The Internet: What It Can and Can't Do for Activists

Larry Lamar Yates
Social Justice Connections

This paper is based on the publication The Internet--What It Can and Can't Do for Activists, published by Social Justice Connections in September of 1995. The publication is an introduction to the Internet for social justice activists. Most of its information is elementary to Internet practitioners and would be tedious to repeat at this conference. Nor was the purpose of the publication merely to provide a body of information on the Internet in a neutral manner (if this is in fact possible). My intention was to provide information in a way that would support the work of local and national activists working for a progressive political agenda. This paper is my commentary on my publication and on the intersection between a political agenda for social justice in North America and the Internet as I see it.

Both my interest in and experience with social justice activism are much greater than my interest in and experience with the Internet. I have been active in progressive political work since my teens, in the mid-1960s. I have served as the sole staff person to struggling community organizations, and have also put in many hours as a volunteer for such organizations. My identity as one of thousands of movement people is the foundation for this publication.

The booklet is the first of a series of publications written to assist grassroots social justice activists in their work. My small enterprise, Social Justice Connections, is committed to supporting progressive, anti-oppression, and environmentalist organizing and activism. (The second booklet, published in April of 1996, is entitled The Roots of Our Activism: History You Can Organize To. A third publication is in process.)

The pamphlet begins by promising to take the reader past the hype of the Information Superhighway, to the real value--and the real limitations--of the Internet for her or his work. Two assumptions are implicit here. The first is that the reader is motivated not by an eagerness to jump into the Internet, but a desire to use a new tool for a political agenda. The second is that the reader has significant limits on the time and resources available for experimentation and exploration. These assumptions are not shared by the commercial periodicals devoted to selling Internet-related products and services, the major source of information available to most of us on the Internet.

Next, I describe my relevant experience. It includes several years on the Steering Committee of CommunityLink, an experiment in grassroots telecommunication by the Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C., and several years as an information provider on Handsnet, an electronic network serving groups working on housing, homelessness and poverty issues across the nation. I briefly mention CompuServe, America Online, the Community Information Exchange, and EcoNet. My emphasis is on having participated in efforts by movement-based organizations to use telecommunications, even though those efforts were not on the Internet. My assumption is that the activist reader is more interested in reassurance about my experience with the interface between telecommunications and activism than about my experience on the Internet per se.

Mythical and real uses of the Internet

This first section of the pamphlet focuses on the promise of the title, sorting activities into what, in my opinion, the Internet can and can't do for social justice activists. Technically, this section is not completely accurate. Those functions that I write that the Internet cannot provide are, in fact, available on the Internet in some form. But for my perceived reader--a busy activist with limited resources looking to the Internet as a means to an end--they are, as a practical matter, not available.

Which functions do I dismiss? All three of my dismissals are controversial, but the first is probably the most arguable--Looking for Unfamiliar Information. I'm not sure I agree with this one myself, as the World Wide Web explodes and as my experience with it grows. But for my postulated busy activist, sorting through the pages of irrelevant material that a search engine brings up is probably not the best use of time. Nor is the Web, still, a good source for the detailed and politically related information that an activist is likely to be seeking. Few local activists find it the best use of their time to put their concrete experiences up on a telecommunications system. There are providers, such as HandsNet, the Institute for Global Communications, and Right To Know Net, that have substantial bodies of information that activists can use. Even these systems are all more or less independent of the larger Internet.

The other uses of the Internet that I dismiss are Making Political Connections and Educating the Public. While the Internet is hyped as an outreach tool, I have never found a real organizer who is impressed with its potential in this area, once she or he understands how it functions. First, as I note, most people, especially most people with working class incomes, aren't on the Net. This may be old news, but it is pretty critical to most organizers, who do not find that prosperous white male professionals are their best prospects for action for social justice. Secondly, as I also note, it makes a lot more sense to meet people through people, through organizations, and through activist work, than to meet them on the Net. As an organizer, you want to know a lot more about a person than their opinions. Opinions are easy; what an organizer looks for are dependable, steady, focussed people who will do political work. In fact, organizers spend a lot of time trying to avoid people whose main desire is to express their opinions at length rather than work. These folks make up one of the groups that is drawn to the Internet.

