In the book, Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Here_Comes_Everybody), the author describes the epochal change we are experiencing as social media evolve. Shirky writes that the real effects of these changes will lag behind their creation, because it requires a critical mass of users for the effects to become apparent (Shirky, 270). Of course, we may be well beyond critical mass and already seeing the effects of social networking by email, and with social networking sites, blogs and other internet connecting as well.
One effect we may be seeing is the evolution of lobbying behavior. I was intrigued by Shirky’s description of the effects of these changes on expressions of political will. As a person with some interest in human rights, I’ve ended up on a fair number of email lists. The organizers of these lists like to keep me abreast of bills moving through Congress, issues of concern to the Secretary of State, and the like. I can’t count the number of on-line petitions I’ve signed. This, of course, is the lowest level of cost for an activist, like one-click on-line shopping. The next step up from there is the e-letter. The savvy activist organization will provide the would-be letter-writer with a sample letter than just needs a signature. This reduces the effort on the part of the signer to do research. All that is required is a measure of trust in one’s organization’s research. The signer is encouraged to personalize the letter with any pertinent information the signer might personally have, of course. One types in one’s zip code, one’s representatives or senators are identified, and once again, one hits “sign” or “send” and gets instant gratification. Shirky calls the value of this behavior into question.
These e-letters do, in fact, arrive on the desks of at least the staffers of senators and representatives. I know this because I regularly get letters in return, by U.S. Mail and by email, from those I have written to. The responses are, of course, sometimes stock responses. The fact that there was a response at all suggests that my opinion was probably at least registered. Nevertheless, my organized groups probably know that, as Shirky writes, “the cost of lobbying Congress by email is so low that an email message has become effectively meaningless” and that email is therefore “the wrong tool for lobbying Congress” (287).
What, then, is the right tool? One, apparently, that elevates the cost in order to gather attention to the message. Shirky suggests a number of surprising things, like sending flowers along with one’s message (288), which, because they are costly, are harder to ignore than emails, and tend to stand out in the office. While sending prairie flowers to my Iowa Congress members is an interesting idea, potentially adding allergens to the mix, and leading to other possibilities (ears of corn? Roasted soybeans?), I think that personal presence (“Hi, my name is ______ and I am a constituent…”) seems to trump it. Phone calls are good. Staffers usually listen and take notes. Because phone calls are inherently intrusive and not by appointment, I try to be brief.
In addition, I’ve done it the old-fashioned way, face to face. I’ve been on the Hill twice now, and once, to the state offices. I was listened to attentively. Staffers took careful notes at the meetings and engaged in clarifying dialog. So far, however, I have yet to actually sit down with the Senators or Congressmen/women I am seeking. (I’ve had more face-time with presidential candidates, being from Iowa, than with members of Congress, but that was when they were stumping, and does not count.) There have been sightings, smiles and waves (“Hi, Senator Harkin!”), but I am hoping for more than that, one of these days.
The problem is, of course, that personal presence on the Hill is costly indeed for one who lives in the middle of this vast nation. I can’t afford to be there regularly. So I return to the question. Given what we know about social networking, the power inherent in new communication tools, what is the most effective way to participate in this representative democracy, to demonstrate that something matters a great deal, and should rise to the top of the in-box?