3 min read
Tue 17 Mar 2020 Writing

Organising Online - Thinking About Chat

Making the shift to organising online in the light of COVID-19

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, spaces are closing, events are being cancelled and businesses are transitioning to remote work where they can.

Shifting organising to online

This transition is going to have a dramatic effect on both political and community organising. We will not be able to hold meetings and events, let alone lobbies or protests for quite a while.

In order to adapt to these rapid changes, it's important to start thinking about online spaces as real spaces where organising happens.

We know many organisers already understand this, but everyone needs to think through the full implications of this. Those with more experience need to help those with less.

Understanding why organisers often prefer in person interactions

This requires a shift in perspective. We really appreciate this can be quite jarring. Community and political organisers we've worked with are very good at operating in real spaces. But they are often rightly skeptical of how they can work in digital spaces.

Often organisers distrust digital tools because of the distancing effects they have and the difficulties that this causes. Physical interactions build empathy and solidarity. In time these can build trust which begins to build power for communities and groups.

Physical interaction can take the heat out of a tense discussion, in contrast to one conducted only over text on something like Facebook. People who have been arguing online for months can become allies and even friends through a few in person encounters. For some groups there are security and safety implications of working online.

But moving online doesn't mean that organisers have to re-learn skills that they are very good at already. A change in thinking is needed.

Look for group dynamics in online spaces like you would in physical spaces

Organisers now need to treat entering a WhatsApp group or jumping into a new Slack as if you were reading a room when organising in physical space.

You need to note who is speaking, who is not speaking, who needs encouragement, who needs support and most importantly, what power dynamics are operating.

Don't think of it as jumping into a new chat, think of it as an organiser entering a new room for a new meeting.

Learn how different online spaces are structured

You also also need also to be conscious of how the online space is ordered. This sounds very strange. But different tools for interacting have different features, different styles, different capabilities.

Understanding the differences is a really important for organisers so they are able to choose the right tool for the job. Organisers are very good at doing this: understanding what is appropriate and inappropriate in a given situation, in terms of facilitation techniques, tactics or methods.

This good judgement can be applied to technical choices as well with a little learning.

We are commited to writing guidance to help you

Over the next few weeks we'll be putting out some suggestions and guidance on how to organise online that we've drawn from our own experience.

The first is to consider how to make chat work for your organising. We are going to concentrate on the situation in the United Kingdom, which is what we are most familar with. But the lessons should be useful anywhere.

Choosing the right digital tool for chat


Is WhatsApp Right?

We know from our user research and personal experience that the default digital tool for organising in the UK is WhatsApp.

This is because almost everyone has it and everyone is used to it. People organise their personal and even work lives through it. It is familar and doesn't need anyone to learn something new to get involved, so lowers the barrier of entry to getting involved. It is fast and reliable.

A good principle of organising is begin by meeting people where they are. Using WhatsApp is an example of this.

We often advise organisers against this though, for a number of reasons:

  • Important information gets lost in the stream of chat, which increases the likelihood of people missing important decisions or actions.
  • There is no hierarchy or differentiation in chat: everything goes into the same channel - a really confusing bucket of information.
  • Most group chats are only manageable if muted – otherwise, the constant notifications are distracting and overwhelming. This has a psychological impact too.
  • WhatsApp chats are end to end encrypted. While this provides a deal of security, WhatsApp is owned by and shares data with Facebook. This should be a consideration for some political organisers working in sensitive contexts.
  • WhatsApp displays people's phone numbers and people may not be comfortable with this.
  • People don't see what happened before they entered the group due to this end to end encryption. This makes it difficult for people to find previous discussions.
  • WhatsApp only supports groups of up to 256 members, which puts a hard limit on group sizes and organising growth.

All these things mean it is sometimes a poor choice but it depends what you need to do in your work.

Think about what you need to do before choosing a tool

Before setting up any communication channel, it's important to work out which tool is most suited to your needs.

You can begin by thinking what your needs are and writing them down clearly, then looking around for the one that suits them.

Don't worry if you are using WhatsApp

If you've already begun using WhatsApp, it is important not to worry. There are ways in which you can make it work.

We will be rapidly publishing our tips on this based on a year of talking to activists using WhatsApp a great deal.

Alternatives to WhatsApp are good

Alternative chat apps like Discord are an improvement on WhatsApp, as they offer channels, video calls and integrations with other tools. Slack is also a commonly used chat software.

Moving from WhatsApp and bringing people with you

If you do decide WhatsApp isn't right for your communication channels and have to move away there is a possibility that you will lose people if you move to another tool. As we said above, try not to worry as it can be workable.

Moving is possible if people are engaged, so you should clearly sign post if you are moving and be prepared to keep someone "behind" in the old chat to keep people moving. This is especially true if the link to the WhatsApp group is widely shared.

We are happy to give advice and support on this. Just get in touch.

Chat is sometimes the wrong tool for the job

However, you may not need a chat app at all.

Discourse , for example, is an open source forum software that allows you to build a knowledge base and have discussions in a more long-term and structured way.

Discourse and tools like it allow you to work asynchronously, which means "when you send a message without expecting an immediate response".

Here is a great blog by Doist that describes this well. Sometimes this isn't going to work if you need things to be real-time. But considering if you do need it to be real time is important.

In some instances, a project management tool like Trello will be the best fit, as it allows people to collaborate on a project and have visibility on what everyone else is doing.

At Common Knowledge, we use Notion for all of our organising, as it allows us to manage projects, collaboratively edit documents and databases, and build a team knowledge base, all in the same place.

Use the same things you would do as an organiser offline online


Online forums like chat in general don't necessarily "just work". They require organisation, maintenance and attention, like any community.

Organisers are very good at building communities. But sometimes online communities are seen as an afterthought. Organisers often don't apply the same basic principles of organising that they would usually use.

But the techniques organisers use are just as relevant in online spaces as physical ones.

Here are a few tips on how to ensure that these spaces are convivial and welcoming ones.

Onboarding is vital

Bring new people into the community gradually and welcome them as you do.

We know from our user research that people are less likely to contribute to a discussion if they haven't been introduced. It can also be frustrating or awkward for existing members when new people get added with no explanation.

With most tools, you can include a "Welcome" channel or page to explain how the group works. You can also encourage people to post a short introduction when they join.

Set clear boundaries and intentions

Ensure the space feels safe and welcoming. Encourage active participation, as well as ensuring basic digital etiquette to reduce unnecessary notifications, like using @here instead of @channel.

Create separate channels for different discussions or working groups, and clearly explain what each channel is about.

Actively facilitate conversation

Your role as an organiser is to encourage active participation. Follow the conversation and offer summaries at key points. Sometimes you may need to step in and smooth over certain interactions.

If there is a decision to be made, you can reformulate general conversation into a clear proposal, and then seek agreement, or better consent or consensus of all involved.

Adjust and improve

Observe how people are interacting with each other and using the software, and adjust your methods accordingly. Sometimes it is good to keep notes to help you do this.

We will be posting more soon

We will be posting more about this soon.

If you need specific support, you can get in touch and we will see what we can do.