Monday, January 5, 2009

How to promote activism over Internet

As part of my campaign for social change, I have slowly been getting involved in different types of activism in the recent past, Free Software being one of them. Being a technologist, I have been trying to use Internet as the medium to promote the causes that I have been standing for. Although it has been used effectively elsewhere, I have realized that it is not so straightforward nor easy in Kerala/India. It is not that people are not interested in the causes, nor that they don't have Internet access, but that they are probably not aware that they can contribute to the causes over the Internet. In this article I discuss on how to effectively contribute to and hence promote activism of any kind over the Internet.

Emergence of Internet as THE new age media

Internet has emerged as one of the most, if not the most, powerful mediums of communication of this age. Two aspects of this power is in the scalability and the low cost of entry for somebody in using this medium. If you can reach out effectively over the Internet, the cost and effort in reaching out to a 100 people wouldn't be that different from the cost of reaching out to a million people - hence the scalability aspect. Add to it the fact that the absolute value of this cost is far lower than traditional mediums and you have a killer medium, you have the low cost aspect.

During the initial days of the Internet, people used it primarily to view content available on the Internet generated by a few. So there were a few content providers and a large number of content consumers. This was quite like traditional media like television and newspapers, where the content consumers far outnumber the content providers. People also used Internet as a plain one-on-one communication medium as through emails, text chat, voice chat, video chat etc.

The emergence of the concept of user-generated content corrected this imbalance, and opened up the possibility of everyone who can get online becoming an information provider. What this did was to take out the control of a few people over the information that was available over the Internet enabling people to offer alternative and dissenting versions on topics already offered and also offer information on topics not covered/censored by established media.

Why Internet?

How can this help activism? How can this help a particular cause? The single sentence answer is that you can contribute towards activism for a given cause by generating content related to the cause and through this content letting more people know about the cause. Activism and social causes are really movements by a minority in the society who want to bring in changes into the system. Traditional information providers would normally be reluctant to act as channels for broadcasting information about such minorities because of market forces and market interests.

This is the gap that Internet can fill by acting as a neutral medium of information exchange. By being a neutral but meritocratic medium, Internet also offers the possibility and the opportunity, for people with initiative, to magnify their efforts and reach out very efficiently to a very large audience. Thus even when traditional media does not cover a specific item, Internet can effectively take this information to the masses.

Theory aside there are certain strategies that you can follow to do exactly this. But before we look at the strategies, there are certain attitude prerequisites required to be able to effectively embrace these strategies. We will take a look at the attitude aspect first.

Attitude you have to build for contributing to causes over the Internet

1) Build an attitude of inquisitiveness and collect facts and information related to the topic - Such an attitude helps not just the social causes you stand for, but also in moulding responsible and intelligent human beings out of you. Additionally, this attitude is probably the most important attitude that you require to progress in your life, in your career and wherever you are. Life is a continuous exercise of learning, you die the moment you stop learning.

2) Be bold and state your opinion - Once you have the required information about the topic you should be able to think about the topic and build your opinion and conclusions about the issues under consideration. The next step would be to take this out into the open through what ever online systems you can reach and then engage in healthy discussions around these. Only through discussions and deliberations will we be able to sort out differences and take decisions to embrace change and move forward.

3) Take initiative to spread the word - The contribution that we are talking about primarily means contributing towards spreading the word about the cause. When you stand for a cause or approve of a cause, you do not help the cause in any way if you remain a silent listener. You can claim to be an active supporter of the cause only if you engage in spreading the word about the cause. Outside the web such an activity will require reasonable physical exertion which could be claimed as an excuse for not contributing. But on the web there is practically very little effort that you need to put to get the word around. So it is just a question of your initiative. Take initiative and spread the word.

4) Build a strong online profile for yourself and make your voice be heard - Even though the web is a level playing field, those who play well will always have an edge over those who don't. So learn the tricks of the trade and play well to be able to magnify the effect of your contribution. If you have good visibility on the web, the chances of you being heard will be higher. So put some effort in building your online profile. Once you have this visibility, you can use it to promote causes you stand for.

