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The Internet's Engine for Politics-Email

US activist and community networker Ed Schwartz provides an article adapted from his book NetActivism: How Citizens Use the Internet, O'Reilly, 1996.\

The mass-market coverage of the Internet in politics is quite misleading. Given that the World Wide Web is the most visible system on the Net, reporters and columnists focus entirely on particular web sites, as a kind of Internet Broadcasting System. They are then quick to point out that only a tiny portion of the country has access to these sites, as opposed to television ads that reach just about everyone. On this basis, it's easy to dismiss the Internet as a potential political resource for the future, but largely irrelevant today.\ \ The heart of political organizing and advocacy is communication. At any given moment, we need to be able to reach one another and to speak out to the people in power. Up to now, we have to do rely on snail mail, telephones, and fax machine. All are expensive and limited in their outreach. Only large organizations or movements with sizeable budgets could make full use of them.\ \ Email now adds a powerful new resource to the list. It is not simply a “me-to-you” broadcasting system. It is a powerful “we-to-us” communications system. It is this system that permits people from all parts of the world to connect simultaneously with one another quickly, easily, and at minimal cost. This is the system that holds the greatest for the Internet in politics.\ \ What can we do as activists through email that we can't do as easily–or at all–right now?\ \ We can send complex messages and material to each other individually within a matter of minutes. Fax machines do give us this capacity now (and consider how rapidly these have become standard equipment in offices), but email is faster and a lot cheaper, especially if we need to reach people all over the country. Faxing a ten page memo to three people can take as much as a half an hour; sending it via email takes two or three minutes.\ \ We can communicate back and forth with thousands of people simultaneously on our own time for only the access charges of our online service providers. I am not here talking about live “chats,” which are possible–and easier–over the phone. I'm referring to Usenet groups, where people post public messages sharing information and ideas with one another. Or email mailing lists–even more potent in this area–where people use an electronic list server or “listserv” to email messages back and forth to one another, each message being routed instantly to hundreds of people on the same list. Every organization in America has some sort of newsletter that it sends to its members at great time and expense. Imagine if we could use email to do this. No more stuffing envelopes all day. Moreover, the people who receive the information via an email list can respond immediately to it–to everyone on the list. No existing technology has even permitted this sort of interchange among large groups of people, let alone made it easy and inexpensive to use.\ \ We can use email to develop online to establish ongoing discussions within our civic and political organizations, thereby strengthening the relationships among group members and attachment to the group itself. The hardest problem facing any organization is securing attendance at its meetings, especially now when both parents in families are likely to work and need their evenings to spend time with their children. It's rare for a group to get together more than once a month and even these occasions involve only a small portion of the membership. The result is that boards and committees end up doing most of the work, which is then conveyed to the membership via a newsletter.\ A group that established an email list for its members, however, could conduct business every day. There would still have to be “real time” meetings, of course. Even ongoing electronic communication is no substitute meeting face-to-face. Nonetheless, a list would permit those who could not attend regular meetings to offer suggestions online in their absence. It would enable members to see drafts of proposals prior to meetings and offer feedback before formal discussion began. People could even “sign off” on final drafts of proposals and resolutions without having to wait a month for the next meeting. If citizen activists and political organizers had asked the telecommunications industry to develop a new technology just for us, they couldn't have found a better one.\ \ These are just three tools available through the Internet that make it possible for what we call “average” citizens–people like you and me–to develop and act upon civic and political issues with devastating effectiveness. At the core of political empowerment is the ability of people to develop a common course of action in dealing with government. Any change in telecommunications effects this process. Radio and television has ended up contributing to concentrations of power in the hands of elites who can broadcast to us even though we can no longer connect with one another.\ \ The new technologies permit millions of us to find one another and to turn the transmitters around.\ \ Ed Schwartz, Institute for the Study of Civic Values, 1218 Chestnut St., Rm. 702, Philadelphia, Pa. 19107 215-238-1434\ \ The ISCV home page can be reached at\ Also check out “Neighborhoods Online” at It's the Institute's project with LibertyNet to support neighborhood activism.\ \ To subscribe to the Institute's international mailing list send to the one line message: subscribe civic-values\ \ To subscribe to the Institute's Pennsylvania mailing list send to the one line message: subscribe penn-neighbor\ \ “Citizenship is the American ideal. There may be an army of actualities opposed to that ideal, but there is no ideal opposed to that ideal.” G.K. Chesterton

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