In April 2016, just after the New York Democratic primary, Michelle Goldberg wrote a piece for Slate that I’ve been thinking about for almost four years. She described being surprised by the result.
“Until Tuesday night,” she said, “I had assumed that my neighborhood, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, was overwhelmingly supporting Bernie Sanders.”
On the night of the primary, Hillary carried Goldberg’s block with almost 60 percent of the vote. It’s just that up until the moment when those ballots were counted, her support was obscured—even invisible. And voicing a preference for Hillary Clinton in Brooklyn in 2016 felt like a risk.
Across the universe, there are billions of habitable planets. That we’ve never encountered extraterrestrial life is a paradox that puzzles astrophysicists.
Where is everyone? Why is it so quiet out there?
In 2008, in the novel The Three Body Problem, Chinese author Liu Cixin offered one possible answer. “The universe,” he writes, “is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him…In this forest, hell is other people.”
Yancey Strickler, one of the founders of Kickstarter, thinks the Dark Forest theory is a metaphor for connected society in 2020.
He calls the internet of today a “battleground”— one where speaking out invites conflict and voicing an opinion feels like a risk.
As a result, people are retreating from the public internet to a series of dark forests. Strickler points out how email newsletters (like this one!) are booming. The same with podcasts. Private Slack channels and text groups are vibrant spaces. Even Facebook is promoting private Groups.
“These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments,” he says.
But as those conversations become more closed off, as those networks become more insular, it becomes harder to make connections with those outside our immediate orbit. That’s true both for those who aren’t anything like us and for people with whom we might have quite a bit in common—like the causes and candidates we support. It’s particularly true in a moment when we’re more distant from each other than ever.
And as personal endorsements become more difficult to observe, it becomes harder for supporters of a particular idea or candidate to find each other. In turn, that lack of visibility might ultimately reduce the chances that movements win popular support. Individuals who believe in a particular project or even established networks of potential support never get the opportunity to connect and coalesce because they never become aware of each other.
In politics, we’ve long understood that people are more likely to participate in voting when they understand that others are doing it, too.
For that reason, for as long as I’ve worked on campaigns, I’ve been taught to communicate enthusiasm in all my Get Out the Vote messaging—to set high expectations for turnout. “Be a voter!” we say, “your neighbors are counting on you!”
We see something similar in polling. When surveyed after an election, a surprising number of voters have a tendency to remember backing the winner, regardless of who they actually supported in the campaign.
People want to be part of a success. They want to back the winning side. But perhaps even more importantly, they don’t want to invite mockery, trolling, or harassment. They don’t want to step out into the dark alone.
In response to that understanding, it seems to me that campaigns and causes should adjust their thinking on several different fronts.
First, we should take seriously the responsibility of nurturing spaces where supporters of our work can build community amongst themselves. We should develop meaningful strategies for using private Facebook groups, Slack channels, Twitter DM rooms, and text groups to host those conversations. We should train our volunteers doing peer-to-peer outreach to have inclusive, empathetic discussions. We should lean into relational organizing—equipping our supporters to bring friends and family onto the team. And we should rethink our relationships with our most dedicated donors and volunteers—bringing them internal communications streams and planning wherever possible.
Second, we ought to assign more weight to the parts of our work that are aimed at boosting visibility, recognition, and connection. We should put more emphasis on giving supporters and allies messaging and creative to amplify our organizational point of view—and do so in public— and we need to develop better tools to facilitate that kind of activity. We should think about real-world events as opportunities to give attendees collateral to take out into the world—pictures for social media and stories that help explain why their connection to our work matters. We should reconsider how we think about tangible expressions of support. It’s a truism in politics that “yard signs don’t vote,” but political scientists have shown that they do increase vote share. And in this environment, yard signs, bumper stickers, and t-shirts that help supporters find each other and recognize a shared point of identity might have a lot more salience than we realize. They could, in effect, be helping to give would-be supporters permission to make the jump—confident in the knowledge that they won’t do so alone.
Third, as the 2020 Democratic primary underscores, we need to recognize that earned media can provide its own distinct and valuable form of social proof. At enough volume or in the right places, a broadcast message—especially one advanced by credible validators—is a powerful tool not just for boosting name recognition or lifting a brand; it’s a mechanism for community building. Under the right circumstances, especially when time is running short, press attention can be a shortcut for helping people see their own identities reflected in your mission.
Above all else, a Dark Forest mentality requires that we make a new commitment to our most important people. We need to reduce the distance between our organizations and our activists, volunteers, and donors. There should be zero disconnect between the staff of an organization and its supporters. We need to recognize that grassroots work is a collective enterprise, and if we don’t treat it that way, we’re isolating the people on whom we depend—at a time when no one wants to be alone.
Want more of our organizer insights? Sign up for our advocacy newsletter here.