional features for site managers, including CiviCRM (Constituent Relationship Management), discussion groups, and cloud tools.
One way to understand what Liberation.Network will be able to do is to compare it to the People’s Climate March hubs platform, a project pitched to the People’s Climate March organizing body by Movement Netlab and spearheaded by Tammy Shapiro. The hubs were groups organized around geographic-, religious-, or issue-based identities. Each hub had its own website with a blog and links to a Facebook group or a sign up page for the hub’s listserv, if applicable. The hubs were listed on the PeoplesClimate.org hubs homepage, which served as a directory. (Since my piece about the hubs platform was published in May 2015, the hubs directory has apparently been taken offline, as have all of the individual hubs websites.)
One of the things the hubs homepage could not do is show what each hub was doing, or what the network was doing collectively. Without visiting a specific hub’s homepage or Facebook group, a member of one hub had no way of finding out what another hub had planned, or of communicating strategies, tips, or anything else. This was by design; the People’s Climate March organizing body had planned to organize for one thing and one thing only. But it did make it nearly impossible for the hubs to work together to organize outside of or after the march. (Although it is hard to tell if there was much demand for that, until at least last August some people continued to organize within their hubs.)
That is what Shapiro argues is Liberation.Network’s biggest contribution to the activist’s digital toolset: the ability for New York activists working on an issue, like climate justice, to share what they are doing with climate activists in Alaska, or New Mexico, or even Spain. And Liberation.Network aspires to broaden that network even further, to make it possible for climate activists to collaborate and share their work with activists working on criminal justice, immigration reform, worker rights, or other progressive causes that fall within Movement Netlab’s definition of a genuine social movement.
The early adopters
For If Not Now, which Tammy Shapiro helped start in 2014, that promised connection to the broader world of social movements is one of the bonuses of joining Liberation.Network.
“One of the principles of If Not Now is to show up for other movements,” Emily Mayer, an If Not Now organizer, told Civicist. “Movement Netlab is offering a way to be connected in a super visible way.”
But initial interest in the platform, Mayer said, stemmed from a desire to “connect people, [and] to have this cross-pollination of ideas across local, geographic relationships…it’s really useful to have a platform where people from the arts group in Michigan can talk to the people from the arts group in San Francisco.” Mayer also said that she wants to use the platform to avoid an information bottleneck, so that people in the movement aren’t forced to run things by gatekeepers.
Since November, If Not Now has trained 100 people in their strategies and core values; they are aiming to train 1,000 people by the end of year. That’s a good-size group to test out Liberation.Network’s capabilities and limitations.
Liberation.Network is meant to become If Not Now’s primary online home and internal communication structure, although the group launched a placeholder website in late February that will be up at least until their page on Liberation.Network is live, if not longer.
Mayer admitted to Civicist that she is still unsure of the technical ins and outs of Liberation.Network. If Not Now’s participation seems largely a result of their connection to Movement Netlab through Shapiro, and their willingness to get on board with the platform a sign of their trust in her and her work.
Cosecha, on the other hand, does not have a direct connection to Movement Netlab, but they do share similar organizing values and practices. Carlos Saavedra, a core organizer with Cosecha, helped start the movement, building on the youth organizing he did as a co-founder of the United We Dream Network, which was instrumental in getting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy implemented in 2012. Saavedra only met members of Movement Netlab in January 2015, when several of them attended a training run by Saavedra as part of his work at the Ayni Institute, a training organization for low-income community organizers.
One of the most appealing things about the Liberation.Network, Saavedra told Civicist, is that the people building it also come from a community organizing and mass movement tradition; they understand, he said, what the tools they are building are for.
“A lot of people, even if they do the peer-to-peer software development, [their products are] not made for organizers,” Saavedra said. “It’s made for technologists.”
“How do we develop a tool that is for people, by the people, with organizing in it. That’s what’s really exciting about Movement Netlab,” he added. “That’s why, for us, it’s a big commitment to try to commit to this, but we feel like we have to.”
Saavedra’s biggest concern, and the root of Cosecha’s internal debates over platforms and tools, is that this online platform will somehow alter their existing network—a couple hundred leaders with a core leadership of 8 – 12. Because computer and/or internet access is a factor within Cosecha membership, Saavedra worries that the platform could be redundant, ignored in favor of platforms that are easier to access on phones (like Facebook), or, worse, create a division between online and offline organizing.
Still, Saavedra and the other core members of Cocecha believe that it is worth trying on principle: to practice the decentralized organizing online that they practice offline.
Taking the high road, with all its bumps
What Liberation.Network does not and will never have over platforms like Facebook and Twitter is ease-of-use or convenience. It will take either faith in the people building it or a commitment to shared ideals to get groups to sign on, at least at first, and even that might not be enough. To take ownership of a social-network-like platform is to have to pay for it, first of all. The current numbers Tammy Shapiro quoted to Civicist, which she says are subject to change as they move forward, are $1,000 for set up and $600 a year for hosting and security.
“These numbers will go up for networks as they grow and require larger files and more files, but will also go down as we onboard more networks and can spread costs around,” she informed Civicist.
The cost of joining Liberation.Network could be a barrier to entry for some movement groups, which are often short on funds and other resources. For groups that can afford it, it might be worth it to them to get off of commercial platforms (as much as is possible), whether because they don’t want to worry about having their pages taken down or because they want to have more control over their own data.
“People use Dropbox and Google…because it’s there and available,” Dana Skallman, a technologist with Glocal, told Civicist. “We’re trying…to deploy an app—a series of apps—that can provide similar tools that are free and open source.”
The downside to open-source tools is that activists may be less familiar with how they work and will either have to be trained or to figure it out as they go. For movements made up of the young and tech-savvy, this might not be a problem, but not all movements are so homogenous.
And Movement Netlab and Glocal are learning as they go, as well. “We’ll use what we have in this moment,” Tammy Shapiro told Civicist, “and then through the experience figure out what’s missing.”