I recently searched Facebook for the term "cure AIDS" and received 10 top results. I kept on clicking "see more results" until I had over one hundred groups and then stopped. The list probably goes far beyond that. Some groups, like Petition to Cure AIDS, with 88,932 members, are fairly well-established, if not necessarily effective. But most of the groups had less than twenty members. Some of these small groups are local, like Condom Sense: Petition to Cure AIDS-MSU edition, from an awareness campaign in Maryland, and Friends for a Cure - Phoenix Aids Walk 2009 from Arizona. But other groups purport snake-oil cures, like Ayurvedic Cure of Aids/HIV and FREE the chinese doctor lady who might cure AIDS!, and some are simply jokes: there are five groups demanding the cure for "squirrel AIDS." The result is a cacophany in which organizations, causes, and kooks compete with each other for supporter participation and for the attention of decision-makers.
This is the new world created by the Internet: digital technology has allowed a far greater number of nonprofits and informal citizen groups to have a public voice. Anyone can start a campaign through a blog, a website, a Facebook group, or a Twitter feed. But this ease of access means that competition for attention is fierce. It is good for every nonprofit to have their own Facebook group or Twitter feed because it allows organizations to extend their communicative reach, but every organization waving their own flag also means that nonprofits—even in the same cause area—are competing with each other for attention from both citizen supporters and lawmakers. If they joined together, they would have a greater voice and more capacity to achieve change, yet many nonprofits prefer to go it alone and improve their own standing rather than joining with others and losing some autonomy and control.
Of course, there are groups that are very good at speaking with one voice: corporate lobbying associations. In the U.S., The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America lobbies the government on behalf of more than 40 pharmaceutical companies. Of the six pharmaceutical companies that took in the most revenue selling HIV drugs in 2009 (Reuters), half are part of this one association. Their combined sales of HIV drugs alone that year were more than $3.5 billion. This combination of coordinated advocacy (lobbying), plus lots of money to spend in making their case, makes these companies powerful adversaries in debates over drug pricing, generics, and intellectual property statutes. Even if NGOs came together, they'd be in for a tough fight. The fact that they are divided makes the job of big pharma even easier.
This is not only a demand-side problem about advocates getting together to promote their causes effectively. It’s also a supply-side attention problem on the part of politicians, who are also suffering from information overload. Politicians and their staffs have a limited amount of time to respond to citizens' requests in a meaningful way. One can only assume that the barrage of emails, petitions, and the like have produced a stream that politicians are unable to deal with, and the introduction of an official petitions site from the White House (a similar site exists in the UK) supports the assertion that government is willing to listen, they just need some means of moderating requests. (Of course, these simple measures are easily gamed – the most popular petition is one supporting marijuana legalization). In this context, it is understandable that politicians listen to the loudest (and richest) voices.
In their 2010 book, The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change, Beth Kanter and Allison Fine describe how social media can be used to create porous and sponge-like organizations that easily share and receive resources from other organizations, rather than fortresses who cut others off from their resources, but are also cut off from the resources of others. Among the twelve steps they list in their book are incorporating supporter and partner decisions in decision-making, so resources are shared in single strong campaigns, not multiple weak ones, and being transparent so organizations (and free agents) in the same field can be mutually aware of each other's work.
However, these changes won't occur until nonprofits see that coordinated action is necessary. This means acknowledging that using social media to build their own supporter base—and guarding it jealously—means giving their better organized opponents the upper hand. The Internet can help civil society come together to demand change, but it only works if organizations work with a collaborative vision and use the network to its full potential.
Note: An earlier version of this post was published by The Meta-Activism Project.