From the Screen to the Streets
It has taken 10 years of talk about “new media” for a critical mass
to understand that every computer desktop, and now every pocket, is
a worldwide printing press, broadcasting station, place of assembly,
and organizing tool—and to learn how to use that infrastructure to
Previous technologies allowed users only to communicate one-to-one
(telephones) or few-to-many (broadcast and print media). Mobile and
deskbound media such as blogs, listservs and social networking sites
allow for many-to-many communication. This provides opportunities
and problems for progressive political activists in three key areas:
Gathering and disseminating alternative and more democratic news;
creating virtual public spheres where citizens debate the issues
that concern democratic societies; and organizing collective
The new news
Blogs and moblogs, such as the international network of Independent
Media Centers, South Korea’s influential OhMyNews and MoveOn.org’s
misleader.org are signs of what San Jose Mercury-News
columnist Dan Gillmor calls an emerging “we journalism.” Each of
these sites offers up-to-the-minute news alerts, provided by a
combination of citizen-reporters and trained staff. While the owners
and administrators of such sites range widely—from passionate
individuals to collectives to upstart nonprofits—these blogs are
markedly more democratic than their corporate-run, top-down
Internal and external forces, however, threaten to undermine “we
journalism” before its impact is fully realized.
Misinformation, disinformation, incredulity and magical thinking all
are problems on the supply side of these new reporting modes.
Aggregators of blog postings—which rank blog listings by popularity,
similar to Google’s page rank technology—already serve as a filter
for this flood of amateur journalism. And reputation systems,
filters and syndication services also could develop into useful
tools for assessing the veracity of information sites. But political
activists and those who sponsor progressive projects also have a
role: For “we journalism” to have long-term credibility and lasting
impact, progressives must fund, staff and promote media
literacy—teaching users to create and consume this new journalism.
Activists also have a role in turning back corporate attacks that
seek to privatize the Internet by regulating content and limiting
amateurs’ ability to produce cultural works that compete with media
Today, a small number of broadband Internet providers, such as
Comcast and Viacom, are pushing for regulations that would enable
them to pick and choose the content that travels over their part of
the network. The courts also are coming to bear in this fight, as
companies work to extend copyright far beyond its original intent
and establish digital rights schemes that make it difficult to
produce or distribute digital content not authorized by the
The consolidation of media ownership in the hands of a small number
of individuals or cartels—who exchange political funding for
legislative and regulatory favors—is being fought by organizations
such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But activists who have
not been involved in technology or media issues need to join in this
battle, because communication media under dispute are profoundly
political tools. In coming decades, Internet-based media will exert
more and more influence over what people know and believe and how
they can organize and assemble for collective action.
The electronic town square
Network TV news and talk radio are hardly examples of the reasoned
debate philosopher Jürgen Habermas had in mind when he described the
public sphere as central to the life of a democracy. Indeed, they
are an example of the manipulation of public opinion via popular
media that he warned about.
Online and many-to-many technologies can shift the locus of the
public sphere from a small number of powerful media owners to entire
populations. The value of Internet discourse in this effort has not
been proven, however, perhaps because the literacy around this use
of media has not had sufficient time to mature—the World Wide Web is
barely 10 years old, and has been gaining uninitiated users each
Now, for better and worse, citizens are arguing with each other—with
varying degrees of civility—and sometimes marshaling evidence to
buttress logic in countless blogs, listservs, chat rooms and message
boards. The quality and level of know-how and the willingness of a
significant portion of the population to adopt and self-enforce
online etiquette will determine whether reasoned debate will
flourish online or be drowned out by surlier forms of argument.
Activists and journalists must take a leading role in determining
the success of this outcome by wielding these technologies
skillfully and purposively.
Organizing collective action
Only recently have political activists successfully used
many-to-many media to mobilize large-scale collective action such as
street demonstrations and protests, electoral fundraising,
get-out-the-vote campaigns and legislative lobbying. Technologies
and methodologies are developing very rapidly at this point, and so
are the political moves to neutralize them.
In the United States, Howard Dean’s presidential campaign has
mobilized the self-organizing capabilities of blogs. Meetup.com and
online fundraising propelled this underdog to front-runner status.
If Dean wins, 2004 will be the watershed political event for the
Internet that the Kennedy-Nixon debates were for television in 1960.
In a few years, MoveOn.org also has grown from a Web site protesting
the Clinton impeachment to an effective lobbying movement that
influences legislation and elections. MoveOn.org played an important
part in the recent effort to lobby Congress to overturn the FCC’s
deregulation of media cross-ownership.
Innovations aren’t confined to the United States. Neither
ex-President Estrada of the Philippines nor newly elected President
Roh in South Korea would be in their present positions if smart mobs
had not worked so effectively. In the Philippines, a million
citizens used SMS to organize street demonstrations that helped
topple the Estrada regime. In South Korea, the cyber-generation,
seeing their favored candidate losing in exit polls, used a Web site
to organize a get-out-the-vote campaign involving 800,000 personal
e-mails and uncounted SMS messages, turning the tide in the
election’s final hours.
Activists should now concentrate their efforts in this last
sphere—technology-amplified collective action. The above examples
are just the beginning. The capabilities of media are multiplying,
the number of people who use their mobile phones as Internet
connections and text-messaging media is growing explosively. And
activists are only beginning to experiment with ways to multiply
their ability to organize collective action.
Influencing elections and legislation is the sine qua non of
effectiveness. In the next few years, peer-to-peer, self-organized,
citizen-centric movements enabled by smart mob media will either
demonstrate real political influence, be successfully contained by
those whose power they threaten, or recede as a utopian myth of days
gone by. What progressives know now, and what we do soon, will
decide which of those scenarios unfolds.
Howard Rheingold is the
author of Smart Mobs, The Virtual Community, and Tools for
Thought. He was also an editor of The Whole Earth Review, The
Millennium Whole Earth Catalog and HotWired and founded
the online communities Electric Minds and Brainstorms.
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