What do I recommend on the Internet? Symmetrically, also three activities. Correspondence by e-mail is the first activity I recommend. I simply call it the best way available today to communicate with someone else who also has e-mail. The benefits of e-mail that I emphasize are the absence of phone tag and its speed--both helpful to the busy activist. I don't make a visionary pitch related to e-mail's globe-spanning qualities or the ability to carry on a thread of dialogue to dialectic perfection.

The second recommended activity is acquiring shareware and freeware on the Internet. The last is getting a known text. Searching the Internet for something that might be there can be a waste of precious time. But if a document is known to be on the Net, it makes a lot of sense to get it into your computer. Both of these are also benefits that an activist might not think of, and thus are important to mention. The assumption of a friendly world of fellow cyberfolk providing resources guides many of us. It is not intuitively obvious to those who approach the world of the Internet with hesitation. The Internet environment can just as accurately be seen as hostile, or at least forbiddingly indifferent, especially for those who either dislike or are unmoved by the technology of the process.

Since writing the pamphlet, I would expand the "known text" activity to include statistics. There are some valuable sources of statistics for the United States online, especially through the previously mentioned Right to Know Net, a service of the Unison Institute and OMB Watch. This source of statistical information on environmental and community development issues is very much to the point for activists. The more this character of information is available, the more the Net will live up to some of the claims that have been made.

This section also includes activities about which I am mildly dubious. These are Marketing Yourself, Testing Public Opinion, and Mobilizing Far-Flung Supporters. All of these are activities that have been extensively touted as benefits of the Internet. But to a hard-pressed activist, I contend, the benefits of putting up a Web page or soliciting opinions through a list server or a newsgroup are vague, compared to other options for outreach that exist. An organizer is interested, finally, in mobilizing real people to do real things, not in a number of hits on a Web page that may indicate nothing more than that your page happens to share a key word with some other more popular site. And people in a newsgroup may be in Australia or Zimbabwe, which is way cool, but not helpful to getting folks out in front of the Town Hall in Topeka next Friday night.

As far as mobilizing far-flung supporters, I can speak concretely to this. I was one of the first people to use HandsNet effectively as an organizing tool. And I was and am very clear that the Internet and telecommunications in general are only one element of a total organizing strategy. Kind of like those cereals that are "part of this complete breakfast." You must include the coffee, eggs and juice--the phone calls, site visits, and hard copy materials that are also needed to educate and connect to people. Organizing people is a multifaceted activity. It requires that you reach people where they are. Complaining that they need to have their hands held, or that they should be reachable in some way that is more convenient to you, is simply self-indulgence an organizer cannot afford.

The next section of the pamphlet discusses Race, Gender, Sexual Orientation and Disability. It begins by agreeing with the standard refrain that no one can know any more online about your race, gender, sexual orientation, physical characteristics, income, or any other feature than you disclose.

This is true, as far as it goes. But that hardly means that the Internet is a haven for diversity. Public space in North America is generally considered to be white and heterosexual, as a matter of course. Technical expertise is frequently assumed to be a male and at least middle-class prerogative. It's no great benefit for a homeless Latina to be able to double-click her way to a chat line about lawn care, or for a teenager on welfare trying to find out facts to have to weed through gossip about the Harvard faculty.

On the other hand, persons who are automatically dismissed on the basis of their appearance can avoid such obstacles on the Internet. On-line malls don't have racist sales clerks, and there is no place on the Internet that is inaccessible to people using wheelchairs. In fact, the adaptability of computers for persons with physical disabilities is one of their great benefits.

To activists, all these are critical concerns. As a progressive with a critique of society, one must remain aware of hidden and open assumptions, and work hard to ensure that, in cyberspace as well as in our streets and public institutions, every human being finds affirmation and access.

