NetAction Notes

Published by NetAction Issue No. 8 November 19, 1996
Repost where appropriate. See copyright information at end of message.


Notes from the Virtual Activist Workshop
How to Help NetAction

Notes from the Virtual Activist Workshop

More than 40 Bay Area activists participated in the first Virtual Activist Workshop Saturday, sponsored by NetAction and Media Alliance. This issue of NetAction Notes summarizes the presentations made by panelists. Given the high level of interest in this workshop, I am confident that the workshop will be offered again. Next time, we should be able to arrange for virtual participation by activists outside the San Francisco Bay Area.

Michael Stein, outreach coordinator for the Institute for Global Communication (IGC), kicked off the panel presentations by pointing out the need for a balance between technology and activism. He identified two distinct ways in which Internet technology has been used by activists.

First, organizations and campaigns have tried using the Internet for general public relations and outreach. Organizations have experimented with difference approaches to online PR.

Second, organizations have experimented with using the Internet to reach out to their existing activist network and/or to recruit new activists, as well as to communicate with less active members.

Stein said that general public relations efforts on the Internet have not been particularly effective for activist organizations, but that the technology has been useful in building activist networks and enabling organizations to communicate with their members.

Activists are beginning to identify specific technology tools that are useful, Stein noted. Fax servers on Web pages are increasingly popular with activist organizations, as are privacy tools such as encryption that enable members to send secure credit card donations.

Stein said activists should be asking themselves three questions:

  1. To what extent are activist agendas reflected online?
  2. What technology tools are activists using, and are they meeting their needs?
  3. What technology tools do activists want to see developed?

According to Stein, activists are better off combining Internet technologies than focusing on the World Wide Web. For example, if the goal is to get members to attend a rally or give a donation, E-mail is a better outreach tool than the Web.

The second presenter was Nathan Newman, co-founder of Progressive Communications,, an Internet and research consulting firm. Newman spoke in place of his business partner, Anders Schneiderman, who was unable to participate.

Newman said right-wing organizations have used technology for political organizing for nearly 25 years, which explains some of the shift to the right that has occurred in U.S. politics. Newman believes that as progressive organizations gain more experience with using technology, the political power base will also begin to shift back toward a more progressive agenda.

Web sites and content are not as important as outreach. To illustrate that point, Newman described the experience of California activists who opposed a 1995 ballot initiative on immigration "reform." Within three days of setting up an E-mail list service, the activists had 600 subscribers. Within a week, the list had grown to over 1,000, and within three weeks, there were 40 rallies being organized on college campuses around the country.

While the Internet makes global communication possible at low cost, one of the real advantages of the Internet is that it facilitates communication within organizations and within communities. Community organizing is still best accomplished with one-on-one meetings, Newman noted. But E-mail can be a powerful tool for keeping people in the loop once those personal relationships have been established.

Non-profit organizations may also find that there are economic benefits to using the Internet. Newman worked with an organization that was spending about $20,000 per year on UPS and other overnight mail services for communications between staff in geographically distant offices. Most of these costs were eliminated when the organization switched to E-mail for internal communications.

Another organization used E-mail as part of an integrated communication strategy. Information was first communicated by E-mail to those who were online, then sent by fax to activists who did not have E-mail but did have fax machines. The activists who received the information by fax made copies on a copier to distribute by hand and postal mail to others who did not have fax capability.

Newman noted that this type of communication worked as a supplement to traditional organizing efforts, because its success depended on personal contacts and the cultivation of leadership at all levels.

The Justice for Janitors campaign that has been directed at Silicon Valley technology firms is an example of how the Internet can be used for targeted outreach. Union organizers used E-mail to contact engineers and programmers who worked in the targeted firms, sending them information about the working conditions faced by the people who cleaned their offices and factories. These well-paid professionals were encouraged to put pressure on management to improve the working conditions and wages for the janitors.

Newman said it was important for activists to identify allies who could assist them in gaining access to key discussion lists.

