Insights
3 min Read
February 16, 2011

Is Email Too Slow?

As Jenna, one of our millennial employees, likes to remind me, I am old. I’m not yet 40, by the way. But I am old enough that we didn’t have email at my college until my senior year. And gosh, when email arrived it was a spectacular wonder. So fast. So convenient.

Even now, all these years later, email is my primary mode of communication. I don’t much care for phone conversations. I don’t know my own cell phone number (I don’t even know where my cell phone is right now). What can I say? I’m a writer, and I like to be out of touch from time to time. It helps me get things done.

I have one email address that I use solely for shopping, signing online petitions, etc. As much as possible, I try to filter all my junk mail through it. And it gets flooded with emails from advocacy organizations, political parties, and the Mets.

As I’m sure you all know by now, email plays a vital role in any good online campaign, whether you’re raising money or getting people to take action. And the message can be up-to-the-minute with whatever the latest news about your action is.

Or very nearly up-to-the-minute, anyway.

Last week, as events unfolded in Egypt, I received an email from an advocacy organization, asking me to call the White House to encourage President Obama to put pressure on President Mubarak to resign.

The only trouble is that President Mubarak had resigned at least two hours earlier. The Facebook status updates, the tweets, and the home pages of every newspaper’s website had seemingly long announced his resignation and yet, here I was, being asked to take urgent action.

Oops.

So does this mean that email is simply too slow for today’s online campaigns? One British nonprofit makes me think the answer might be yes…

This morning, as I was catching up on my backlog of left-leaning propaganda, I read this fascinating article. The writer discusses a protest group, UK Uncut, that performs sit-ins all around the United Kingdom at storefronts whose corporate owners have giant unpaid tax bills. Their premise is that, rather than cut important programs, the government should be getting these slackers to pay their bills.

And until that happens, they’re going to disrupt business. They shut down one of the UK’s biggest retailers at its flagship location in London on the Saturday before Christmas. Ouch.

The most fascinating thing to me about this article about UK Uncut was just how they organize, which is, of course, mostly through Twitter and Facebook. More than that, though, it’s utterly decentralized:

The old protest movements were modeled like businesses, with a CEO and a managing board. This protest movement, however, is shaped like a hive of bees, or like Twitter itself. There is no center. There is no leadership. There is just a shared determination not to be bilked, connected by tweets. … Think of it as an open-source protest, or wikiprotest. It uses Twitter as the basic software, but anyone can then mold the protest.

And by empowering the individual activists, the action goes way beyond the typical “clickivism.” People actually get out of their chairs and hit the streets.

It’s not any nonprofit that can decentralize its advocacy work the way the UK Uncut does. UK Uncut has absolutely no control over the actions of any of their protesting participants. If I were Director of Communications at a nonprofit that did advocacy work around a model like that, the idea would terrify me.

But it’s hard not to imagine that we’re moving in this direction. It was just a few years ago, after all, that nonprofits were terrified to let their audiences participate in anything known as “Web 2.0”? Anyone could comment on the blog. A few voices could make a major stink on a community site.

And although the “traditional” tools are still too important to give up, it’s also probably no longer enough to think of your campaigns as just an email or a Facebook page or a series of blog posts.

Apparently, the revolution will be tweeted. And it’s a spectacular wonder to see, just like email, my senior year of college.

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