Published in the Spring 2005 issue • Geek Chic
Saluting the internet for reshaping political protest
The internet may have turned 35 last year, but the World Wide Web part of it is still in its early teens. Other net-based technologies, such as MSN chatting and social networking, are even younger.
While every smart corporation knows that a website is essential for good public relations, ordinary people are increasingly using online tools to push their own agendas and speak their minds. The internet has made activism more visible than ever, perhaps because it’s made activism easier than ever. And so, we salute the internet for helping us organize, educate and speak up like never before.
While the hype may have subsided, the web is still growing at an amazing rate. More information appears online every day, and is literally at your fingertips. To make information even easier to access, big search portals have started indexing news sites. Want to know more about what’s happening with a cause you believe in? Google News has your back: try searching, for example, “racism,” “pollution” or “sexism.” You can even have news items on these topics e-mailed to you. The internet has made keeping track of current events a breeze.
Media moguls beware
You don’t have to keep all of this information to yourself. The internet has given everyone with access a chance to share information through weblogs, message boards and mailing lists.
New publishing options aren’t limited to text, either. Want your own talk radio show? Podcasting is a growing trend where people post MP3-based radio shows online; subscribers can then run programs that automatically download each new episode. For an example, check out www.vegan.com. How about a record label? Things have gotten to the point where just about anyone can make a CD in their living room. Not big enough? Start your own film studio and distribute your own DVDs. For example, Toronto-based author and indie publisher Jim Munroe sells a homemade DVD zine through his site, www.nomediakings.org.
Perhaps the biggest change the internet has made to international communications is that corporate media don’t run the whole show anymore. Sure, they’ve got a major grasp on the market, but independent voices are increasingly blurring the line that defines journalism. For example, Indy Media is a global collective of independent media outlets (translation: people like you and me) trying to break down the barriers of corporate-controlled journalism. Through their open publishing policy, anyone can post news stories, photographs and video clips online. These are stories that rarely make it into the mainstream media, and voices that are never heard on the six o’clock news.
The months leading up to the United States’ election this past November was a great example of information sharing. One blogger claims to have spent $2,000 (U.S.) for extra bandwidth to provide Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 for free downloading (Moore has said on several occasions that he wants people to pirate the film and spread his message, although film distributor Miramax might have other opinions on this). Actors and musicians such as Will Ferrell, Le Tigre and Eminem released videos online denouncing the Iraq war and the Bush administration. At the same time, websites such as MoveOn and Daily Kos provided hubs for people to organize around through message boards, articles and election tips and advice.
Networking made easy
It’s hard to have a revolution by yourself, but the internet has made it possible to connect to people with similar interests.
Social network websites such as Friendster and Orkut have invented entirely new ways for people to find each other online. These sites allow members to post profiles and then link their profiles to their friends’ and acquaintances’ profiles, forming a network of people with similar interests.
While you might not know anybody who’s interested in politics, you probably have a friend (or a friend of a friend) who does; these sites can help you find each other. Once you are connected, programs such as MSN Messenger and AIM replace expensive long distance phone calls. (Think about it: when was the last time you used a phone to talk to your cousin in Sweden?)
If you prefer to meet people in the real world, the internet can do that, too. Meetup deserves credit for getting people together to talk about socio-political issues and a lot of other things. From anarchism to action figures, there are monthly meetings worldwide about almost any topic imaginable. In the U.S., Howard Dean managed to get over 140,000 people to join Meetup groups to promote his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
It’s never been easier to forget our differences
One of the best things about the internet is that, as time goes on, this technology is becoming the norm for more and more people. If you were born after 1985, you probably can’t imagine a world where people can’t chat with friends online or find out about news minutes after it happens. Fifteen years ago, you would have been lucky to find 10 people online who were interested in any given type of activism, and they were usually the kind of people who never left the house. Things have changed: in April 2004, MoveOn managed to get half a million volunteers to hold 1,100 bake sales across the U.S., which raised $750,000 for an ad campaign attacking President George W. Bush’s military record.
Of course, the internet has its limitations. There are billions of people around the world — and even in your own community — who do not have access to the internet. Many towns, cities and countries don’t have money for computers and infrastructure. And in some places, internet access is severely restricted by local governments. China, for example, allegedly has between 30,000 and 40,000 “internet police” monitoring their citizens’ internet access, closing cyber cafés that have violated the country’s rules, and even arresting people for participating in what the government feels are subversive activities.
It’s also possible that the internet has made us lazy: it’s becoming difficult to get people to do anything that requires more than the click of a mouse. Physical letters to your government officials still carry more weight than their electronic equivalents, and paper-based petitions are still the only kind (when prepared properly) that will be considered by Canada’s House of Commons.
Still, there’s no denying that the internet has done a lot more than let people shop for groceries in their underwear. With your trusty computer at your side, it has never been easier to make your voice heard. Happy belated birthday, internet — you rock our political socks.