Excerpt from
NetActivism:How Citizens Use the Internet

By Ed Schwartz
During the month of September 1960, 70 million Americans watched a young Senator from Massachusetts debate the Vice President of the United States four times, in what became the centerpiece of the Presidential campaign. Up to that point, Richard Nixon was nominally ahead, but polls in October showed that 75 percent of those who watched the debates thought that Kennedy had won. By November, it was Kennedy--not Nixon--who won the Presidency as well. 69 million people voted--about the same number that had seen the debates. For the first time, television had shaped the outcome of a national election. Politics would never be the same.

Eight years later, a small group of students seized control of the administration building at Columbia University and proclaimed themselves the advance guard of a youth revolution that was about to bring modern capitalism to its knees. The most telling placards had less to do with politics than with ratings, however. "The whole world is watching!" they proclaimed. A decade of civil rights and student protests had produced a new way to achieve political recognition--do something dramatic and get on the evening news. At first, peaceful demonstrations were enough. When these became passi, taking over buildings became fashionable. By the 1970s, underground cadres of graduate students were blowing up buildings and robbing banks. Even those who had been activists in the 1930s were baffled by all of this. For them, organizing had involved personal contact with workers in factories and neighborhoods. To the Sixties generation, one-on-one base-building was a waste of time. Why take a tortuous route to generating support, when television made it possible to reach "the whole world" at once?

All Power Through the Media

Unfortunately, the contributions of television to both politics and citizen action since the 1960's have been mixed, to say the least. It is a medium that exposes millions of people to personalities and events simultaneously, but by its nature makes all of us feel insignificant in relation to what we are observing. At a political level, if you attend a meeting in which 100 people listen to two candidates debate, you represent 1 percent of the participants. There's a pretty good chance that you'll be noticed from the podium. You may even get to ask a question. Compare that experience to watching a televised debate along with 100 million other people from all parts of the country. Now you represent .00001 percent of the participants--invisible to the candidates and unable to respond. It doesn't matter which journalist gets to ask the questions--or even if there's a surrogate town meeting taking place in the studio. You're not there.

Television has confused the process of building support for issues and causes as well. It has become far too easy to confuse media attention with political power. Demonstrations may offer a fast route to publicity, but not necessarily to public approval. Alternatively, groups that undertake efforts to build support in communities and Congressional districts through door-to-door canvassing and block meetings often feel largely irrelevant, given that such activities rarely do make the evening news. Activists can spend as much time trying to get press coverage as in directing the efforts of their supporters toward lobbying the government itself.

The raw data concerning political participation since 1960 spells out the result. Fewer and fewer of us vote. Most of us who do vote are bitter about the choices we face. People with widely varying views on specific issues are united in their feeling that the government at all levels is out of control and there's little we can do about it. This, despite the deluge of information voters are now able to obtain about politics, politicians, and political issues. Nor did this trend start in the 1990s. In 1968, two researchers from the University of Chicago, Sidney Verba and Norman Nie, documented that it didn't matter how much information was available about politics; people participated only when they felt the sense of belonging to a smaller community. "As cities grow in size,' they warned, "and more important, as they lose those characteristics of boundedness that distinguish the independent city from the suburb, participation declines. And it does so most strikingly for communal participation, a kind of participation particularly well attuned to deal with the variety of specific problems faced by groups of citizens."1

Politics by its nature involves collective action. A candidate for public office must persuade a large group of people to pull the same lever on the same day next to his or her name in a voting booth. A citizens' movement must generate enough letters to convince the President and Congress that they really do represent a sizable constituency. The underlying logic of both kinds of campaigns, then, is to reach as many people as possible simultaneously with a message or messages that will yield this result. Years ago, this was possible only at conventions, meetings, rallies, coffee klatches, parades, subway stops--anywhere people might be found in large numbers.

Today, television and even radio offer both candidates and citizen actions the chance to reach a larger audience in a few seconds than the combined attendance at all of these live events combined. Is it any wonder that politicians themselves now focus most of their money and energy on television advertising and even advocacy organizations have felt compelled to join them? In seeking to reach us as an "audience," however, everyone associated with politics--inside or outside the system--has left us with little to do but applaud or boo in our living rooms in response to what they are saying, without feeling any connection to the process whatsoever.

