The keyboard-vs-streets continuum of activism : LUSENET : Robot Wisdom : One Thread

Someone was recently arguing that the Internet is going to be a bust for activism, and that if we really want change we need to take to the streets. (He included Pacifica Radio at the ineffectual/ keyboard end of the spectrum.)

I'm not sure I've ever participated in a political rally, and I definitely feel like I'm making a difference by propagating the unreported stories in the alternative news.

But is this 'weblog activism' a feeble echo of what *getting out* might do?

-- Jorn (, November 23, 1999


I think the truth of this claim, 'the Internet will be a bust for activism', depends largely on the as-yet-undecided future of the Internet itself. Insofar as the WWW becomes much more like TV for most people, that is bad for activism. Clearly the messages that corporations want to send out via the WWW are profoundly anti-progressive, just like the ones they send via TV.

So the Internet has tremendous potential to be a real tool for "counter-programming," for activists and activism. But that potential can only be realized if the complete corporatization of the Internet can be prevented, and I'm very pessimistic that it can be.

Here's a good example. The School of the Americas, at Fort Benning in Georgia, was this weekend the site of the largest civil disobedience action since the Vietnam War. And, yet, this important fact was *totally* unreported in the Dallas Morning News on Monday (the DMN is the only paper in Dallas, one of the 10 largest cities in America). So how did I learn about the activist movement at Fort Benning? By listening, via the Internet, to KPFA during the day.

The Internet lets non-corporations counter-program. This is good. But the Internet may become Just Another Mass (read: corporate) Media. This is not good, and lots of money is going into making it happen. Finally, the Internet is no substitute for "real life"; that is, an Internet "protest" against the SOA isn't 1/100th as dramatic or meaningful as 10,000 citizens spending a weekend at Fort Benning, protesting the SOA, including 4,000 who were arrested for "crossing the line" (trespassing onto Federal property).

The School of Americas protest movement uses the Internet effectively--http:/// they know that the Internet is no substitute for "taking it to the streets".

I think herein lies the basis for a rational strategy:

1. fight the corporatization of the Internet 2. use the Internet to accomplish (1) and other progressive goals 3. remember there is no substitute for direct action "in real life" But, hey, I'm just an anarchist Linux geek. What do I know? :>

-- Kendall Clark (, November 23, 1999.

I can think of a lot of stories that propagated via the net that probably wouldn't have gotten so much play otherwise. Off the top of my head, I'd say that the on-official stories of Waco and Ruby Ridge were highly circulated via the net. The ongoing persecution of medical marijuana users in California is something I haven't seen elsewhere. The resistance to censorship of the net itself was not well-reported in the mainstream news, and yet everyone seems to "get it".

Whether weblogging is a top-notch way to publicize such things, I'm not sure. It gets the word to weblog readers, but we are a self-selecting group of people who enjoy reading of tidbits of news like this; maybe not a broad enough audience. Or maybe it's an excellent way to publicize things, but not a good way to motivate people to action. Or maybe the exact pitch is unclear -- we understand the premise of everything we read, but fail to draw a good conclusion.

"Getting out" -- I have been a part of three demonstrations, one of which was well publicized and the other two which were completely ignored. If a demonstration is publicized, it's very effective -- because it shows the viewer that someone out there is so moved by a situation (or whatever) that they are willing to put their own neck on the line for it. But if a demonstration is not publicized, it seems pointless and a waste. So if weblogging is to be another "channel" to consume, I should think it would serve as much a part of the purpose to publicize as going out and being there in person.

The other aspect here is that we have long ago left the activist culture, in that how we react to things has changed. While before we seemed to identify causes en masse, where once the masses were convinced, they would act as one, today there are so many competing causes that each individual cause gets lost in the confusion. (How many different colors of ribbons are there, now, and what does each color represent?)

-- Arthur Alexander (, November 23, 1999.

Well, the internet gives tremendous capability to communicate and coordinate disparate and distant groups of people. I think we need to get away from the idea, for example, that adding your name to an e-mail petition is "helping" anything. But if the net is used to get information to people quickly and accurately that they can't get in the mass media, that's good; and if it's used to build communities that can then be the basis of local activism, that's also good. Weblogs /per se/ aren't a part of this solution, but targeted weblogs -- say, one keeping close tabs on the gay partners' rights movement -- certainly could be. The internet won't necessarily make activism any easier -- you still have to get people to care enough to do something; but it can provide the logistics for more effective activism if used intelligently.

-- Dan Hartung (, November 24, 1999.

At least for activism, usenet/the web offers a great opportunity for small communities to accumulate into larger ones, but that's about where it stops. At some point you've got to go out and actually do something - at the end of the day, the 'Net is a support for the physical world, not the world itself.

The more depressing point is that internet-borne activism need not be positive; for one thing, most of the really successful web-borne organizations I've seen have been dedicated to trivia. Anime subtitlers, Klingon Language institutes and the like; I suspect because actually *fighting* for something is always more difficult than *saying* you are. More depressingly, I've seen usenet used as a very effective medium for spreading hysteria and rumor - most of the Y2K hysteria I've seen began on the 'net in some form.

-- Mike Collins (, November 30, 1999.

I believe that the WTO rio...err... demonstrations show one of the advantages of web activism: It's less easily subverted, it's easier to present ideas unaltered.

Obviously virtual behaviors only have virtual results, someone has to carry those into the real world, but so often things like the KPFA protests and other similar actions end up alienating would-be supporters rather than accomplishing what the participants hoped to.

(Or maybe alienating people like me was the goal of the KPFA demonstrations...)

-- Dan Lyke (, December 02, 1999.

This is a question really. I just keep hearing about how corporate interests are going to take over the net. I dont have any idea how they could do it; it seems so decentralized. Could somebody explain that to me?

-- Jackie Cruzatta (, December 07, 1999.

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