Organizing mass forums

2007-01-08 13-minute read

It’s been a few months since the US Social Forum - a few months that I’ve spent reflecting on how things went and what I would like to see happen differently in the future.

With the US Social Forum pulling in 10,000 people and world social forums bringing in hundreds of thousands of people, we are experiencing an organizing effort unparalleled on the left in history. An important enabler of this phenomenon is the Internet, which has been both critical and under-utilized. In particular, the Internet provides opportunities to inject decentralization, freedom and transparency in our organizing strategy - yet these opportunities have only been minimally tapped.

Below are few general ideas followed by a few very specific proposals for how to organize a future gathering that might more effectively use the Internet to its fullest democratic potential .

General thoughts

  • No technology teams - the first mistake we can make when organizing a mass forum is to create a technology team. Most technology teams are formed with the best intentions: either technologists wanting to band together and support the organizing effort or non-technology organizers recognizing the value of technology and moving to create a space for that work to be done. The effect, however, is the same: all other organizing efforts become divorced from technology. Outreach and communications teams are formed without anyone with web development expertise, fundraising teams are formed without any database designers, logistics teams are formed without anyone who can setup a computer network. Meanwhile, a group of technologists work together to meet these needs without knowing what the needs actually are. Forming technology teams is akin to forming an “organizing” team rather than recognizing that every team is an organizing team.

  • Distribute technology - If one organization or one team is handling the outreach, communications, and fundraising, it would be considered bad organizing. The power of any organizing process is to involve a broad group of people. Technology is no different. And, technology lends itself to being distributed. If we think of technology not as an abstract thing that someone just has to do, but instead as an integral part of every team doing work, it becomes easier to see how it can be distributed. There is no reason why technology services like email, mailing lists, web sites, domain name service and others cannot be provided by a collection of organizations and individuals; and there’s no reason why these services cannot be run by the committees relying most heavily on them.

  • Organize, don’t contract - many efforts at organizing mass forums contract out the technology work to an individual or a consulting firm. This is true whether that individual or firm is being paid or doing the work pro bono (the exchange of money is not the problem - it is the contractual relationship that is problematic). This approach could be applied to any aspect of the organizing effort: outreach, fundraising, communications, etc. But we don’t do that because the act of organizing these teams builds the forum itself. Why should technology be different? Is it because technology is considered more important than these other tasks? Or because it is considered less important? A successful organizing effort should consider all labor to be an opportunity for organizing. No task should be turned over to a consulting firm, particularly a task that is integral to the organizing effort.

  • Transparency - everything that is done on the Internet can be documented fully on the Internet. Most of it is not documented because people don't realize that it's possible. For example, any email list archive can be made public with the click of a mouse. Most forms of Internet communication, whether it is email or web based, can be done in a way that creates a trail of replies accessible via the Internet.

    All of these general ideas lead to the same place: we should place the technology used to drive organizing efforts (and the technologists to build it) with the teams that need it.

    And, to take this one step further, teams should form around the technologies that will drive them, not think of technology as something to add on. If we consider how mass organizing takes place - almost every organizing activity happens either entirely via the Internet (direct email, web site publishing, databases, voip phone calls) or indirectly related to the Internet (posters downloaded and printed, phone lists downloaded and called, etc.). If we try to plan our stratey first and then figure out how technology can support it we are putting the cart before the horse.

    A Model for organizing

    This organizing strategy thinks first about the Internet and the technology we use to organize, and forms teams around that infrastructure. It also strives above all to achieve:

    • Transparency: every piece of communication and decision should be publicly available for review (and reconsideration)
  • Flat hierarchy - it's impossible to achieve a purely flat hierarchy, however, all efforts should be made to flatten the power structure and where that is not feasible, clearly define where the power lies.

    There are two types of teams: primary and secondary. The names simply mean that the primary teams must be formed first because the secondary teams will rely on them. It doesn’t mean that primary teams are more essential or important - only a question of timing.