The third presenter was Karen Wickre, co-founder of Digital Queers and executive producer of Planet Out

Wickre said Digital Queers was founded about four years ago in order to recruit technology professionals to assist gay and lesbian organizations in getting online, and to reach out to the "checkbook activists" within the gay and lesbian community.

Since access to technology was an issue for many community-based gay and lesbian organizations, DQ encouraged gays and lesbians who worked in technology firms to seek donated equipment and use their employee discounts to obtain low-cost hardware and software for community organizations.

Over time, local gay and lesbian organizations began to see the value of going online. Today, these organizations are interested in setting up automated mailing lists and finding ways to capture E-mail addresses for outreach efforts.

Gay and lesbian activists have made effective use of E-mail to ensure fair treatment by businesses, Wickre said.

For example, when the Christian Coalition initiated a campaign to pressure the Disney Corporation to reverse its decision to offer health insurance coverage for domestic partners, gay and lesbian activists inundated Disney officials with E-mail messages thanking them for making the health insurance coverage available to domestic partners. The large volume of E-mail in support of the health insurance policy convinced Disney to go ahead with the plan despite the right-wing pressure to drop it.

Similarly, an E-mail campaign convinced the makers of SurfWatch blocking software to reconsider their plan to block all Web sites containing the word "gay," without regard to actual content.

The final panelist was Jason Singer, co-director of CHALK, Communities in Harmony Advocating for Learning and Kids CHALK is a San Francisco-based national non-profit that recently organized a highly successful virtual conference in conjunction with Mayor Willie Brown's Youth Summit.

The Youth Summit was scheduled to take place in an auditorium that seated 400 people, but there were many more who wanted to attend. CHALK's virtual conference made it possible for about 4,000 others to participate by including public access facilities at two local schools, a community center and the San Francisco Main Library.

Virtual summit participants could hear all of the proceedings online, and could E-mail questions to the speakers and Mayor Brown. CHALK worked with more than 30 community groups and nearly 150 volunteers to set up the virtual conference. The Web site included a feature that enabled participants to learn about and sign up for volunteer opportunities with many of those organizations.

Singer said the challenge in projects such as the virtual summit is to get people involved beyond just visiting the Web site. He recommended using lots of links, and said activists should not be afraid to include links that take people away from their Web site.

How to Help NetAction

Membership in NetAction supports continued publication of NetAction Notes, as well as a wide range of organizing and training activities. NetAction projects include helping grassroots organizations harness the power of the Internet as a tool for outreach and advocacy; helping activists who are already using the Internet do a more effective job of building a base of grassroots support for technology-based social and political issues; and promoting more widespread access to information technology by organizing hands-on demonstrations of the Internet.

Please join NetAction today by sending a check payable to NetAction/Tides Center to: NetAction, 601 Van Ness Ave. #631, San Francisco, CA 94102.

Regular membership is $50 per year; student/senior/low-income membership is $25 per year; sustaining membership is $100 per year; non-profit organization membership is $125 per year; and corporate membership is $250 per year.

NetAction brochures are available for distribution at conferences and other events. If you would like a supply of brochures to distribute, send email to , and include your name and the mailing address where you would like the brochures sent.

Thanks for your support!

Copyright 1996 by The Tides Center/NetAction. All rights reserved. Material may be reposted or reproduced for non-commercial use provided NetAction is cited as the source.

NetAction is a project of The Tides Center, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. NetAction is dedicated to promoting effective grassroots citizen action campaigns by creating coalitions that link online activists with grassroots organizations, providing training to online activists in effective organizing strategies, and educating the public, policymakers and the media about technology-based social and political issues.

To subscribe to NetAction Notes, send a message to: The body of the message should state: "subscribe netaction"

To unsubscribe at any time, send a message to: The body of the message should state: "unsubscribe netaction"

For more information about NetAction, contact Audrie Krause:
* Phone: (415) 775-8674
* Web:
Or write to:

601 Van Ness Ave., No. 631
San Francisco, CA 94102