This section both conveys information about the Internet, and offers a political analysis. For organizers and activists, this kind of commentary is as grounding as catching up on Java applets might be to someone with a different orientation to life.

The next brief section is titled What Does It Mean to Be Online? To Be on the Internet? This section was inspired by my observation that, without direct experience of them, the standard descriptions of telecommunications experience are at best misleading. Worse, the commercializers of the Internet are invested in confusing the issue of what happens when you go online, so it is important, at a minimum, to explain that a number of computers are connected together, worldwide, to form the Internet, and that, if you are connected to one of those connections, you are on the Internet, and in fact you are as much a part of the Internet, for that moment, as anybody else. This takes away some of the sense we all have, after a lifetime of watching television, that the Internet is an entity out there of which we are spectators or consumers.

The next section is titled Basic Decisions: If You Do It, What You Need. It is basically an account of the hardware, software, and connections needed to get onto the Internet. It is simplified, and it is of course subject to obsolescence, as well as plagued by a couple of just plain mistakes. Buy a copy and have fun tracking them down.

My decision tree follows the usual order for civilians, rather than the rational order that begins with function, then goes to software, and then to the hardware. For most people, and certainly for relatively impoverished activists, the limiting factor to getting on the Net is the ability to get a computer at all.

I share the good news that almost any computer can at least get you on the Internet, and the bad news is that some of them can't do much more than just get you on.

The modem follows. On the theory that people are getting used to computers, I focus on calming any anxiety about the modem as a potentially scary machine, and I emphasize its simplicity and low cost.

Next is the phone connection. In a well-equipped office, this is a non-issue. But for an activist at home or in an office in an ancient church basement, this may be a tough issue. A dedicated line may be out of the question, so I go into some etiquette of shared phone lines.

Next is telecommunications software. This is another non-issue for those of us in friendly environments. I felt it was important to emphasize it, in an environment of disk crashes, unpaid bills, and general calamity. My last warning about this software is that you may need it again to start all over some day.

The section on the Internet connection is the most detailed, and of course the most quickly obsolete. I emphasize that the choice of one's connection has both cost implications and political implications, that it is how you choose what the Internet looks like to you, and to some extent, what you look like to others.

In my schema, there are four basic methods of going online:

  1. Free connections--university connections, or community networks, which I wish I had known more about when I wrote the booklet.
  2. Movement-oriented connections--by which I refer to the Institute for Global Communications--PeaceNet, EcoNet, ConflictNet, LaborNet, and Womensnet, as well as the Handsnet system, which includes many of the key groups in housing and other poverty issues.
  3. Local service--by which I mean small independent Internet providers, who, I emphasize, do not generally operate outside areas of high computer concentration. Many activists work outside the major cities and college towns.
  4. The big corporate operations--by which I mean America Online, Compuserve, etc. I characterize them as generally friendly, for which I have gotten some flak. But it's clear that, whatever you and I might think, hundreds of thousands of people find them a comforting environment. And just because someone is a political radical, and even a cultural radical, doesn't mean they will insist on the hippest, or even most humane, interface they can have.

I go on to discuss Online Identity. Activists are used to having control of their identities. Some organizers adopt virtual anonymity. Other activists are highly visible in their communities, usually in direct relationship to the outrageousness of their actions as perceived in their local community. Online identity is different. It is more fluid, and more volatile. I was especially concerned with letting activists know how quickly an idle word or two could spread through the Net. I also wanted to point out that it's easy to bump into people on the Internet. I compare it to high school. I also point out that the folks you easily run into may not be the people you went on line to connect to, any more than you have stayed in touch with your entire 9th grade gym class.

Explaining e-mail requires some careful parsing. The critical fact about e-mail for an activist is what response it elicits. The goal of an activist is not self-expression. Unlike for many people on the Net, simply casting one's opinion to the winds is not good enough. Activists are also used to being dismissed, ignored, and overlooked; they want to know their chances of getting through to someone. This means that the salient fact about e-mail is that it involves sending mail to a location where the reader can go and get it, when they choose to. Which means, of course, that e-mail is an extremely quick way to reach someone who checks their e-mail frequently, and a lousy way to reach someone who never checks it.

