On an October night in 2011 Bojan Mandaric and Brogan Graham met up at a bar in Boston. Fresh off rowing the Northeastern alumni boat at the Head of the Charles Regatta, the two were back to their fighting weights. Facing a long, cold winter ahead, this condition wasn’t likely to last long.
It was a cycle that had repeated itself each year since they’d graduated in 2006. Get in shape for the HOTCR, then get out of shape over the long Boston winter. Except this year, Mandaric didn’t want to get fat. But he also didn’t want to pay for a gym membership. Over beers, he and Graham hashed out a plan to keep working out through the month of November. There would be no excuses: they’d meet up first thing in the morning, at 6:30 a.m., outside, rain or shine. No day was too cold or too busy. To keep them accountable, Mandaric set up a Google doc titled “The November Project.”
The pair met up for their workouts throughout November. December came and went, then January, February, and March. That spring, the pair jokingly made t-shirts hyping their Google doc and wore them to a local road race. Graham created a Twitter account and started advertising their workouts, and was shocked when one day a woman showed up at Harvard Stadium to join them. She had such a good time, she brought a friend the next week. Then the friend brought some friends…
Five years later, November Project is a global movement, with thousands of members meeting up in 30 cities around the world to work out at 6:30 a.m., rain or shine (or snow), for FREE. The group has been the subject of news segments and academic papers, appeared on the cover of Runner’s World, published a book, and a short documentary.
So how did a pact between friends morph into a grassroots fitness community? Thanks, in no small part, to the internet.
— November Project BOS (@Nov_Project_BOS) November 28, 2016
In my final deliverable, I will examine how the concepts such as the long tail, Netroots, the Cathedral and the Bazaar, and crowdsourcing have contributed to the group’s success. The savvy use of hashtags, creation of Facebook photo albums, and entertaining YouTube clips helped build awareness of the group and build its culture. Keeping it free and modeling on crowdsourcing also helped create community.
There are dozens of sites that promote fitness through virtual 5ks, logging miles, and meet-ups. But November Project is not just a platform, it’s a community. Its not enough to post photos or log a workout; a premium is placed on attendance in real life, and at the end of the day the group seeks to build community through fitness. If you say you’re going to show up (referred to a “dropping a verbal”) and then don’t, you’re likely to find your photo on the “We Missed You” page of the group’s blog, a social shaming of sorts.
While technology has helped November Project grow around the globe and enhance connections between tribes, I would argue that the real-life community building is what has enabled November Project to be so successful. By emphasizing #justshowup, an online community has transcended into real life, and a group that might have once attracted a small group of hardcore athletes instead draws people of all ages, backgrounds, and athletic abilities.
As grassroots organizations increasingly turn to the internet to fundraise and build networks, I think that there are lessons to be learned from November Project’s success. All the technology and algorithms in the world cannot replace in-person touch and community building. While social media may augment or enhance efforts, they cannot be seen as a substitute.