Consider those non-partisan "get-out-the vote" campaigns that bombard us between September and November, especially in Presidential election years. First come the ads urging us to register. Then October arrives and we get to watch a few televised debates. Just before the election, the newspapers publish their "Voters' Guides," filled with ancient pictures of the candidates and microscopic summaries of their backgrounds and views on a handful of issues. Then there are the last minute ads urging us to vote. Most of this is scheduled before and after the evening news, late at night, or on Sundays so as not to interfere with the programs we really want to watch. Through the campaign, the appeal is the same--to each of us, acting alone, in isolation from one another. Does this sound like government, "of the people, by the people, and for the people" to you? Not surprisingly, these televised exhortations generally have little impact on the non-voters they are trying to reach.

The phenomenal success of talk radio attests to how much we want to get the attention of the powers that be. But pre-existing broadcast technologies have moved us in precisely the opposition direction.

Transmitting to Each Other

So now comes telecommunications--heralded as an even more spectacular technological cure for everything that afflicts us, individually and collectively. For the moment, the main selling point for the Information Highway revolves around goods and services that presumably we'll soon be able to get much more easily for ourselves. By the year 2000, we are told, some yet to be fully configured system of conglomerates will see to it that our telephones and PCs and Macs and cable boxes are all tied together, ready to pass along whatever products the conglomerates want to market to us. Just imagine--we'll be buying just about everything we need by phone (no more long lines at the supermarkets), and many of us will even be working at home. All this will help us achieve new levels of personal self-sufficiency, even though we will merely be replacing our dependence on the people closest to us with a new dependence on people who run the machines. None of this will be evident to us, however--that is, until a system crashes and we have to reach technical support.

Similar promises are being made in relation to politics. Already, online services and the Internet itself make it possible to gain quick access to information about government and politics that's been difficult--if not nearly impossible--to find up to now. No longer do we have to read about Bill Clinton in the New York Times. Now we can read his press releases on the Internet, direct from the White House. Want to see what a piece of legislation says? Go to "Thomas"--the World Wide Web site for legislation and the Congressional Record.

Trying to figure out which of nine candidates to support in a primary? Check out their home pages, organized by independent groups devoted to civic participation and education. All of this is possible from our own homes, sitting at our terminals, acting in isolation from another. Again, however, it may seem to empower us, but where's the "us?" If politics by its nature requires collective action, how does any of this bring it about?

The answer, clearly, is that it doesn't. But that's not the end of the story. Telecommunications itself--even as it is available to us right now--is, indeed, a powerful instrument of collective action, if we choose to use it as such. It has the potential to become the most powerful tool for political organizing developed in the past fifty years, and one that any citizen can use. It will only fulfill this potential, however, if we choose to use it in this way. Nor can we expect the major online services to point us in this direction. What's in it for them? They want to provide self-help services to us for a fee, or offer yet another outlet for companies to sell us more stuff. Somehow, helping people use telecommunications to organize mass movements isn't high on the list of salable commodities. Nonetheless, studies--and access charges--show that what most people want to do online is communicate with one another and political issues are among the favorite topics of conversation. Even without help from service providers such as America Online, CompuServe, or Netcom, it won't take much to translate these emerging political conversations into new forms of political organizing.

What can we do as activists online that we can't do as easily--or at all--right now? We can use email to send complex messages and material to each other individually within a matter of minutes.

Fax machines give us this capacity already (and consider how rapidly these have become standard equipment in offices), but email is faster and a lot cheaper, especially if we need to reach people all over the country. Faxing a 10-page memo to three people can take as much as half an hour; sending it via email takes two or three minutes.

We can communicate with thousands of people simultaneously on our own time for only the access charges of our online service providers.

I am talking about live online "chats," which are possible--and easier--over the phone. I'm referring to Usenet groups, where people post public messages sharing information and ideas with one another, or email mailing lists--even more potent in this area--where people use an electronic list server or "listserv" to email messages back and forth to one another, each message being routed instantly to hundreds of people on the same list. Nearly every political organization in America has some sort of newsletter that it sends to its members at great time and expense. Imagine if we could use email to do this. No more stuffing envelopes all day. Moreover, the people who receive the information via an email list can respond immediately to it--to everyone on the list. No pre-existing technology has even permitted this sort of interchange among large groups of people, let alone made it easy and inexpensive to use.

We can use email to establish ongoing discussions within our civic and political organizations, thereby strengthening the relationships among group members and attachment to the group itself.

