If We Can't Sing Together (Online), How Can We Organize?

Contributor: Ned Howey

Our current online reality is more of a threat to a world of positive civic engagement than an opportunity. Here is how we can go forward.


If we could show people from 50 years ago what we can do online today, they would be beyond astounded. Connected as we are to thousands of friends across the planet at any moment, able to make video calls from a small box that you carry in your pocket, equipped with  unlimited sources of information, what once was the stuff of science fiction is now a reality. I argue here, however, that for civics, we still have a long way to go; our current online world doesn’t allow for real political organizing - with the fundamentally deep connections required missing from the equation online - and, perhaps, the current online reality is more of a threat to a world of positive civic engagement than an opportunity. Considering there is no going back, I also share what I think is the way forward.

We Can't Even Sign Together

At this point in the post-pandemic years, we should all have an honorary master's in Zoom mishaps. “You’re on mute!” has become the biggest time suck in every virtual meeting since, well… ever - and that’s assuming you manage not to waste the first 10 minutes of any meeting with technical issues. My past few years have been filled with such unintended mishaps as the training session I led about moving beyond one-way communication - held on a new virtual conference platform, where, ironically, I couldn’t move beyond one-way communication due to the break-out rooms feature not working. But there is one online disaster I like to perform intentionally just to show groups how limiting digital is: I ask participants to sing together online.

I recommend you try this. It's truly terrible.

It’s so terrible it serves as a great reminder of how limited we are in our technologies today.

The issue comes from the fact that the ability to sing on time together is impaired entirely by lag in the connection time between the sounds we emit from our own voices and the sound of the others. The appearance of being together synchronously online truly is merely an illusion, that, when pushed to any small degree, fails miserably. One has to ask: what other subtle sensations of connection are we missing in these illusory online connections? And what implications does this have for our world of political organizing?  

Singing might not be the most cutting-edge tactic peddled by political consultants and professional organizers these days, but I actually suspect its role as a source for our most important people-based movements might be easily overlooked. (Full disclosure: as a player of two rare instruments - the bassoon and the bandoneon - I may be slightly biased). But permit me to illustrate my point by going a bit further down the rabbit hole.

The Stonewall Riots: The role of Singing in Sparking a Movement

Let’s take for example the movement that has probably most impacted my own life: the LBGTQI liberation movement, almost mythically sparked in June of 1969 when Marsha P. Johnson, a trans, Black woman, threw a shot glass at a mirror in the torched bar during a police raid, screaming “I got my civil rights!” (Note, there were earlier political protests and actions by trans and queer people, and the role of Johnson is questioned by some historians still, other accounts claim the object thrown was a brick at a police officer). The shot glass (or brick) might have been the spark, but the fire that burned immediately - the real start of the movement and why it didn’t end with one brick and a bad rap at the police headquarters -  was the choice of other individuals present to stand behind her and face off against the oppressive police. Even more important: days of protests that followed on the site - individuals who were willing to stand up both to say they had had enough and were ready to stand together. What elements gave them the power to stand together? Why didn’t Stonewall happen at the pub in the years prior? It certainly wasn’t for lack of police raids, nor lack of discrimination. 

One has to wonder what those other factors were that made this moment provide the context for such individual bravery - and even more important, group bravery. What were the ingredients that produced this vital mix to turn a moment into a movement - and one that has led to millions of individuals - including myself - around the world enjoying or fighting to enjoy rights as LBGTQI individuals. Certainly the changing tide of cultural acceptability had a factor. The example of bravery from the civil rights movement and the gains heroically won by the Black community in the decade prior. The anti-war movement happening at the time must have helped our community see its power potential. But I suspect in this specific case, there might have been something even deeper underlying it all that many do not credit: the death of a diva. 