    For the purposes of this document, I’m going to use the domain “” as the example Internet address.

    Primary teams

    Identity team

    The identity team is responsible for ensuring that everyone who wants to participate in the forum can get a username and a means for asserting ownership of that username (for example, with a password). In addition, this team is responsible for recording the minimum amount of private information being collected for all participants (like email address, first name, last name, etc). The identity team helps users with problems like resetting passwords, locating forgotten usernames, etc. The identity team is also in charge of writing and maintaining a privacy policy for the entire forum organizing effort.

    The identity team is in charge of the server: This server allows anyone to register their username. In addition, it handles all authentication requests for every other server being used. In other words, you only get one username and password here. Then, when you submit a workshop proposal, or create a blog, or register for the forum itself, you always enter this username and password and you’re unique identity is recorded in all places.

    Backup team

    The backup team is a mostly technical team in charge of maintaining backups of all data and applications in use. By having an independent backup team, if another team falls down on their job and their technical tasks need to be re-assigned, all necessary data is available to make that re-assignment. In other words, no team can use their access of data or technology to hold the organizing effort hostage.

    The backup team would maintain two servers: (for data) and (for custom programming code written for the event).

    Communications and Collaboration team

    The Communications and Collaboration team is one of the most critical teams in the organization effort. It’s primary role is to act as the “glue” team - responsible for ensuring that all teams are communicating effectively with each other and collaborating.

    Some of the responsibilities of the communications and collabration team include: scheduling regular report back and questions sessions between teams, following the progress of all teams and acting as liaisons where necessary, maintaining an issue tracking web site ( where anyone can post a question, problem, complaint (ranging from “What should I wear at the forum?” to “The web site is broken” and other technical requests), and ensuring that teams are receiving and responding to these requests in a timely manner.

    This team’s additional technical responsibilities include maintaining and creating email lists for organizers (, maintaining a chat system (, and any other form of communications needed by the organizing effort (VOIP phone, SMS, etc.)

    Translation team

    This team is responsible for translation, both for Internet applications and for the event itself. This team is responsible for, which will act as a central translation server for all the other servers. In other words, all participating servers should be using a standard set of libraries that share strings to be translated across the network with this central server, allowing the translation team to focus on one database of strings to translate.

    Server assignment team

    This team is responsible for assigning computers to the various web addresses in use. In other words, they control what computer responds to,, etc. Rather than share this power with a lot of people (which would create security concerns), the team keeps tight control but only makes changes based on requests to They remain responsible for making fair decisions based on feedback posted to This team is also responsible for writing a policy on how such decisions are made.

    Domain team

    This team is responsible for the domain used for the organizing effort. The Domain team controls which name server is the authority for, and thus can take away the power of the server assignment team. This team is the ultimate authority of the entire process, since, by changing authoritative name servers, this team can effectively hijack the entire process. This is the only team without appeal.

    Secondary teams

    Secondary teams will form based on the details of the event itself. However, common teams will include:

    Registration Team

    The registration team is responsible for collecting registration fees from participants, distributing information about programming and other notices about the forum itself, and processing registrants as they arrive. The registration team is responsible for maintaining

    Logistics team

    The logistics team is responsible for securing space and resources in the city where the event is taking place. These responsibilities include identifying and negotiating spaces available for workshops (and publishing them at in both human-readable and machine-readable formats), setting up housing and ride sharing systems, as well as securing Internet access where needed and public access computer terminals.

    Programming team

    The programming team is responsible for soliciting workshop proposals, encouraging collaboration between groups suggesting similar proposals, rejecting spam and other submissions not within the broad guidelines and maintaining in a way the makes public all submissions and the decisions taken on each one. The team is responsible for publishing this information both in an easy to ready and search format for humans as well as a machine-readable format (such as RSS) on

    Scheduling Team

    The scheduling team is in charge of matching available spaces (secured by the Logistics team) with the submitted workshop proposals (from the programming team). This team is responsible for publicizing the workshop schedule in a variety of human and machine-readable formats (

    Outreach Team

    This team is in charge of getting the word out about the forum to everyone who may participate in it (participation does not necessarily mean attend). This team is also responsible for language and materials used in the organizing of the forum. The communications and outreach team is responsible for and, among other potential sites.

