Cybersociology Magazine: Issue Five

A Few Points about Online Activism

by Jon Lebkowsky [(c)1999, Jon Lebkowsky]


I've been associated with online activism since the early 90s, when I became interested in the work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and helped found EFF-Austin (Texas, USA), a spinoff originally conceived as a chapter of EFF. EFF-Austin became its own thing apart from the national organization. We were actually relieved when EFF decided against chapters. We continued to organize events, talk to the press, talk to cops, and wrangle among ourselves until 1998, when EFF-Austin dissolved and attempted to create a statewide organization, EF-Texas. Along the way I hosted an Electronic Frontiers Forum for HotWired, represented EFF-Austin on the Global Internet Liberty Campaign (GILC), served on the program committee for the 1998 Conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy, wrote a book called Virtual Bonfire by contract with MIT Press (the book was never published), and spent much time in online debates, discussions, and flame wars.

Much of this time I was pretty stupid. Hopefully I've learned something along the way, though, enough to have some informed insights to share:

1) Democracy is a not a helpful goal.

At this point I cringe when I hear the d-word because it doesn't mean anything. It's a vague, rather dubious concept, and those who toss it around the most seem to have thought least about its implications. Even worse, they think it has something to do with freedom, as though a democratic majority couldn't be as oppressive as any tyrannical individual, even more so.

It's not that I don't believe in the principles associated with democracy. I love the ideal of a people who are well-informed, thoughtful, and attentive to the issues about which decisions should be made. Citizens who are participants in democratic process, they assume responsibility for that process, and work at their participation. This ideal is just so difficult to attain, and it's not well-served by representation with a single label. I would use several terms, starting with participation, and following with words like education, attention, and commitment. So much of the talk about democracy fails to address these important components.

We talk a lot about democracy in the U.S., but how real can democracy be in a country this large and diverse? Democracy doesn't scale. It's one thing for small, homogenous groups in Chiapas to make decisions as a group, but it's far more difficult for millions of philosophically and ideologically diverse citizens of the U.S. to make meaningful decisions together.

2) In cyberspace, it's easy to avoid commitment and accountability.

In discussion groups and email lists it's easy to express strong opinions, but how about real follow-up? It's easier to transfer thought to action if you have a physical anchor for your activities, perhaps a monthly meeting.

Don't confuse email or fax campaigns with action. Decision-makers know how easy it is to create this kind of communication, especially if you're doing little more than typing your name onto a fixed message. If the feedback represents minimal commitment of time and energy, it has lacks weight and makes little impression. Phone calls are better.

When Jerry Berman was director of EFF, he told me that EFF-Austin should charter a bus to D.C. and show up in our legislators' offices there. This kind of personal investment and immediate presence is incredibly valuable. You could send thousands of emails and make no more than a fraction of the impact.

3) It's logistically difficult to organize online.

Part of the difficulty is the minimal investment Imentioned in #2, above. There's also the lack of visual cues and immediate feedback that you would have in a 'fleshmeet.'

You can convey information and get a sense of the group online, but it's harder to reach real decisions. Conversations drag on forever if they're asynchronous (email, forums), and they tend to lack depth when they happen in realtime (chat).

I'm not saying you shouldn't organize online. You can extend your reach and do a much better job of distributing information with assurance that everyone's seen everything and had a chance to respond. However you shouldn't work solely online, and you should avoid actual decision-making in cyberspace unless you have no other way to pull everyone together.

When I was president of EFF-Austin I was constantly trying to pursue decisions online, but it only worked if everyone else could make the same kind of online investment. Some people just can't do it. There are some who'll always respond to your email with a phone call because email just doesn't feel right to them.

And you can't be sure of attendance. Hold a meeting in a room, and you know who's not there. You can usually tell who's paying attention and who's not. If you're working online, you really have no idea unless someone responds whether they got the message or not.

In Virtual Bonfire I argued that email alerts don't work unless there's someone on the other end who can interpret the issues, lead discussion and debate. No matter how well you word the alert, you can't be sure that the recipients really understand your position. The strength of a chapters organization is that you have people on the ground who can call meetings and clarify the issues for change agents who can reach out to the community and facilitate understanding.

4) The promise of global effectiveness is misleading.

When I first discovered the Internet, I was blown away by its global reach. As I spent more time online, I established friendships with correspondents from Ireland, Japan, England, Australia, Germany...all over the world. Because of this, I tended to think in terms of global or national political action, and pay little attention to local politics.

I was forgetting a lesson I learned in the 60s: you may be thinking globally, but your most effective action is on the local front. If you're like most people, you can be far more effective in the context of your everyday life, or at least, that's where you should start.

5) Sooner or later you have to take a stand.

Your online identity and presence are malleable. It's easy to slide from one position to another, but if you want to be effective, you must ultimately decide what you believe (or whether you believe) and make some commitments.

6) Money changes everything.

If you really want to scale up your political efforts and have a real effect on legislation, you'll have to raise money, and the business of raising money can change the character of your commitment. You may be the one person who won't change when money's involved, but I doubt it. I don't have any great advice here.

You could keep it simple: EFF-Austin operated with practically no funds because we could leverage the talents of our board members and get occasional donations, but our mission was limited. We wanted to educate people about computer networks and the political and civil liberties issues that were emerging as cyberspace evolved, and we could do that with an email list, a web site, and a few events.

If this is n't what you had in mind, and fundraising is going to be a necessity, just know that it can become a mission in itself. If you acknowledge that re ality, you might be able to work around it.

 

Jon Lebkowsky (jonl@io.com) was a founding member of the Austin branch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). He has written a book (not yet published) titled Virtual Bonfire under contract to MIT Press. Jon is currently Interactive Community Director, for WholeFoods.com. His personal website is located at http://www.jonl.com

 


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