“The Internet changes everything.”
If I had a nickel for every time I either read that phrase or said it myself, I'd be almost as rich as some of my dot.com friends. At least as wealthy as they are now that the morning-after has dawned.
While the business sector has a hangover from its excesses of enthusiasm about the Internet, the activist sector is still in the early stages of discovering—and inventing—the Internet's potential as a tool for social change. From early experiments with email petitions to ground-breaking independent media coverage to sophisticated shopping portals that rate vendors in terms of social responsibility, activists are finding the new medium as exciting as their entrepreneurial peers. Herewith, a few notes from the front.
Nothing travels faster in cyberspace than humor. And nothing is more contagious than humor when it comes to spreading subversive cultural messages via forwarded emails. Consider the case of Jonah Peretti, whose order for a set of custom Nikes emblazoned with the word “Sweatshop” became a worldwide phenomenon through an email exchange that was forwarded to millions of individuals before reaching millions more via coverage in Business Week, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the Today show.
The creators of a half-dozen websites are using humor to take on some of the big corporate players as part of the rapidly advancing art of culture jamming. Culture jamming is basically a form of cultural aikido in which the cleverness of individual pranksters is used to turn the multimillion-dollar messages of corporate monoliths against themselves.
A classic of the genre is the Taco Bell Liberation Army (TBLA), launched in response to a series of Taco Bell commercials depicting their chihuahua mascot as a revolutionary leader. The fictitious TLBA issued a press release announcing that $15 million of the company's advertising budget would be earmarked to fund “radical social justice wherever tacos are found.”
Many of these cultural hijinks have some connection with an organization called ®™ark (www.rtmark.com), which is sort of a cross between a community center and a conceptual art exhibit space for culture jammers. The ®™ark site includes hundreds of projects organized into 14 topical “mutual funds,” including Labor, Education, Intellectual Property, Health, Media, and the like. These “mutual funds” bring together people with ideas, money, and and the ability to execute on the ground, mirroring their financial counterparts in allowing “investors to participate in unpredictable behavior without fully understanding its nature or consequences.”
Current projects include placing a pre-designed brochure advertising “Deportation Class” seating in airline seat pockets, programming a computer game designed to prepare users to work in fast food restaurants and distributing it to American public schools, and lobbying for a rating system that would rank films and TV shows by the extent of their product placements.
Less conceptual and considerably more graphic are the pieces collected at www.subvertise.org, a U.K.-based site featuring “An archive of 100s of Subverts, Political Art and Articles to Reuse in Web and Print.” My personal favorite: an Adbusters' piece in the “Consumption and Fashion” category featuring a photograph of a muscle-bound and apparently otherwise well-endowed male model checking the contents of his “Calvin Kline's” in a mock ad for “Obsession for Men.”
Finally, there's the website of the Billboard Liberation Front (www.billboardliberation.com), which includes numerous examples of its “24 years of outdoor advertising improvement,” along with a “comprehensive guide to the alteration of outdoor advertising” and a great set of links to other Culture Jammer sites.
“The Internet will save democracy.” So begins Steven Clift's The E-Democracy E-Book: Democracy is Online 2.0 (accessible at www.publicus.net). But lest you think that Clift is just another dot-com hyperboloid, he's quick to add, “I'd like to suggest that just as the television saved democracy, so will the Internet. Now that I've set a low expectation, anything we can do incrementally to improve democracy through the Internet is something we can consider an accomplishment.”
Clift has been working to raise the bar ever since 1994, when he helped to found Minnesota E-Democracy at the age of 24. That site (www.e-democracy.org), which has been an early and ongoing model for “participatory democracy within the context of representative democracy,” features detailed election-year coverage, including information from candidates and non-partisan sources, online public spaces for citizen discussions of candidates and issues, and structured online candidate debates.