The hardest problem facing any organization is securing attendance at its meetings, especially now when both parents in families are likely to work and need their evenings to spend time with their children. It's rare for a group to get together more than once a month, and even these occasions involve only a small portion of the membership. The result is that boards and committees end up doing most of the work, which is then conveyed to the membership via a newsletter.

A group that established an email list for its members, however, could conduct business every day. There would still have to be real-time meetings, of course. Even ongoing electronic communication is no substitute meeting face to face. Nonetheless, a list would permit those who could not attend regular meetings to offer suggestions online in their absence. It would enable members to see drafts of proposals prior to meetings and offer feedback before formal discussion began. People could even "sign off" on final drafts of proposals and resolutions without having to wait a month for the next meeting. If citizen activists and political organizers had asked the telecommunications industry to develop a new technology just for them, they couldn't have found a better one.

These are just three tools available through the Internet that make it possible for what we call "average" citizens--people like you and me--to develop and act upon civic and political issues with devastating effectiveness. At the core of political empowerment is the ability of people to develop a common course of action in dealing with government. Any change in telecommunications affects this process. Radio and television have concentrated power in the hands of the elite who can broadcast to us even though we can no longer connect with one another. The new technologies permit millions of us to find one another and to turn the transmitters around. When we add that the same technologies permit us quick access to information about government and politics that has been inaccessible to most of us, then we can begin to grasp the profound change these technologies can bring to the democratic process.

Political Intelligence

The ability to communicate may be a prerequisite to success in politics, but access to information is critical as well. This is one of the most important lessons I've learned over the past 25 years both in and out of government. In 1973, I worked with a group of political theorists and community organizers to create the Institute for the Study of Civic Values in Philadelphia. Our express aim was to help citizens who wanted to fulfill America's historic ideals through active participation in their own neighborhoods and communities. We established a Neighborhood Leadership Academy with courses in "Building Community" and "Justice and the City." The seminars were well-received, and our emphasis on values did encourage people to fight not only for themselves, but for what they believed to be the general welfare of the country. Yet we learned as well that what community activists often need most is hard information, both about government agencies and specific programs, as well as on how the political system works.

Obviously it's necessary to understand how a government operates--what it does, how it's structured, and what its decision-making process is. Familiarity with our own elected representatives is important. Their party affiliation will be obvious enough, but where do they stand on key issues? How do various interest groups rate them? Who contributes to their campaigns? It's also good to know how well they did in the last election, since the ultimate threat that we as citizens hold is the possibility of defeating them. Who exerts political influence in your community and how do they exert it? Do you know? If not, you need to find out.

Activists also need basic information about the issues of greatest concern to us. Listing problems isn't hard--pollution, crime, poverty, illiteracy. It's the solutions that elude us. Government at all levels spends billions of dollars each year trying to remedy these things, and sometimes there's progress--but often there is not. Why not? What is government trying to do? Is anything working? Are there alternative ways to approach the problem that might be more successful? Obviously, we can't expect politicians to come up with the same answers to these questions, since disagreement over solutions lies at the heart of political debate. We can at least hope to receive clear information about the programs that government sponsors now, however, as a basis for understanding what it might do in the future. Lobbyists tell us that access to this information is as important to their ability to influence legislators--who themselves don't have time to keep track of most of what government does--as the money their clients contribute to campaigns. What's good for the lobbyists has got be made good for the rest of us.

Ultimately, we all need to understand the political system itself. How do the major parties operate? What interest groups are most active and effective where we live? Given that most people are not active in politics, on what basis might we organize them? Are there civic groups that could be moved to start pressuring elected officials as a way of achieving their goals for the community? How about churches and synagogues? Are there business associations that maintain ongoing contact with your representatives, advancing their position on matters that the larger community doesn't even know are under consideration? Who does exert real power in our communities and states?

When the Institute started putting its civic education program together in the 1970s, it was difficult to even find printed material that offered clear answers to these questions. Now we use the Internet.

The White House Web site enables us to download every speech, proclamation, radio address, and news release from the Executive Branch going back to the beginning of the current administration.

"Thomas"--the Congressional online legislative service--permits the same sort of access to bills as of 1993, including Congressional Record debate surrounding them.

