April 21, 2004

Wes Boyd: Strong Vision, Big Ears

Wes Boyd told us “the MoveOn story.” It all started during Clinton’s impeachment, when Boyd started thinking… holy smokes, “the nuts are running the asylum!” He posted a simple petition, immediately got a bunch of signors, and the project grew from there.

Today, Boyd is faced with a world in which he sees that broadcast culture has taken over society and the political process. Everything is about the fight, he says—everyone watches politics, but no real people engage. It is as if the political elites are doing a performance for the rest of the world. This situation leads to cynicism, which leads to passivity, which leads to a sense that the whole political system is in effect “hollowed out.” The only people playing the game are the extremists, and the pros who represent them.

MoveOn’s top issues in 2001 were campaign finance and energy/environment. Post 9/11, international issues came to the fore (not to mention, says Boyd, issues about “fear.” In 2003, the issues that MoveOn members delineated as most important are, war and security, energy/environment, and freedom.

MoveOn’s approach, different from most other folks in Washington, is as a service business—he is not looking for a bigger soapbox, and is not interested in telling people what’s what. He sees that the real talent is outside Washington, and works to bring those resources in to the political debates. MoveOn engages in, simply enough, listening—playing the role of a leadership node takes a lot of listening. In designing their organization they have built into the system ways to remind them to listen, such as reader-rated forums which bring the most salient and resonant issues and comments to the top of the pile, where Boyd and others can “listen to” them. Trust is another essential ingredient of MoveOn.org. Boyd tells that part of listening is bringing people in to the system, and giving them enough resources that they can actually do meaningful work themselves. For example, with the “Bush in 30 Seconds” ad project, MoveOn trusted the public to create advertisements, and choose the top ad.

Boyd is particularly concerned that in today’s world, the ability to connect with people is at risk. For example, he says that“you would think that you could buy speech,” especially where increasingly, all content conduits are commercially owned. However, they found themselves unable at any price to place the winning Bush in 30 Seconds advertisement on CBS during the Superbowl, due to a dubious network policy of not showing political ads. They have run into similar troubles in placing another advertisement on MTV, and finding a place to host their “inspections work, war won’t” ad on billboards owned entirely by Viacom and Clear Channel. Many say that even as our town squares become private malls, we still have the internet. But Boyd points out that speech is threatened here too—MoveOn.org’s mailing list, for instance, runs the risk of being labeled “SPAM” if someone decides they don’t like a mass-email they receive. If all these avenues of speech are blocked, says Boyd, what will we be left with?

Posted by taraw at April 21, 2004 10:37 PM
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