Revolution? Text Me

Digital organizers on how they are using peer-to-peer texting in their work and whether it lives up to the hype.


Although it doesn’t sound like cutting-edge tech, one of the shiniest new tools of the 2016 presidential election was peer-to-peer texting. It was described as Bernie Sanders’ “secret weapon” and Roddy Lindsay, the co-founder of peer-to-peer texting company Hustle, called it “the Holy Grail for campaigns.” Last week at Personal Democracy Forum, a few of the digital organizers forging this new territory gathered for a panel titled “Text, Text Revolution” to discuss how they are using peer-to-peer texting in their work, and whether it lives up to the hype.

Daniel Souweine, who acted as moderator, is both the co-founder and CEO of the peer-to-peer texting company Relay, and the former lead on Text for Bernie. He was joined by Madeleine Ellis, the digital states campaign manager for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund; Arisha Michelle Hatch, the managing director of campaigns at ColorOfChange PAC; and Thais Marques, one of only two digital organizers with the national, decentralized Movimiento Cosecha.

The panelists all spoke enthusiastically about peer-to-peer texting, citing a variety of advantages: reaching new audiences, higher engagement rates than email campaigns, and fostering deeper relationships between organizers and organizations. Souweine pointed out several advantages, including the fact that text messages have a much higher open rate than emails—a conservative estimate is more than 80 percent—and that recipients don’t have to opt-in. (Although, he added later, if they opt-out, campaigns have to respect that.)

A lot of the excitement around peer-to-peer texting has been about the connection forged between sender and recipient. When we spoke for a story about peer-to-peer texting in the run-up to the election, Souweine said the tactic can “create real, meaningful, substantive interactions.” Some of the panelists confirmed this with anecdotes of their own, although it was still hard to get of sense of how many of the exchanges approach an ambiguous “meaningful” level and how many are more transactional. Ellis even mentioned the need to maintain a certain level of intimacy, so that peer-to-peer texting doesn’t devolve into an email campaign.

Six More Takeaways from Text, Text Revolution

1. Reach new audiences: One of the first things that Marques pointed out after introducing herself was that organizations and politicians regularly fail to turn out immigrant constituents. “Many tactics for white middle class people aren’t working on immigrants,” she said.

This is a failure that Jess Morales Rocketto explored in a Civicist article earlier this year calling for more diversity in political technology, and greater consideration for the needs of communities of color. She pointed out that 36 percent of Latinx households are cell phone only—this fact alone should illustrate the enormous potential of peer-to-peer texting as a means to mobilize immigrants in the U.S.

Hatch also spoke to the challenge of reaching new voters, particularly black voters. She is trying to figure out the best practices for cold texting but says the organization is still in the “throw spaghetti against the wall phase.”

2. It’s for introverts: “Texting changes the nature of the hard ask,” Ellis explained. “The ‘no’s are less demoralizing, you can move faster through your list, and the success rate is higher”—all of which is good for morale.

3. But also for partiers: Hatch described how they are using brunch “textathons” to build community in the movement, by bringing together volunteers in festive environments complete with mimosas and DJs. Because texting is less demanding than phonebanking, volunteers are free to talk, dance (“we had people doing the wobble as they texted” Hatch said), drink, bond, and generally have a good time.

4. It’s multipurpose: In response to an audience question on what asks works best by text, the panelists cited a wide range of things, from encouraging people to get out and vote, or to vote early, to asking people to host local meet-ups, to encouraging them to join trainings on how to self-organize.

5. It’s expensive: Not exorbitantly expensive, but peer-to-peer texting requires more money and far more effort than mass email campaigns, so organizers have to know that what they’re sending out is worth it, Souweine pointed out. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing: As Zeynep Tufekci has explored at length (including in her 2014 Personal Democracy Forum talk) the low barrier of entry into activism can make for weaker movements. More effort would hopefully translate into greater returns.

6. Go all in: The panelists were unanimous in recommending that groups interested in organizing people with peer-to-peer texting to ask for cell phone numbers from supporters at every opportunity: on the landing page, on social media, on petition pages. Souweine said that in his work with the ACLU, they decided to make it a requirement for individuals signing up for the People Power Program. The thinking was, “We need your cell phone because we need you to do some stuff. If you don’t want to give us your number, you probably don’t want to do some stuff.”

There are plenty more lessons still to be learned about peer-to-peer texting. Ellis, for one, would like to see Planned Parenthood entrust their volunteers with more responsibilities, but the organization has to contend with internal hurdles that prevent that kind of outsourcing. Meanwhile, Marques wants the tool to be even more decentralized, easier for volunteers to run campaigns on their own while still connected to the national movement.