Both the Republican and Democratic leadership in the Senate and the House support their own home pages, offering their perspectives on matters facing the Congress. http://www.house.gov

Federal departments have their own home pages as well, with online descriptions of their programs and links to other sites relevant to their goals. http://www.fedworld.gov

Most of the major "think-tanks" are now on the Web--the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institute, and many others.

Policy journals provide online editions as well. Among them; The National Review, The American Prospect, and Mother Jones.

The Republican and Democratic National Committees each has its own Web page.

Also represented are the Libertarians, and the New Party. There are cyber-groups in each party with sites of their own--Cyber-Republicans and Internet Democrats. Ross Perot dazzled the media in 1995 by showing off a "United We Stand" Web site developed for their national convention. Had the reporters realized that every other political party was already on the World Wide Web, they might not have been so impressed. Now Perot's latest venture, the Reform Party, has a Web site as well.

You can now use the Internet to keep track of your own elected officials, at least at the federal level. Within a matter of minutes, you can find out the voting returns in the last several elections, how every major interest group in the country has rated them, and who gave them Political Action Committee (PAC) contributions in the last two elections.

It's possible to keep track of where a representative stands on key issues. The same service that posts how organizations rate Senators and Representatives--Project VoteSmart--also lists voting records. World Wide Web and Gopher sites managed by particular groups--the League of Conservation Voters, the Christian Coalition, the National Rifle Association--provide their own ratings as well.

The downside to all this information, of course, is that the more there is, the more difficult it becomes to organize in ways that are useful to us. Even a search on the words "elections" and "Congress" using Digital's Alpha Vista or Lycos--two of the best retrieval services on the Net--yields hundreds of sites, only a few of which provide returns for the 1994 elections. Just as serious readers often need to develop systems to organize their bookshelves, so activists need to use bookmarks and other Internet tools to keep the Web and Gopher sites of greatest interest to them literally at their fingertips. This isn't hard, however, especially since there are sites like CapNet devoted to Congress, The Right Side of the Web for conservatives, or my own, Neighborhoods Online, for community activists--all aimed at organizing material related to a particular institution, ideology, or issue in a coherent way.

The important point is that the information is now there to be organized and new resources are turning up online every day. And if public officials don't want to make it easily accessible themselves, independent groups like the Institute for the Study of Civic Values can do it for them.

Electronic Democracy

Most important, however, are the new mechanisms available to take on the government. Using email simply to discuss politics and browsing through Web sites will make little difference to elected officials unless they hear from us as well. Citizen power begins when thousands of people start bombarding public officials with letters and calls. In the past, putting such campaigns together--especially around national issues--has required enormous time and expense. The Internet almost makes it easy, especially among people and groups that are already networking online. The process has already begun.

Examples

Consider these examples, assembled by Mark S. Bonchek of Harvard University and presented at the Midwest Political Science Association in April 1995, in a paper entitled, "Grassroots in Cyberspace: Using Computer Networks to Facilitate Political Participation."2

In July of 1989, an organization of Chinese students living in the United States, known as the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars, undertook a lobbying campaign to persuade Congress to pass legislation protecting them from reprisals by China for their support of the student rebellion in Tianamen Square. The lobbying committee used email to coordinate student efforts at more than 160 colleges and universities. Drafts of the proposed bills and detailed analyses of their merits were posted and debated on a newsgroup that was read by more than 20,000 Chinese students in the United States at the time. At one point, the students were able to develop and deliver a survey of Chinese student opinion on the bill requested by a Congressional committee with only four days' notice. The students also used email and their newsgroup to conduct an effective media campaign around the final vote, which yielded stories, editorials, and TV coverage in all the major media markets. The bill ultimately passed, but the students would never have been able to mount this effort without the use of telecommunications to coordinate the disparate chapters within their coalition.

Also in 1989, a group of 20 activists tied together through the Public Electronic Network (PEN) in Santa Monica, California, developed an online proposal for the homeless that became known as SHWASHLOCK (showers, washers, and lockers). They then used the service to mobilize support. Eventually, Bonchek notes, "they overcame neighborhood and city council resistance, obtaining a $150,000 line item in the budget and approval for converting an old bath house to a facility for the homeless." Subsequently, the group used PEN to develop plans for a cooperative job bank for the homeless and for participation by Santa Monica schools in an international effort to teach children about electronic communication."3 A follow-up survey of the PEN Action Network documented that it was the online process that enabled the group to plan and execute these various efforts.

