Do people just not do stuff anymore? The problems of organizing in a digital post-COVID world.
This weekend I attended a lovely event run by a group of veteran Montréal organizers. The issues on the docket were crucial: housing affordability, climate change, democracy. The room was pretty full too: a solid 50+ people were spending their Saturday discussing the future of Montréal—and how it might become a more citizen-led, just, and habitable city.
I didn’t notice very many young people though. Most of the people who attended were some variety of professional organizer/researcher. Hell, that’s why I was there. In some ways it was a forceful turnout, and in other ways it underscored a thought that I’ve been mulling over in my head this past year:
Do people just not do stuff anymore?
I struck up this conversation with a bunch of the organizers in the room—and they echoed the feeling. It’s just so much harder to get people off of their couch and into a community space.
Even digital campaigns are harder to run than ever. Yeah, we’ve achieved some of our most impressive results in the past 12 months—but asking someone to donate, sign a petition, or take a quiz is quite different than asking them to show up for several hours. Honestly, my eyes glaze over whenever I get invited to a Zoom event. The link between my inbox and my presence has never been weaker.
So, why is this? In the conversations I had, there were a few ideas.
- Our job is draining and we’re tired. Over-educated urban elites are working more than ever. COVID, the affordability crisis, and the ethic of capitalism has made that worse. We’re working a ton and people simply don’t have enough energy to show up as a citizen. Your Zoom meeting about climate finance on a Tuesday evening is not relaxing to me—it just feels like more work. This leads me to my next point.
- Work has subsumed our identity, and our time. The era and ethic of community organizing is bygone. Gone are the days of bowling clubs, regular church attendance, and citizen’s committee meetings. Hustle-culture has reduced us to two roles in society: producer and consumer. As a producer, you’re working 50–60 hours a week. As a consumer, Netflix, TikTok, and whatever brand sells face-masks is competing for all of your free time. Cultures of over-work are squeezing your identity as a citizen and community-member out of existence. Let’s be clear: this wasn’t always the case.
- Entrepreneurship has subsumed community leadership. Great community organizing takes great leadership. I know that’s not in vogue to say—but I think it’s true. On my street growing up we used to always have this street party every June. It was sick. Why? Because a couple on the street, who were professional organizers their whole lives, took it upon themselves to get sh*t going on the street party front. The thing is, that voluntary leadership has not disappeared—it’s just moved. I was in New York the other day, and I saw an ad for a CRM on the subway. Shopify, Monday.com, Asana—all advertising with billboards and street signs with the words: Your Business somewhere in the copy. You know what that means? Some market research firm told the brand team at these business software providers that enough people want to be entrepreneurs in this world that it makes sense to sell to them in the same way l’Oreal would sell to someone who wants to have clean hair. Everyone has an organization, or a side hustle, or a business. All of that leadership—which could have gone into organizing communities—is now going into the rat race. Volunteering their leadership potential to the market, not society.
There’s a ton more to this. I’m doing more and more research into it—and, as you can imagine, the complexities are endless and would need at least a book to explain.
But, I am coming away with something:
Maybe the offering needs to change? Maybe we need to build more fun, friendship, and culture into all of this. This year, I got 2000+ people to take a quiz within a month and 200+ people to fill a concert venue to capacity. Why? Because it was fun.
My hunch is: people still want do stuff, they just don’t want to do more work. Why are we expecting people to see work as a fun entry point into the community? I feel like we need to get people to really like spending time with each other first—and then get to the hard stuff.
But, that’s a broad prescription and it’s going to take a lot of trial and error. So, here we go.