I go on to suggest that for a group of people that is highly motivated, and has access to e-mail, e-mail is a great mobilizing tool. This is based on my own experience, on HandsNet, with a network of organizers and tenant leaders on some critical legislation in 1990. These were people who were anxious about the legislation--people's homes were at risk--and I could give them more information faster by e-mail than any other way, even sending them legislative language and sample letters. Many times, what I wrote was cut and pasted right into their newsletters and member mailings. I believe it made us significantly more effective in fighting to protect housing in low-income communities.

I also note that many people, especially us older folks, are not e-mail friendly. As an activist or organizer, there are going to be people that you have to reach, and you just have to find another way. It's kind of like when I was a street organizer, and I not only had to give one elderly gentleman a ride to meetings, I had to let him smoke in my car. As an organizer, you have to work with people where they are--or decide not to work with them.

In my comments on Gopher and File Transfer Protocol (FTP) servers, I indulge myself on the Internet with these thoughts. The Internet still is a kind of a big playhouse, built by a bunch of really smart guys (mostly guys) out of sheer mental effort and a few volts of electricity. And part of the fun of the playhouse is having a special language that distinguishes insiders from outsiders.

So some things that aren't very complicated to use, I suggest, have names that are maybe unnecessarily cute or weird. Gophers and FTPs are my examples, and I urge their use.

Getting to conferences, newsgroups, and lists, my central point is that these discussions, like any discussion, are no more disciplined, focussed, or likely to lead to action than the people contributing to it. They may feel better, or be easier to get into, but there is no magic about talking on the Internet. Electronic words have a different kind of impact, but not necessarily a better one.

I begin my discussion of the World Wide Web by noting that it is the new playground for the people whose job is to make sure you hear about things--marketers, advertisers, and publicists. I describe Web sites as little Disney Worlds on the Internet, meant to entertain, inform, and usually to get you to do something. They are not hard to set up; and they vary widely in quality and usefulness. I understand that this does not reflect the vision behind the Web; but it comes pretty close to the reality for the folks I am speaking to.

I suggest that it may be that in 10 years all of us will have our own Web site; it may be that in one year something else will have replaced them. I am not invested in the Web myself, though I use it. And I expect that those I am writing for will have the same detachment. For them, it may be as important to know about bulletin boards, which I describe briefly.

I also suggest that the odds of finding something marvelous that you really need just by exploring the Web are not that great. When I was writing this section of this paper, I simultaneously spent an hour looking for some information that I never did find. I could have driven to the library and gotten it. And I remind my readers a couple of times in the booklet that the library is still a good option.

I then take a look at some possible scenarios for the Internet's future:

Whichever scenario develops, though, for activists, there will be no replacement for organizing and personal connections, and no substitute for using our connections in a coordinated way to exercise our democratic power.

This does mean, for those who choose to be involved with it, a commitment to ensuring that the Internet remains a public resource. And not only a public resource, but a resource that is much more open to poor, oppressed and exploited people.

My final image is that of the great abolitionist, journalist, and statesman, Frederick Douglass, "going on line" with the World Wide Web site of his day, his newspaper, The North Star. He justified his new effort with these words: "It is evident that we must be our own representatives and advocates--not exclusively, but peculiarly--not distinct from, but in connection with our white friends." Unless the Internet can provide the same kind of opportunities to today's Frederick Douglasses, whether people of color or sexual minorities or just average people with low incomes, we have no business celebrating it.

The Internet today is often conceived of as an independent universe, with its own rules and its own life. And in many ways it is. That sense of an autonomous system is a powerful force against the commercialization of the Net. But there are others besides businesspeople for whom the Internet is no more than a means to a larger end. For those who consider themselves the heirs to Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, to Cesar Chavez and Emma Goldman, the Internet is one small facet of humanity, to be understood for its role in the struggle for justice that extends over centuries and across the planet. That is my viewpoint and the viewpoint of this publication.