In 1993, bill AB1624 became law in California, requiring the government to provide comprehensive online access via public networks to information about state statutes and legislation-in-process and without charge by the state. The prime mover here was a prominent figure in the computer industry, Jim Warren--founder of Dr. Dobb's Journal and various other trade publications--who is widely recognized as a pioneer in online organizing. In the California campaign, Bonchek notes, Warren used electronic mail and an Internet mailing list to mobilize support and to disseminate information on "current status of the bill; legislative and political obstacles; names, addresses, phone numbers, and fax numbers of important legislators; sample letters and phone scripts; and lessons on grassroots lobbying techniques."4 Here again, these new tools proved instrumental to building the movement that ultimately secured the passage of the bill.

On July 7, 1994, a message appeared on the Christian Coalition home page on the World Wide Web urging followers to contact Congress and demand an end to federal support for the National Endowment for the Arts. Three days later, the New York Times reported that a group of freshman Republican Congressmen were--lo and behold--demanding an end to federal support for the National Endowment for the Arts. Every local activist who responded to that Web site--or to email messages through the Internet--was able to share in a political triumph that could not have been put together any other way.

These early efforts using online communications for organizing and advocacy suggest how effective they can be. Up to now, only well-financed political action committees and lobbying organizations have been able to launch campaigns of this kind, using bulk mail, faxes, and phone banks that cost a great deal of money. With this new technology, you don't need to be in Washington. You can connect with thousands of people within a matter of minutes from anywhere in the country, and every one of them can respond in kind. Major national groups like the Christian Coalition figured all this out some time ago. It's time that activists at the local level got into the action as well.

From the Grassroots

The one group of people that I believe can benefit especially from going online, in fact, are activists at the local level. These are the people George Bush called the "thousand points of light," who get involved in politics to improve conditions within their own neighborhoods and communities and who fight for an America in which every community supports a decent quality of life. They take part in block cleanups, recycle trash, rehabilitate vacant houses, participate in crime watch groups, volunteer in schools and adult literacy programs. Their aim is not merely to perform community service, although that's part of it. They simply believe that healthy communities are possible only when residents make a personal commitment to contribute to their well-being. Yet contrary to those who think that "volunteerism" can replace federal involvement in this area, they expect government to remain an active partner in the process as well.

This is also a group of people experiencing an especially high level of frustration right now. Grassroots organizations are now the backbone of every effort to address serious problems at the local level, but they lack clout and even recognition in the broader politics of the country. I speak from personal experience on this point, having worked on behalf of such organizations in Philadelphia and elsewhere for the past 25 years, both in and out of government. Often, we are so tied to our own neighborhoods and cities that we find it difficult to connect with one another. The federal programs that subsidize our work--the Community Development Block Grant, VISTA, the Community Services Administration, Goals 2000, to name a few-- are scattered all over the federal bureaucracy. No national political leader has ever tried to consolidate them into an integrated "Partnership With America's Communities"--or some such catchy phrase--that would help the public see grassroots efforts to rebuild neighborhood in a broader context. As a result, even groups using federal funds successfully to fight drug abuse, improve schools, or help welfare recipients find work are rarely heard in Washington or by the country as a whole.

A second concern involves making government accountable again--of, by, and for the people. For most of us, it simply isn't. A closed circle between politicians, consultants, and lobbyists appears to have shut the rest of us out. In 1992, we elected a Democratic President, hoping that Bill Clinton would bring about something called "change." Two years later, we put the Republicans in charge of Congress for the same reason. Within a year, a lot us were fed up with them too. Somehow, politicians seem to have lost the ability to convey how anything that government does can improve conditions where we live. Yet that is exactly what grassroots organizations want most--not "more" government or "less" government as ends in themselves, but government that is effective in addressing the most serious problems we face in our families and in our neighborhoods.

The third and perhaps most important concern is for participation itself--both in our own communities and in politics. After two centuries of intense, often bitter, struggle to ensure that everyone over 18 has the right to vote, half the country rarely bothers. In fact, participation of all kinds appears to be declining Whatever specific problems activists seek to solve, this often appears to be the major obstacle. Hardly a civic association or community meeting takes place where someone doesn't make a speech complaining about apathy. Whatever their broader politics may be--liberal or conservative-grassroots leaders will be among the first to say that nothing government does will ever work if people aren't willing to help themselves. The Internet offers special benefit to activists who fit this description.

