by Mallory Knodel
Organizing for the second United States Social Forum (USSF) is increasing in intensity as the forum – to be held at Cobo Hall and Hart Plaza in Detroit, June 22 – 26, 2010 – approaches. Deep debate broke out among its organizers over the political paradox of corporate social networking and its role in progressive organizing. Should there be a link to corporate, social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook on the USSF website’s homepage?
The USSF is a grassroots movement in the tradition of the World Social Forum (WSF) and was conceived in the throes of the international anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s. The first WSF gathering was held in Brazil in 2001 and quickly became an activist’s utopia: maintaining open space for democratic convergence to address global crisis in the face of late-stage capitalism. Its slogan “Another World is Possible” highlighted the social forum movement’s emphasis on creating alternatives to capitalism. The history of the WSF and other forum events are not without controversy. The most common criticism aimed at dominant NGOs (non-governmental organizations) involving accusations that non-profit participation precludes a fully democratic process. The WSF model spread across the globe taking on many local and thematic forms and gathering hundreds of thousands of participants each year to address issues of human rights, poverty, land reform, identity politics, and alternative systems of resource sharing and collaboration. Many activists still maintain that the social forum is not so much a movement as it is a place of convergence, a completely free and unrestricted open space. As the open space model has developed, it has incorporated examples of “open virtual space,” such as the “Expanded Format” of the Belem WSF in 2009, where self-organized activities were held via video/audio conferencing and internet chat.
It is no coincidence that the WSF gathered global activists for the largest social movement convergence around the time that user-driven internet activity rose steeply. The WSF is a progressive, borderless, mass movement. The internet is a space that shares these traits. The viral, organic successes of both have much to do with “Free/Libre” and “open source” software such as email, network/server operating systems, and website platforms. The fates of both as democratic and open spaces are also intertwined. Groups like May First/People Link, the Progressive Technology Project, and Center for Media Justice are leaders in USSF working groups such as the Information, Communication, and Technology working group.
The parallel and potentially complementary relationship between the Internet and social forums explains the current debate within the USSF process: Can corporate sites such as Facebook and Twitter be used in conjunction with an anti-corporate approach to organizing a mass movement’s response to globalization and the failure of capitalism? In the “digital age” is it possible to organize a grassroots movement without incorporating online networks that are comprised of hundreds of thousands of individuals? One side of the debate addresses the obvious goal of outreach. The US Social Forum seeks to maximize participation among those most affected by the failures of capitalism and to foster resource sharing and networking for building sustainable alternative systems. The USSF makes no demands on its participants; the space is fully open to all possibilities. Adrienne Brown, the National co-coordinator, said of reaching out to Facebook and Twitter users online, “…let’s see how many people we can liberate during this process, while allowing them to be part of the process in the ways that acknowledge where they’re at.” The other poll seeks to uphold the USSF’s technology principles, collaboratively formed and approved by the official organizers one year ago. These principles include a commitment to ”Free/Libre” and “open source” tools. The techies maintain that advertising Facebook and Twitter is logical folly. Alfredo Lopez, co-chair of the USSF’s Information, Communication, and Technology working group, offered a strategic critique of the use of corporate social networking sites stating that, “[www.ussf2010.org] is where we’re organizing. Here is where the information is. Here is the leadership of USSF communicating with people. Here is the social networking group formats we want to support, the ones we have created or are creating on the organize site. “More than 50 responses from official organizers and bystanders were posted to the poll which began as a “support request” on the ICT’s technical support site. Organizers continued the debate on open conference calls to determine how best to reconcile the work done by outreach organizers using online networks with the political integrity of the social forum’s anti-corporate roots while maintaining harmony within the organizing process itself.
Surely a parallel can be drawn between the “open space” of the forum and the online space. The former seeks in part to address land and resource redistribution and the latter, although widely perceived as “liberated,” is becoming increasingly restricted as corporate control of infrastructure and the centralization of user data becomes more pervasive. Countless non-profits and non-governmental organizations use websites such as Facebook and Twitter to connect to hundreds of millions of people. Across the globe in 2010, humanity’s progressive revolutionaries are upgrading to Social Movement 2.0. However, what is particularly disturbing is the continued disregard for an anti-corporate stance when it comes to engaging the Internet.
I would analogize the use of corporate sites for their mass appeal to the function of the shopping mall for the same purposes in previous decades. A friend once said; “In the 80s you’d organize at the mall because that’s where the people were. But we didn’t go to the mall and organize people to start building a new wing. And we didn’t leave our shit there overnight, either.” They also didn’t go out into the larger community and organize people to go and increase their shopping at the mall. Yet, by using these online resources and gathering sites we strengthen their power, which only exists in their ability to expand and centralize user content.
Regardless of the outcome, organizers embroiled in the debate recognize that addressing the issue of social forums utilization of internet social networking sites and “Free/Libre” resources is itself historic. With viewpoints shared in such an open and direct way, the 20,000 plus expected participants in the upcoming US Social Forum can be assured that their humble organizers have done all they can to address the varying views of the progressive movement as they organize tirelessly to create both physical space this summer in Detroit and an online platform for ongoing collaboration and network-building. ▢
Other major areas of growth continue as the USSF event is planned for June 22-26, 2010 in Detroit, Michigan. To learn more about the US Social Forum, visit www.ussf2010.org.
Mallory is an activist in New York City. A leader of May First/People Link, she facilitates technology use by movement organizations in their struggles for social change. She is also the National Technology Coordinator of the US Social Forum, an upcoming international convergence of grassroots groups in June 2010.