A lesser known fact about the Stonewall ‘riot’ was that it happened the week following the death of Judy Garland. Garland, since her childhood fame in the Wizard of Oz, had been a hit with the queer community of the time - something akin to what Madonna was in the 80s or Lady Gaga these days. Beyond Garland’s talent, her deeply symbolic role in the Wizard of Oz which could be read for its ability to overcome the adversity of a dark unforgiving world, and her personal struggles with substance use and alcohol, was deep in the hearts of queer folks everywhere in the 60s. In fact, Garland was such a hit that a common euphemism of the time (and decades later still) for ‘gay’ was “a friend of Judy’s”. One can imagine she was the top pick on the jukebox (yes, I’m old enough to remember the jukebox) at any underground queer bar. If I know anything about gay bars (and in fact, I know quite a bit, all in the service of research for this blog post of course), its that one thing we queers can be found to be doing, is singing at the top of our lungs when our favorite diva comes on. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think of all the singing to Judy that happened between those walls at Stonewall. 

I would posit that each song of Judy Garland sung together in the basement bar at the Stonewall Inn had its special role in building (hidden) power for the community in the lead up the spark that lit our movement. Singing along to the music of our chosen diva transcends the simple silly pleasure of a song sing-along. It generates something much deeper in the human heart: a shared sense of belonging; a moment of unison and togetherness, a communal victory in finding joy over a world of rejection and hate. Maybe Stonewall was the spark of the movement. But the seeds of the community which was able to launch that fight, and, most importantly, feel the power to stand together in the face of a far more powerful and violent force, were likely sewn in the synchronous syllables and melodic lyrics shared by drunk bar patrons. 

For those of you who think of political organizing, and only think of boring strategy meetings or power-hungry union bosses hashing it out, or the moments walking in circles on a factory strike picket line, I have news for you: The 1960’s gays getting giddy and sharing in song at their diva Judy is as much if not more what political organizing is about - it’s building a bond between people whose voices have otherwise been muffled, strengthening trust between individuals in communities hidden, marginalized and abused. It's fundamentally the power to connect and create commitment between uninvolved individuals awaiting transformation to activists once they feel deeper levels of commitment to the communal outcome of standing together more than any personal benefit or temporary relief from pain imposed by an oppressing force. Would the Stonewall riots - or a similar new modern day movement - happen today with the means of connection we have available? Honestly, I have my doubts. 

Is Singing All That Important? What Makes Organizing Powerful?

Singing has played a key role across foundational institutions that formed social movements from unions, protest songs, revolution songs, the ‘Marcha Peronista’ in Argentina, church songs (which later served as the factor that strengthened communities to stand together politically), songs from the civil rights era, etc.. There is a reason religions around the world use song as a central part of their religious gatherings (most of our music in the Western tradition still emerges from this space, from orchestrals roots in church music to the later emergence of blues, jazz, and subsequently rock which found much inspiration from the gospel choir.)  These songs and hymns were part of a foundation that built and bound the bonds of communities that then have risen up, music has had a key role in developing the relationships that stand as a back-bone of strength for those who then stand together in collective action

Can social change happen without song? Presumably yes. We wouldn’t want to imply that those deaf and hard of hearing would not be able to participate in social action just because they can’t hear, can’t sign, etc. - in reality, disabled communities - and plenty of other communities that don’t involve music have done incredible organizing.  

Is singing really necessary to organize then? Can those without a sense of pitch (myself included) make major contributions to political change still? Absolutely. Singing is just one example of forms of connection which are essential to form the base of organizing. This is definitely not to say that there aren’t other ways to create trust, commitment, belonging and all the other key components to communities ready to stand together. But the overall absence of these deeper ways of connecting in our newer forms of communicating (and organizing) due to technical challenges of our online connections should cause for concern. 

Collective action is not just a set of individuals taking an action, even together. This collective action has exponential strength because people are willing to stand together in a way that is strong - and usually requires some degree of personal (and community) decision to take less as individuals for a better group outcome. When we at Tectonica sought to tease out what actual factors make organizing more powerful than mobilizing, we stumbled upon the creation of our metaphorical organizing equation - our attempt to explain the unique way power functions within organizing.