    Fundraising Team

    Fundraising is responsible for the grant writing and solicitation of individual donations. Responsibilities include providing easy to use donation forms and maintaining records at

    Accounting Team

    Accounting, like technology, should not be considered a “non organizing” activity. Accounting is particularly important task to be done consistently with the politics of the event: transparency is critical when it comes to managing the money. This team is in charge of - a site publishing all transactions made for the forum.

    Volunteer Team

    Volunteer recruitment and assigning volunteers to teams is the responsibility of the volunteer team. This team will need to maintain a database for registering and assigning volunteers at

    Other teams

    Not every event may organize these teams and may organize completely different teams - the list above is only a starting point intended to demonstrate the combination of technology and organizing needed to accomplish the work.

    Requirements for hosting a server

    Participation in any team would be similar to participation in any type of organizing committee: anyone who wants to contribute to the effort is welcome.

    However, individuals or organizations that would like to host parts of the technology would need to follow several guidelines before being assigned a server:

    • Use of free software. This requirement is necessary to ensure that no organization can hijack the technology by creating a reliance on software that cannot be easily replicated. By using all free software we reduce our reliance on any single technology provider. Exceptions can be made (provided they are discussed on - this is not intended to be a point of inflexibility - instead it is intended as a measure of security and freedom.

    • All data and custom code must be backed up to the project backup servers (for similar reasons as those stated in the free software guideline). By using free software and backing up all data, any service can be easily recreated on any server.

    • Participation in the communication channels. By offering a service for the organizing effort, the organization or individual is agreeing to be responsive to any inquiries related to that service posted to and to participate in regular meetings.

  • Use the agreed upon authentication system that utilizes the central identity team's server. This requirement is crucial - to ensure that we can identity the same user login on every server.


    Where does power lie in this setup?

    The first place it resides is with everyone who gets an identity and posts to any of the web sites or systems allowing comments. In particular, the site is where decision are made. People who take the time to read and post on that site will have a greater influence on the direction of the forum organizing. People who are uncomfortable or un-knowledgeable about using these types of technologies will be left behind. It’s the responsibility of all participants to help everyone who wants to participate learn to navigate the online tools to enable their full participation.

    The second place is with the teams themselves. There are no hard and fast rules about how decision making happens in these teams - however, it is within these teams that important decisions about both the organizing and the technology are to be made.

    The third place is with the technology groups and individuals who maintain the servers. While they have the responsibility to make decisions in accordance with their teams, they have the power to make unilateral decisions about the direction of the technology that have the potential for making an huge impact on the forum (for example, they could remove posts, delete email lists, etc.).

    The fourth place is with the server assignment team. This team is governed by the comments at, however, they hold the responsibility to translate the comments at into a decision to take services away from technology groups and individuals who are deemed to not be following the will of the participants posting on

    The fifth and final position of power is the domain team. This teams has the power to unseat the server assignment team by directing the domain name itself to a different team. The domain team is the final arbiter.

    Although this is far from a flattened hierarchy, it has the advantaged of:

    • Having a clear line of power
  • Having a mechanism to make public all decisions and allow feedback and review of all decisions.

    Next Steps

    As a technology-driven approach, this proposal will require non-technologists to work hard to keep on top of the tools being used. However, it will require technologists to do something that may be even more difficult: step up as organizers and leaders. Far too many technologists covet the role of behind-the-scenes mechanic - avoiding the messiness, unpredictability and emotionality of organizing. However, if we are to make the next step in global organizing, we’ll need to develop a new generation of leaders with both technology and organizing skills.