On a typical day, the theatre director Oliver Butler sends three thousand texts urging political action.
By Anna Russell November 12, 2018
Shortly before the midterms, the theatre director Oliver Butler met with other anxious, liberal-leaning New Yorkers at the café outside the Signature Theatre, on Forty-second street, for a master class in textavism. He had just attended a preview of his show “Thom Pain (based on nothing),” by the playwright Will Eno, and was jotting notes on a legal pad, with a laptop and a smartphone at his elbow. He wore a blue maga-style cap, which he and Eno had designed, and which bore the word “facts.” Part of the proceeds benefits the Committee to Protect Journalists, he said, adding, “In the right area people will be, like, ‘He won, get over it!’ ”
In the past year, text activism, or textavism, has consumed nearly all of Butler’s limited spare time (in addition to “Pain,” another show he directed, Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me,” was playing downtown). It often involves sending text messages to voters in swing states. “We try to apply pressure where we can do the most good,” Butler said. Recently, in the course of twenty-four hours, texters from MoveOn, where Butler volunteers, sent more than two million messages urging registered Democrats to vote in November. Textavists from the groups Open Progress, Indivisible, and the Working Families Party have messaged people on issues like the Affordable Care Act, Doug Jones, and net neutrality. On a good day, Butler will send nearly three thousand texts; on an exceptional day, he will send ten thousand.
Not everyone is happy to hear from him. “The blue wave has brought nothing but destruction and fragmentation to this great country,” a woman named Darla wrote recently, in response to Butler’s get-out-the-vote text. “We are opting you out of texts immediately,” he wrote back. “Have a nice day.”
Butler’s activism began in earnest after the 2016 elections, when he started a campaign to get people to call their representatives twice a day. But he wasn’t sure anyone was listening; the line was often busy, or he’d leave a message and get no response. Enter textavism, which he has been teaching at Tupperware-style parties around the city. “I’ve been trying to figure out what creates apathy,” he said. “Part of the problem comes when we put energy into the world and get no response back. What I loved about this”—he held up his phone—“was that the actual structure of it involved a feedback loop.”
Butler was joined by Caroline McGraw, a playwright and aspiring textavist, who was wearing a sweatshirt bearing an illustration of a uterus, and Tania Kirkman, a volunteer administrator on MoveOn’s text team. Participants text through a Web-based app that keeps voters’ phone numbers private. Their messages are pre-written. On his laptop, Butler pulled up a sample text: “With less than 3 weeks until Election Day, we’re kicking off a campaign to build the Blue Wave!” he read. “Will you pledge to vote blue on Nov 6? Reply YES & we’ll share periodic texts from MoveOn.”
“So you can imagine the kind of responses you might get,” he said. “If it’s a yes, great. They’ll get an automatic text and are signed up.” Other common responses: no (“Thanks for responding!”); I will vote, but please do not text me (“We get that a lot”); How’d you get my number? (voter databases). “If anyone says ‘Trump,’ ‘maga,’ anything like that, it’s ‘opt out,’ ” Butler explained. “That’s most of your work,” he said. “Opt out, opt out, opt out.”
“Prepare to be cursed at a lot,” Kirkman told McGraw. She read a recent response: “Absolutely not, fuck you guys.” She added, “So that’s going to be an opt out.”
McGraw turned to her laptop and began sending texts. “I like seeing people’s names,” she said. “Oh, I just texted another Caroline! I hope she texts me back and is not, like, ‘Go to hell, bitch.’ ”
They worked on messages for a few minutes. “Oh, I got a reply!” McGraw said. It was from a woman named Veronica. “stop,” McGraw read. Her face fell. “O.K. Oh, Veronica, girl.” Opt out.
Volunteers are allowed to edit some scripts, but it’s not recommended. “We have the Fox News rule, which is, we would never respond to anyone in a way that Fox News would put on to say, ‘Look how the left is texting people,’ ” Kirkman said. Butler added that he’ll sometimes throw in an extra “Thank you.”
McGraw peered at Butler’s messages. “There’s a new one!” she said. She read it out: “ ‘Ollie, you can count me in. Count on me. Shae Shae.’ ” ♦
This article appears in the print edition of the November 12, 2018, issue, with the headline “Civil.”