In short, our online methods make mobilizing in some form more easy, but the underlying connections that are required for deep organizing are somewhat missing. 

Connection Is The Key

So this article is not really about music at all. It's about the myriad ways in which deep connection happens between people and throughout communities. As I wrote in, “People don’t become activists because of a cause. (And that gives me hope)”, the cause itself is not what actually makes movements. It's the connection between people over a shared passion for a cause that is the real driving force. 

Music is a broader metaphor for the other elements missing in our modern means of connecting. Despite our many seeming miracles of the Internet, we’ve also watched deeper opportunities to organize recede with each passing year. Years of connecting through Zoom was no match for the feeling of togetherness I recently experienced at a political council meeting with political representatives dancing to “Gimme Gimme Gimme” by Abba. 

And it's not just for sympathy of choirs who passed the lockdown unable to rehearse that I mourn the limitations of our online world. My point here is literally about the role of music in social change, but, more importantly, the broader institutions we’ve seen decay over the last half-century. Our standards we built around civics too have decayed seemingly beyond repair. Journalistic standards have little meaning in a world of a million voices being our only messengers, and fake news has nine times the organic reach of real news. We certainly can’t rely on any degree of regulation, ‘self-regulation’, or societal change to fix the issue. These mediums were not designed for civics - even as an afterthought. Their core design was to sell us sh*t. What will keep our eyes on ads for shoes inherently runs counter to the underlying elements that make good democracies. 

Fake news, however, isn’t just a problem because of the algorithms of these social media giants, their unwillingness to properly regulate their systems from hate and lies, or the lag in the development of standards and how we implement them in a form of distributed information sourcing. The ground beneath us has moved. The underlying change is caused by the evaporation of our deeper institutions of connections over the past decades. The result is we are stuck with societies that foster community distrust - and hamper the important equalizing civic role of organizing. 

Fifty years ago I might be making connections at the union dance hall on a Friday night. Our online world has led us to cede a space of deeper connection which has imperiled our connections of trust, our center of movement organizing and ability to stand together to challenge unjust power differentials. Our online way of connecting is in reality very shallow (we can’t even sing together!) and has met our needs for an instant gratification of fake feeling of connection, while decaying the underlying institutions that provide real connection - our fundamental basis of civics. Democracies across the world are feeling the pain for it. 


What Do We Do About It?

Let’s all just move to a giant farm and live our lives from the earth. Just kidding. It ain’t gonna happen. And even if we did, it wouldn’t sustain the entire world doing the same. While many efforts to remove ourselves from the means of communication that exist now have been launched and attempts at regulation to reign in the madness continue, little has made a dent in the reality of the way we work together now. In short, there is no going back. 

This leaves us a question: how can we go forward? Getting out of this mess is about seeing the potential and the future, while recognizing the reality of the now. So what exactly do we do? 

In some ways the entirety of the work we do at Tectonica is dedicated specifically to this: How do we fight for progressive power within the realities of our times? From our specific solutions for individual clients to the greater explorations in TON, to efforts like the Report on the State of Digital Organising in Europe, this is very much at the center of the problem we are trying to solve. 

Here are a few overarching ideas we have about how we can approach this problem: 

1. Recognize the limitations of digital: While we need to go forward with new solutions, and there are many advantages to digital in our progressive movement-building work, we need to start by recognizing the limitations that exist. We can’t expect to approach organizing online as digital marketing and expect to build underlying power. Digital ads might serve to engage and build lists, but digital ads alone won’t sway minds and communities without deeper work. 

