Monday, February 21, 2005

Activism and the Internet

There is a lot of hoo-ha and excitement going on right now about bloggers, online message boards, and internet activism. So I'd like to talk about that for a minute.

There are a lot of different things that people do, politically, online. Signing online petitions, emailing around requests for action and news articles, writing letters to the editor or to journalists, writing your congresspeople, getting into discussions on internet message boards and mailing lists, and so on. How effective are these things? Some are great, some are not so useful. I'd like to do a summary of a few of these actions and discuss how effective they are likely to be.

Signing online petitions.
Take a couple of seconds to consider the providence of the petition before you just blindly sign it. A petition needs to be tied to some real-world action in order to be effective. If you're on Barbara Boxer's email list, and she sends out a request to sign a petition, that's legit. She's going to take those sigs and present them to a committee or something. Likewise, if a grassroots effort is circulating a petition and tells you exactly how and when they plan to use that petition, that's probably legit and useful. But, if it doesn't appear to have a good pedigree, you might want to steer clear of it, as someone might be harvesting your personal info for nefarious purposes.

Emailing requests for action and meeting notices to your buddies / your mailing lists.
I'm of two minds about this one. First, don't send out stuff that everyone already gets, like the stuff from or True Majority. Everybody and their dog is on those lists. But if it's something with a more local slant, that's a good thing. Go for it.

Emailing news articles
Another iffy one. How do you know that the article will be of interest to the person you're sending it to? Here's a hint. If you're sending this stuff to someone who is extremely politically active, ask them if they want it. I, for one, am already on half a dozen internet mailing lists that fill up my inbox with everything I need to know already. BUT, sending it to someone who is NOT very politically aware, someone whom you're trying to educate, could be quite useful.

I personally think this kind of thing is overdone. My rule: think before you forward.

Writing letters to the editor
Definitely useful. This helps to get an alternate viewpoint out.

Writing your congressfolk
Another good one.

Writing journalists
This might or might not be useful. If you're sending tips and news stories – if you heard about it on the internet, chances are good that the journo's already heard it too. But, if you're sending story ideas or tips that are original and new, they'll probably be glad to hear from you.

Now, feedback in the form of applause or brickbats is probably better off addressed to the show or to the paper rather than to the journalist him or herself. However, if you want to send your boos and hisses directly to the author of the article, go ahead. Here's the thing, though – you catch more flies with honey. Bear in mind that there's a real person on the other side of that computer screen. When you're composing a flaming screed, stop and think. Would you say the same thing to that person in the flesh?

Discussions on Message Boards and Mailing Lists
Reality check here: Unless you're on a really special forum, nobody of any importance reads those forums. Nobody is picking up your witty gems of wisdom, and nobody is paying much attention to your grandiose plans to restructure the Democratic party.

I see this over and over again. For example, people post that "The Democratic party should do so-and-so" on an email list. Well. Did you send this feedback to the Democratic party? Did you send it to the right place? Did you show up to your local Democratic party meetings and give it to them? No? Oh, well, too bad so sad then, you might as well have just tucked it into a bottle and thrown it into the sea for all the good it's going to do.

Do I sound a little pissy here? I suppose I am. I just see this over and over again. A guy from Peoria and a gal from Poughkipsie, hanging out on the internet pontificating about foreign policy. And then they get all annoyed when their brilliant insights don't magically make their way into the mainstream of Democratic thought.

Now, all of this debate IS useful in some respects. It gets you used to debate, so you can then go out and debate and discuss with the opposition. It helps you organize your thoughts. For example, this blog, for me, is simply one long organization of my thoughts. I think better when I write things down; it helps me codify and reify the stuff that's floating around in my head, and I can come back later and look at it and go, "Yeah, I got that right," or, "Boy, that stunk." If someone else reads this and gets something out of it, well, bonus!

But the rest of this debate and argument – phew, a lot of it's a big timewaster. In my annoying, Type-A opinion. :P

Now. To change directions a bit. Notice one thing about all of these activities? They are 100% computer based. Just you, a quiet room, and a keyboard, mouse, and monitor.

An aside: There are many people who are restricted because of their health or geographic location to this online-based activism. To them I say: more power to you. If your broken ankle or other circumstances keeps you from getting out of the house, I am glad and overjoyed that there's this window on the world for you.

To the rest of you: Get. Out. Of. The. House. Internet activism is great, but it is NOT a substitute for real-life activism. Go put your butts in the chairs at the local committee meetings. Stuff envelopes. Run for school board. Find out who your city councilperson is. Organize a precinct.

Life: It's where the action is.

Ok, end of sermon. :)


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