At the most practical level, it can help local organizations connect quickly and easily with groups all over the country working to solve the same problems. A service called Handsnet has been performing this role for social action groups for many years. More than 5,000 organizations subscribe to Handsnet, including community development corporations, youth service programs, legal service corporations, and human service agencies generally. Handsnet offers timely information on federal programs and legislative developments, the programs of greatest concern to these groups. Even more important, Handsnet is a system of networks. Organizations that post requests for specific information to Handsnet often get dozens of responses from similar groups throughout the country. There are private forums that facilitate contact among specific kinds of organizations--such as agencies dealing with problems of child abuse. Handsnet has not been cheap--$25 per month plus $9.00 an hour for daytime access.

Nonetheless, to many groups, this has been a modest price to pay for the contacts Handsnet has helped them make. At this point, however, the Internet permits such organizations to build relationships with groups using virtually every major online service, and often at far lower cost. In the summer of 1995, Handsnet established its own home page on the World Wide Web.

The Internet can also help grassroots leaders organize information about what remains of federal programs in ways that highlight their importance to local communities. One of my own major projects on the World Wide Web is doing just that. It's called Neighborhoods Online, and it includes pages related to neighborhood empowerment, community development, economic development, neighborhood appearance, security, education, and health and human services. Every program and organization related to these concerns is assembled on Neighborhoods Online in their appropriate categories, and within the first few weeks of its existence, hundreds of community activists all over the country started using it. Now the number runs into the thousands, as there are new sites devoted to specific community issues and problems popping up every day. The conventional media relegates this sort of information to its feature pages, or to one-shot "profiles" of specific programs that seem to be working. The Internet allows us to organize such programs around the concerns they address and make them available whenever we need them.

The Internet can be especially useful, finally, to local activists who want to participate in or even coordinate campaigns aimed at influencing national politics. Consider the Web site developed by an organization called Children Now ( You likely have never heard of this organization. It's based in California, not Washington. It receives little, if any, coverage in the national media. Groups of this kind are rarely in a position to advertise.

In the fall of 1995, however, Children Now was able to catch the attention of activists throughout the country with this Web site. Here, they were able to provide information on the federal budget, call attention to a national poll, release a "California Lawmaker's Scorecard," and provide a "County Data Book" on young people in California.

This is one organization in one state focusing on one set of issues. By the end of the year, hundreds of groups like this were appearing on the Internet from all parts of the country. Suddenly, grassroots organizations that have had to struggle just to get their names mentioned in their local newspapers were now finding ways to address the nation.

To be sure, major national groups like the AFL-CIO also started using the Internet in 1995 as well, through their own Web pages and online news releases to email lists. To most organizations based in Washington, however, telecommunications is an afterthought. They gaze out at the country from their headquarters and see 100 million people whom they think they have to reach directly in the quickest possible way. Television serves this purpose quite well, so that's where they focus most of their energy. An organization that has learned how to raise enough money through direct mail to use mass media to reach millions of Americans directly isn't about to devote time and energy toward using the Internet to build grassroots networks of activists. In fact, how many national political groups of any kind can you name that support local chapters that actually meet?

It is the purely local organizations--the neighborhood associations, the community development corporations, civic-minded business associations and union locals, what remains of grassroots political clubs--that stand most to gain from the telecommunications revolution. Right now they're not connected to each other in any meaningful way. As a result, they're not even a blip on the radar screen of the pollsters and pundits who shape politics in Washington. Using the Internet, however, they can turn the transmitters around.

NetActivism

If you haven't started using the Internet yet, you probably think of it as an additional burden-- another set of "things" you'll have to attend to in an already overcrowded day. Once you get into it, however, you'll see it as an invaluable resource, enabling you to communicate rapidly with thousands of people all over the country and retrieve information that you now have to spend hours trying to get, if you can find it all.

The challenge comes in making effective use of the Internet to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. Businesses are now trying to figure out how to market and sell their products through the Net. Teachers are starting to use the Internet in their classes. Newspapers and television stations are adding online editions and services to both broaden and deepen their outreach to the public.

Here, we are going to explore how to make best use of the Internet as citizens--both in our communities and in politics. If you're a member of a non-profit agency or a local group trying to strengthen your neighborhood, you'll learn how going online can help you strengthen your organization and get the information you need to achieve your goals. If you want to influence elected officials or get involved in politics directly, I'll suggest ways this same technology can help you translate community action into votes. And if you're just an ordinary person who would like to feel you have more effect on the forces that shape your life, I'll help you understand how involvement through the Internet strengthens these possibilities.