2. Move from a mindset of “digital organizing” to “tech that supports organizing”: The reality is that we no longer live in a world where the online/offline paradigm is super relevant. Little real world organizing happens these days without an online component. And, quite frankly, digital-only campaigning has severe limitations, as we’ve explored pretty deeply. Rather than thinking of a silo of digital work without relationships to the offline world, we think there needs to be a shift to thinking of “tech that supports organizing,” whether that is in person or not. Events - online or offline, for example, are most successful if an easy online sign up exists, the attendance is tracked with a CRM, and a series of reminder communications are scheduled to be sent prior to the event (as well as follow up segmented by who attended and who didn’t). It’s even better if the event itself can be made hybrid, being live streamed and making use of relational organizing tech for recruiting attendees, decentralized organizing tech for creating the event to begin with, decision-making platforms to compliment sessions, QR codes on printed material for easy online sign up, or any number of other ways to augment and go deeper with tech. In fact, several Tectonica clients have just had their first “in person” events following the pandemic with great success - in part acknowledging they brought in digital components they hadn’t considered prior to the pandemic years. 

It’s also important to note that tech can help us organize and remove friction from the experience offered to engage activists. 

CRMs, political or commercial, have great possibilities to help us in the tracking, development, and sharing of relationships across an organization or organizations. As relationships are the fundamental building blocks of movements, CRM’s can play a powerful role when used correctly to manage and develop relationships, rather than just a data source to measure resources and communication reach.

3. Push the tech we have to the next level: While the playing field of digital isn’t level for those doing progressive work and the tools we have available are somewhat limiting, we can still be conscious of the way we use these tools to push them in the right direction when doing political campaigning. Some core suggestions around this: 

  • Be focussed on connections between people. This is ideally not just between the organizing entity and the people, but between people. Tools that have decentralized focus and relational organizing base can make this easier.  
  • Connect systems that are out there. While most tech claiming to be digital organizing tools are actually digital mobilizing tools, community management that allows more free communication and connection between supporters and activists can be integrated into the tools we have. Connecting something like Loomio, Hivebrite, or even Slack with a CRM system can be a powerful combo if set up correctly.  
  • Rather than just building lists of people, we can be conscious of the way we move people into higher roles, develop identity, and, most importantly, improve the capacity of supporters and activists to build power. You can use smart segmentation and automations within CRMs to move people from low-bar forms of engagement to higher commitment ones. 
  • We should use tools consciously around the networks and relationships that are both existing and that we have the opportunity to create. Not just speaking of social networks here - we should look at natural networks that exist, particularly ones outside of political organizing. 
  • In order to create a holistic campaigning approach that blends communications, mobilizing, and organizing, we should be conscious of how much of our online interventions (and resources dedicated to those interventions) fit in each of these categories. The Five Part Framework can help identify where our practice might have gaps that need to be addressed in our strategic approach. 

4. Push political tech to do better: As users of political (and non-political) tech, we have the possibility to also have a dialogue with those developing it. We can use our voice to push the tech to do more and do better. While the response might be slow, helping frame the importance of fundamental values of organizing and the importance of connection with the tech products we consume is essential. 

5. If you measure it, they will come: While organizing metrics can be more complex (as we showed in the Organizing Equation), our mindset about the work is often crafted by how we measure or plan to measure our progress. It is key to go beyond the vanity metrics of resources and look deeply at the different types of power that can be built through organizing. (For a look at the different types of power an organization can build, I highly recommend “Prisms of the People: Power & Organizing in 21st Century America”). Ultimately I think there is also great hope for AI to help us understand the far more complicated relationships between variables in organizing to get a better sense for how organizing can be most powerful. 

6. Be careful to not run around putting out fires as the ground beneath us shifts: We seem to be dealing with a lot of the crisis emerging from our shifting world. While we must always be attentive to keeping our work centered in the ways it most closely impacts people’s lives, we must not lose sight of the underlying issues creating many of these problems and realize that just as our world got into this mess, we have the power as organizers, activists, people, and societies, to get us out of it. 

7. Go out and sing. And dance. And dream. And use our imaginations. Our digital world might limit us, but our human creativity never will. 


Follow TON for more as we develop more solutions. And of course, tell us how you are addressing the issues and innovating to go deeper in our modern online world.