Can Viral Activism Vitalize Democracy?

A enigmatic tale set in Japan’s Middle Ages, “Rashomon” tells one story of sex and murder from four conflicting perspectives. The stories do not get resolved in the last reel. The title is used today as a metaphor for the multiple truths of supposedly hard facts. Meanwhile, pundits like me go about flogging our particular POV’s at every opportunity, with all the single-minded repetitiveness of brand advertisers.

Both issues come to the fore when assessing ‘Net-roots organizing, the approach to political mobilization pursued by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and MoveOn, and at the commercial but free Web site, Conflicting assessments of the approach seem to be equally valid, and too important to paper over with neat packaging.

To set the stage, UFPJ’s Web site was the organizing hub for the February 15 global demonstration against the then-impending war in Iraq. That day, 400,000 protesters turned out onto the streets of New York City, joined by as many as 10 million more in almost 800 different political actions in cities around the globe. On the eve of the U.S. invasion the following month, MoveOn (with only five staffers) put together candlelight vigils involving as many as one million people in 6,000 gatherings in 130 countries.

Unlike the traditional mobilization structures that rely on hierarchal command-and-control relationships, and also make good use of emailing lists and Web sites, these ‘Net-roots organizers rely on peer-to-peer communications, leveraging the trust and credibility implicit in personal referrals for recruitment. Distributed intelligence, provides downloadable toolkits that enable people to organize themselves for local action. Using the Internet’s best qualities, the approach is opt-in, viral and decentralized, popularizing political participation by creating shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity, one email at a time.

On the other hand, the approach has limits. It cannot transcend the “digital divide.” Certain easily distinguishable populations in the analog world are substantially underrepresented in the online population. What’s more, as the UFPJ itself points out, these methods cannot address the task of real world institution-building, upon which the reliability of political power still depends.

Less obvious than these analog world limits are certain online weaknesses. E-mail is certainly a cheap and fast way to get messages out, but it works best when there’s already a base consensus upon which a coalition can catalyze. It can be implemented more and less effectively, but succeeds best at coordination. It doesn’t preach to the choir; there’s no sermon.

From politics to movie stars, wherever there’s a debate, email quickly flames out. It wasn’t designed to and does not, in fact, provide an effective environment in which to articulate or discuss — much less resolve — issues of substance.

Similarly, meeting software is designed to support here-and-now gatherings, not communities of coherent discourse evolving over time. More problematic, the most effective practice in ‘Net-roots organizing is to mobilize around single issues, at most two or three at a time, and for short durations. MoveOn chose its name consciously and purposefully to reflect that approach. Both the software and its best users may only be contributing to the further Balkanization of American politics.

This is not exceptional. All machine-based forms of communications violate certain important attributes of human knowledge as we’ve inherited it. Hypertext tends to uproot knowledge from its context, fragmenting and leveling it. PowerPoint favors hierarchal lists over telling a story or showing causality. Boolean logic offers all the allure of power and control over a universe of knowledge, and yet has no necessary connection with what we humans perceive and experience; the class of unicorns and the class of cows have the same status in the system, despite what we all know is an existential difference.

In the warranted enthusiasm for the Internet’s democratizing potential, it’s patently obvious (but nonetheless important) to remember that machines do not make meaning, humans do. The larger visions of where the polity is coming from or going to is not a matter machine language can handle.

Rightly hopeful of how the Internet can enable popular political participation, while at the same time acknowledging and accepting its limits and weaknesses, one final perspective tips my scales in its favor. Anything that encourages public activity in this society is a good thing.

Compared to other cultures, Americans’ personal lives tend to be domesticated and privatized. Group, neighborhood and civic opportunities have withered. We focus on the right to privacy but neglect what Oliver Wendell Holmes called the duty of publicity — a willingness, even eagerness, to stand before the glare of public opinion. The most we can muster, it seems, is a wistful nostalgia for the tame camaraderie of white-collar keglers in a bar room sitcom.

The Internet can help correct this situation, but it’s no sure thing. Spammers who harvest email addresses from public discussion forums have had a chilling effect on the average surfer’s willingness to participate. Irresponsible hacking and identify theft further taint the space. All the more reason to take it back.

Almost any public life is better than none at all. If Net-roots organizing can help restore that dimension, we’ll all be the better for it. See you, citizen, online or off-.

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