Specific strategies you can use for contributing to and promoting causes over the Internet

1) Participate in Online Communities, Mailing Lists - Participating in online discussions over forums, mailing lists, irc channels are the easiest way to contribute towards the causes. Healthy discussions will encourage people to think more and to get clarity on the different aspects of the causes they are standing for. This clarity will further help in clarifying the issues for people who are not already in these lists. People very often oppose causes because they do not have very clear ideas about the causes themselves. So participating in such online discussions will help in breaking a lot of these mindset barriers of these causes. Even if you do not find a community/cause you would like to stand for, you can still participate in groups where you naturally are a member of like your alumni mailing lists, your professional mailing lists etc. You can then use the access to these lists to further the causes you stand for by letting your friends in these other lists know about the causes.

2) Use Social Networking Sites for your cause - Online Social Networking is a phenomenon that has gained quite some popularity in the recent years. Such communities and systems like orkut, facebook, myspace etc give access to collection of individuals who share similar ideas and passions. Interested people can create communities around causes they like and connect with people who share similar interests. So without requiring the physical effort of actually meeting each other these communities allow such people to efficiently collaborate for causes. You can decide to pursue your own causes using these systems or join causes for which communities already exist. Alternatively you can also become part of other communities like your alumni groups, company groups, career groups, professional groups etc and then use the access to these groups to spread information about the causes you stand for and the groups they can join to contribute.

3) Effectively use Social Bookmarking and help the items get public attention - Social Bookmarking is yet another way of sharing with your friends, links to pages that you think deserves attention. Social bookmarking also gives you the option to categorize the links so that your friends will just have to look out for links related to areas that they are interested in. In addition to letting your friends know of the links, social bookmarking also manages to classify using democratic means the content that are being bookmarked by people. It classifies and at the same time identifies popularity of the content that are being bookmarked by virtue of the number of bookmarking a particular link. So if you want to promote a website/page with information about the cause you care for, bookmark it in your favorite social bookmarking system.

4) Blog about the event, activity, activism - A blog is no longer a personal web log, it is your personal online news channel. There will always be people around you who will monitor your blog, i.e. once you have a blog. If you are really good with your blog you can even reach out to millions of people across the world. In any case you can use the blog to let these people know about the causes you are standing for, the issues you are facing around these causes, the kind of support that you need from these people etc. A blog also gives you an opportunity to point your readers to relevant blog posts on other blogs and other websites that you think they should also get to know.

5) Mail your friends about the causes you are standing for - This is probably the most expensive way of contributing (in terms of time spent per target person) to a cause but the return on investment of time could be equal or higher based on whom you decide to mail. You might want to pursue this strategy with people whom you think could massively impact your cause. For example writing about a legal cause to a friend in the legal practice who can let his friends in legal practice know about the cause. You would also want to pursue this strategy to let critical officials know about your causes. When you mail people it would always be good to point them to some permanent URL on the web where the recipient can go and get more information.

6) Link to other blogs and sites where the topic is being discussed - The internet is a huge mesh of web pages interconnected by hyperlinks or links. The importance of web pages are decided by several factors like the content on the page, the title used, the organization of the content, the number of pages that link to that page etc. There are questions about the relative importance of each of these factors. However, of these, only one is directly within your control i.e. the number of links to a page. If you see a website or a page which you think need to be promoted you have to link to it from your blog or website. It is like voting for the page and saying that - yes you agree with it. You could also vote for a page and say you don't agree by linking with negative terms in your link. The more links that a page gets, the more people will get to know about the cause and the more easier it becomes to promote the cause. So when you see something that you agree with and want to promote, blog about it and link to it.

What we have discussed here is not the exhaustive set of attitudes and strategies that you require to actively campaign online. But these would give you an indication of what all you could do online. Use this as a starting point, read more and figure out yourselves how best you can contribute given your time and resources. So as the zen saying goes - find your own way. If you have questions or suggestions, feel free to comment to this article and I can try to answer them in the best way I can. Before I close this discussion, I have to issue a warning note, you should be very careful in implementing these strategies as there is very little margin between online campaigning and spamming.

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1 comment:

  1. Do take a loot at the Seattle Coalition which protested agains the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle in 1999. It is a useful illustration of grassroots NGOs coming together on the internet to form a potent force.