To do any of this, however, there are a several key questions we have to answer:

How do we get started using the Internet in politics? Is there anything special about the computers and software we need, or will the standard mass-market operating equipment do the job? How do we establish political membership on the Internet to connect us with people all over the country who share our concerns and priorities? How do we join?

How do we conduct ongoing conversations through the Internet that reinforce our political work without taking so much time that they begin to compete with it? How do we conduct our electronic exchanges, in effect?

What information about government, politics, and issues can we acquire through the Internet that isn't readily available elsewhere? How can we find it? How can we use it?

How can we use the Internet to support national movements and causes at the local level?

Given that we vote where we live and that this is where our greatest political power lies, how can we use the Internet to help us solve problems facing our communities?

How can advocates and organizers working in low-income neighborhoods secure effective access to the Internet for the residents of these areas, even though most of them can't afford their own computers? Is it possible to use the Internet to promote voter education, registration, and turnout in this country? Given that formal party organizations have disappeared from all but a handful of big cities, can we use the Internet to strengthen the role of volunteers in politics?

What do we need from software developers and service providers to ensure that people like us can continue to use the Internet to promote political activism in the future?

What does government need to do--and what do we need to do--to make the Internet an instrument of citizen empowerment in the years ahead? These are the major questions addressed in this book--in ways that ought to benefit anyone who wants to become an activist online, regardless of your particular point of view.

In effect, NetActivism is an organizing manual for citizens who want to use the Internet to improve their communities and gain influence in politics. The Internet already connects us with people all over the United States and the world. The challenge lies in learning how to use this technology to help all of us achieve a central goal of every movement since the 1960s--to gain greater effective control over the decisions that affect our lives. We can accomplish a great deal with the online tools available to us now. Even more will be possible in the future. In this book, we will discuss both: how to use what we have and how to obtain what we need.

We begin in the next chapter with a brief discussion of the minimal computer, software, and online service that you need to use telecommunications for community and political organizing. Every new system will meet these standards, since encouraging people to access the Internet has become the central priority of the entire industry. Grassroots organizations often have to work with second- and third-hand donated equipment, however, so it's important to know what will work and what won't.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the two Internet tools central to organizing itself--email lists and the World Wide Web. As we have noted, email lists or "listservs" permit thousands of people all over the world communicate simultaneously with one another. The Web enables us both to present and retrieve information at a fraction of what it would cost using conventional media. Even though there are other systems operating through the Net--Internet Relay Chat (IRC) for live chats, Usenet groups for bulletin-board style dialogues and diatribes--I have found that 95 percent of my time as an activist is spent using either email or the Web. Here, I describe not merely how they operate, but what each specifically has to offer those of us who pursue social and political change.

Chapter 5 describes how leading organizations and advocates on both ends of the political spectrum are already using the Internet to advance their respective causes. It hasn't taken long for a number of groups to discover what a potent resource the Internet can be in this area.

Chapter 6 outlines how we can make best use of the Internet to revitalize our own communities and neighborhoods. Much of my own work has focused on this set of problems, and I want to discuss how our efforts to build Neighborhoods Online in Philadelphia can be replicated throughout the United States.

Chapter 7 lays out how we can use the Internet to promote voter registration and participation in elections, and expand the influence of local party activists and policy advocates politics as a whole. The final chapter sets forth what the partnership among Internet activists, government, and citizens needs to be to use the Internet to reclaim politics in the years ahead.

I believe the Internet can help us strengthen democracy in America, irrespective of our views on particular issues. Going online makes it easier for us to communicate, keep track of what's happening with government and politics at all levels, and convey our concerns to the people in power. Of course, the Internet can also drive us farther apart, if all we seek are new ways to meet our needs entirely within our own homes, without regard for one another. The technology is nothing more than energy moving through wires and machines. What it does for us and to us depends on how we use it.

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1 Sidney Verba and Norman Nie, Participation in America (New York: Random House, 1969) p. 247.
2 Mark S. Bonchek, "Grassroots in Cyberspace: Using Computer Networks to Facilitate Political Participation," Working Paper 95-2.2.: Midwest Political Science Association, April 6, 1995, Sections 5.1-5.3.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid
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