What next?

One of my favorite TED videos is of a talk in 2010 on “how to start a movement” by Derek Sivers, which highlights the fact that movements only form because people come on board, take ownership, and bring others on board: hence, the first follower is critical for starting a movement.

This write-up in mint covers our approach when we, quite frankly, in a state of panic, began the fight for Net Neutrality in India. Started calling for help, friends called friends, people took ownership and leadership roles, and worked together to help educate people, and convince them to support a cause that is essential for the future of the Internet in India. Every time there was something to do, many people would raise their hand. There wasn’t a first follower, per se, just many leaders. The fact that many of us are entrepreneurs and friends meant that there was mutual respect in each others ability and judgment.

But before this movement began, I had the opportunity, in 2012, to meet Derek Sivers at the INK Conference, and pose a slightly more tricky question… something I had been thinking about in the aftermath of the occupy wall street movement. It’s one thing to start a movement, how does one sustain it? How do you ensure that something doesn’t fizzle out, that people don’t get tired or lose enthusiasm. Derek may not remember this, but he and I spent some 30-45 minutes discussing this, standing outside the hall where the INK talks were in progress. The answer we came to was: organization.

At that time, it was just out of intellectual curiousity, especially because I’d been observing another volunteer driven model/movement: Wikipedia. The Wikimedia foundation is a volunteer contribution dependent organization, but has a high degree of churn, with volunteers becoming inactive or leaving often. They deal with it by merely bringing new volunteers on board, but more importantly, by keeping the volunteers engaged and involved. For this, they have a core organizational structure which manages the relationship between volunteers and Wikimedia, ensuring that edits and contributions continue. Without an organization, Wikipedia wouldn’t be as vibrant. Wikipedia > Occupy Wall Street.

I write this because many of us are exhausted. Some of us spent a considerable amount of time and effort, often at the expense of our professional engagements and personal lives, to contribute to a cause that we believe is truly important. When you have the kind of impact that SaveTheInternet.in has had, those opposing it – especially those with the kind of resources that telecom operators have – tend to bide their time. They wait for the issue to die down, and then make their move. It’s taken a considerable amount of sustained effort and vigilance for us to get to where we are, and ensure that we’re there when we are needed. Some of us have gone back to work, but many of us are there when needed. All of us want to spend at least some of our time contributing to things that matter to us.

As I write this, I’m overwhelmed by the past week, which has included both challenges at MediaNama and Savetheinternet.in: any one would have been tough enough; both, mean that I’m now burnt out. It’s the same for many of us, and at times it’s as if we’re taking turns getting burnt out.

It’s also clear that a lot more has to be done, in terms of monitoring, strategising, co-ordinating, and more importantly, research and tech. Many of us are also keen on addressing other issues we care about – some of us were involved in the battle against 66A (arrest for statements on social media), Section 79 (taking down of online content) and Section 69 (secret blocking) of the IT Act, and a few of us are concerned around developments related to privacy. We do find people turning to us to raise issues of importance to Internet freedom, other than Net Neutrality: The draft encryption policy and Porn Ban are two other instances. The only way we will be able to make a meaningful contribution here is if we get organized.

When this began, I was opposed to getting organized, as in setting up an organization, as was suggested by many wellwishers: a loose collective of individuals coming together to fight a cause was ideal, because once it was over, we could all go back to our lives. It’s now fairly evident that it was never going to be that easy: this isn’t over and other battles are upon us.

We need a structure, with people working full time on these issues, supporting research being done by research organizations, and creating tech and tools to monitor and ensure that no one is messing with the Internet in India. That structure will allow some of us (including me), to work on things so that when needed, we are at least half-prepared, and don’t have to kill ourselves trying to do too much too quickly. If we don’t put that structure together, this will all die. We have a responsibility to ensure that the support we’ve gotten for supporting Internet freedom isn’t for nothing. Getting something to protect Net Neutrality itself could take a year (or dozen; hope not), and there’s no way we can last that long without a structure and an organization in place.

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  1. The most honest non profit around will be this. Born out of real need and its victory will be a massive national victory. Obviously, if you need any help I am here!

  2. Well said, Nikhil. An organisation and a structure are definitely required but what exactly should that sructure be is a critical issue too.

  3. I really like the parallel of the Wikimedia Foundation and its affiliates you have cited. Yes, having been involved with the Wikimedia movement for a long time time, I could guarantee that there is a constant need of an institutional framework to take the volunteers’ efforts to the next level. And thanks for bringing this in. I am in if you need any help.

  4. Totally agree with adding more structure to the savetheinternet movement. As Jo
    Freeman described in her classic essay “The Tyranny of Structureless” [1],
    there is nothing like structureless organization, there are just formal and
    informal structures. Informal structures are not only inefficient, its flaws
    are unseen, unknown and hard to remove. We definitely need better organization
    and structure we want to sustain the moment. One of the main reason I think EFF
    and FSF have been able to such a good work is because they are very organized.
    Maybe we should create something on their lines.

    [1]: http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm

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