One of the internet's particular strengths is its capacity to make information available to large numbers of people at low cost. Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation (CVF), uses this capacity to keep campaign promises in front of the public long after the elections are over. Most serious candidates for public office produce and maintain campaign websites,” she says. “But these sites are often taken down or altered immediately after an election.” The “Archive of Campaign Promises” on her non-partisan www.calvoter.orgsite preserves campaign promises so voters can judge their representatives' performances against their promises. But the power of technology in politics extends well beyond computers, the Internet, and the United States. In China, the fax machine was the information life-blood of the democracy movement pre-Tienamen Square; in the former Soviet Union, hundreds of individuals and tiny grassroots groups were linked to each other and the outside world for the first time through email.
One of the most powerful recent examples of technology in action was the overthrow of Philippine President Joseph Estrada earlier this year, which began and ended with new technology. In the beginning was an exposé of the President's finances, produced by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. The mainstream press declined to report the story, but it was widely circulated on the Internet and kept alive there long enough to generate a formal investigation and Senate impeachment hearings, which were broadcast live—with no editorial filters—for several weeks. When the Senate judges backed down on a critical vote, the people took to the streets. Among their key organizing tools: a technology called SMS, for Short Messaging Service, which allows Filipinos to send text messages on their mobile phones. Although the text messages were limited to 160 characters, they carried enough information to notify people about the time and place of the next demonstration, allowing hundreds of thousands of protesters to join in one mass action after another over a four-day period. And in the end, the 1.5 million people assembled at the EDSA Shrine in Manila were enough to force the president to resign.
Many of the Internet-based activities in more traditional activist arenas have this same grassroots quality. MoveOn.org, was originally founded as a “ma and pa” website by Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, two Silicon Valley software developers who were deeply frustrated by the Clinton impeachment hearings. Their initial “flash” campaign, “Censure and Move On,” delivered over 2,000,000 emails to Congress, generated more than 250,000 phone calls, mobilized thousands of volunteers, and spawned a get-out-the-vote campaign that reached more than 4 million individuals by email, a pledge drive that netted more than $13 million and 800,000 hours of volunteer time for future campaigns. Not bad for a couple of political amateurs.
While the rise of the Web has certainly spawned a whole new generation of e-activists, it has also been a boon to existing organizations and long-time activists. Co-op America, a 19-year-old organization that encourages people to use consumer and investor power for social change, maintains a total of seven distinct websites (all of them accessible at www.coopamerica.org), each with a focus on a specific set of actions, including consumer boycotts, social investing and buying green.
Rather than focus on electronic activism, most of the Co-op America sites use the Web to provide information that encourages consumers to take action in the real world. The group's most recent effort, a cooperative venture with Working Assets' Shop for Change site (www.ShopForChange.com) and the Council on Economic Priorities (www.cepnyc.org), is the Responsible Shopper (www.responsibleshopper.org). This site features ratings and profiles of 200 individual companies and 11 industries on workplace, environment, and disclosure policies. Using data compiled by staff, volunteers, and partners, the site is designed to help all of us decide what to buy—and from whom—based on our values. And when it comes to influencing corporate behavior, action doesn't get any more direct than that.
As a final example of electronic activism, consider the impact of the Internet on bird watchers, a huge grassroots population moving toward action via the net.
For the last four years, the National Audubon Society has been working with the ornithology lab at Cornell University to move its annual Christmas Bird Count to the Web (www.birdsource.org/). By the second year online, three-quarters of the individual counts, which totaled 65,532 that year, were submitted via the Web, making compilation, analysis, and computer-aided mapping feasible, accurate, and real-time. Imagine your nightly weathercast with its satellite photos of high and low pressure zones, but with comparable images of the numbers and migrations of grosbeaks and warblers.
More important, in the eyes of John W. Fitzpatrick, director of the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell, is the way this feedback loop leads to action, from backyard habitat improvement projects to large-scale reclamation efforts by the likes of International Paper Company and the Department of Defense, both of which have modified their practices to improve bird habitat. In a story in the Washington Post earlier this year, Fitzpatrick said, “this is a fundamental power of the Internet. It drives a huge growth in citizen engagement. All of this is being done by school kids, families, retired folk.” But Fitzpatrick believes the changes extend well beyond habitat protection. “I think we're seeing history in the making. People are now noticing change, searching for bio-indicators, and then fixing the problem,” he says. “Our thesis is that the Internet is the first point in human history in the creation of consciousness at a massive and biologically meaningful scale.”