The Web Rewires the Movement
Matzzie is not the only organizer rejecting Internet hype for a more measured view of its capabilities. "The Internet has been an enormous boon to grassroots mobilizations," says UFPJ's Kauffman. "But it can't replace old-fashioned face-to-face organizing, especially when you're trying to build something as delicate as a multiracial coalition." The polarizing debate about how to take up the issue of Palestine, for example, which roiled the UFPJ listserv in May, was handily resolved in the more goal-oriented and accountable setting of the coalition's June conference. E-mail is a notoriously bad way to resolve serious disputes over contentious issues, since it easily leads to harsh tones and misunderstandings. The Internet is best for pulling together a coalition when there is already a broad base of agreement--as there was for UFPJ and MoveOn around the Iraq war. And fault lines in the MoveOn consensus may yet emerge if a prowar Democrat gets the nomination.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Third World Majority, a digital media collective, says the racial skew to who's online further limits the usefulness of using e-mail to hash out political disputes. With only 3 percent of the world's population online, the divide is even more pronounced in international campaigns. "When you're online," she says, "a whole lot of people are not in the room." Kauffman says that UFPJ organizers, conscious of these demographics, were careful to use a mix of outreach strategies for the February 15 mobilization, distributing 1.2 million pieces of literature in six languages in every corner of New York City.
In some ways, the debate over whether online organizing is as "real" or as effective as face-to-face organizing misses the point. What's interesting about meetup.com, the UFPJ website and MoveOn's meeting tool is how they leverage the Internet to get people together face to face in ways (and at speeds and costs) that were simply not possible before. As with the phone, the television or computer-generated direct mail, the Internet won't replace traditional organizing, but it does alter the rules in important ways. Because e-mail is near-instantaneous and costs just fractions of a penny, one can communicate very quickly with a lot of people at the speed of word of mouth. Because it is browsable from home, at any hour, it provides a much easier first point of contact between a campaign and interested participants. Because it is a peer-to-peer tool open to all, it allows geographically dispersed people to find each other easily and coordinate. Because it is still an open-publishing model, free from the constraints of corporate-owned media, it can carry the channels of alternative information essential for sustaining social movements.
Although it replaces some organizing structures (e-mail makes for a far better phone tree than phones ever did) and invents whole new ones, like the campaign web hub or the meeting tool, the Internet is no silver bullet. But what organizing tool ever is? Rather, contemporary social movements will, more and more, straddle both worlds, in a synthetic feedback loop, at once real and virtual, online and off.
Last December in South Korea--the most densely wired country on the planet--a grassroots revolt streaming rich media across high-bandwidth connections helped elect an outsider human rights activist as president. Where will our own Internet-fueled movements take us?
In the first month after MoveOn installed its meeting tool on the Dean campaign website, supporters self-organized more than a thousand local events--testament, perhaps, to the stirrings of a democratic revival, in which large swaths of disaffected Americans are finding forms of political participation that feel fulfilling, effective and connected. MoveOn's Zack Exley asks us to imagine a political landscape, five years from now, with fifty MoveOns, each tapping different political currents, with a whole new ability to mobilize grassroots power. In June, United for Peace and Justice announced plans for a protest during the Republican National Convention in August 2004. But unlike the Philadelphia demonstrations in 2000, this protest will go global. Such plans are a sign of activists' growing confidence, post-February 15, in the potentially explosive convergence of common global concerns and the wide reach of the Net.
Whatever else it has done, the Internet has helped to level the playing field between an entrenched government and corporate and media power, and an insurgent citizenry. The future might indeed be up for grabs.