The Virtual Activist

A Training Course

Part 1: Introduction

The Internet is a powerful tool that allows us to expand our networks by identifying and communicating with like-minded people anywhere in the world. It enables us to disseminate information widely, cheaply, and instantaneously. Although you'll need some special skills to build and maintain a Web site, email is easily mastered even if you have little or no technical expertise. If you can read and write and your computer has a modem, you can be a Virtual Activist!

With its blinking graphics, streaming video, and interactive capabilities, the Web gets a lot more attention than plain old text-based email. But don't let email's simplicity fool you. For activists and nonprofit organizations engaged in advocacy, email is the tool of choice.

In this virtual classroom, NetAction will teach you how to use email and the Web as effective, inexpensive, and efficient tools for organizing, outreach, and advocacy.

The Big Picture

There are currently more than 100 million Americans using the Internet, and that number is expected to continue to grow. A recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 35 percent of U.S. citizens currently use the Internet to inform themselves on politics, and this number is also increasing. Advocacy organizations working to influence public policy will increasingly need to incorporate the Internet into their outreach and organizing efforts.

The Pew report is on the Web at:

Technology is a tool that can be used strategically to enhance grassroots organizing and outreach efforts related to political campaigns and public policy issues. It is most effective as a supplement to -- not a substitute for -- traditional organizing and outreach techniques. So don't stop organizing rallies, house parties and press conferences, keep making those phone calls, and continue building your membership through direct mail and/or telemarketing.

What do you need to get started with Internet advocacy? Surprisingly little. You'll need a computer, of course, but don't worry if it doesn't have all the latest bells and whistles. Internet access and email software are all you really need. Even a Web site isn't absolutely necessary, although having one is certainly a good idea.

Suppose your organization wants to publicize a recent legislative breakthrough that drastically affects a current campaign on which your organization is working. Choosing from traditional organizing and outreach techniques, you may choose to hold a press conference or issue a press release to alert the media. You may also want to write an article for your organization's quarterly newsletter and prepare a list of talking points to distribute to staff members and volunteers who will be contacting the media.

But you can also use the Internet, your Web site, email lists and news groups in your advocacy campaign. For example, email would be a faster and cheaper way to mobilize volunteers. And posting information to your Web site will allow you to reach more potential supporters at no additional cost. Before we discuss the use of email and Web-based tools in detail, let's look at these tools in perspective.

Active and passive tools

It is important to understand the difference between active and passive techniques for communicating electronically. The Internet is a global network of computers that communicate with each other over another network -- the telecommunications system. Computers use the Internet to "talk" to each other in much the same way people use the telephone network to talk to each other.

Although many people think of the Web as the Internet, the Web is actually just one part of it. Web sites are simply documents that are housed on a specific computer. When you visit a particular Web site -- such as NetAction's -- your computer is using the telephone network to communicate electronically with the computer where the document named is located.

Email is more like a telephone call. When you send an email message to your sister, the network of computers that make up the Internet carries your electronic "words" from your computer to your sister's computer in much the same way that the network of telephone wires carries your voice from your telephone to your sister's telephone.

Email is much more widely used than the Web, and is a far more effective tool for outreach. When you send email, whether it is a private message to one individual or an electronic newsletter to a list with hundreds of subscribers, you are "pushing" information to other Internet users. Your message gets delivered to the in-boxes of everyone you send it to. You can't be certain that everyone who receives it will read it, of course, but in a later lesson we will discuss strategies to increase the likelihood that your message will be read and acted upon.

In contrast, when you create a Web site, you are placing a document on one computer and giving it a unique "address." People who know the address can visit it, but the actual document stays on that one computer.

So email is an "active" way to communicate your message. Web pages, on the other hand, are passive. People who visit your Web site will only see information that you post on your Web site. If you think of the Internet as an "information superhighway," email is the package that gets transported by truck to the recipient's home, while Web sites are the billboards you pass when you're driving down the highway (as depicted in this graphic used with the permission of CARAL).

picture described above

Now that it's clearer how active and passive tools work differently, can you name some of the active tools that an advocacy group could use on a particular campaign? And how might the more passive Web tools be used?

Maxiumum impact

Email is by far the most effective online advocacy tool because it is active, immediate, and widely used. But the effectiveness of email outreach can often be enhanced when email and Web-based tools are used together. For example, the Program Committee for the annual Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference (CPF 2001) distributed an email Call for Proposals that stated:

Proposals should be submitted no later than January 5, 2001, via the CFP2001 website at

Note that the alert includes a hyperlink to the CFP 2001 Web site. A hyperlink is text that contains a link to another document that is displayed when the reader clicks on it. This is a technique that is used frequently by activists and advocacy organizations to integrate email and Web- based advocacy tools. To see how it works, click on the hyperlink in the above action alert. (When you've done that, use the "Back" button in your Web browser to return to this page.)

You can even embed hyperlinks into your email. Just type in the full web address (URL), including the http://. Most common email programs, such as Eudora Mail, Microsoft Outlook, and even Hotmail, recognize text starting with http:// as hyperlinks, and will automatically encode them for you. If you wanted to send an email with a hyperlink to NetAction, just type into your email,

Subject: Visit this great website!

  Dear friends,

  Please visit NetAction, at

After typing in the above text, programs such as Eudora, Outlook, and Netscape Messenger will automatically underline and change the color of the web address to blue. These changes to the text notifies you that the text will be "clickable" for the recipients.

Can you think of some ways that your organization could make use of "clickable" email, and link email messages and Web-based tools? You'll find plenty of examples in Part 2A.

Suggested reading: "How the Internet is Reshaping the Rules for Policy Campaigns" at:

Next: Part 2A: Using Email for Outreach, Organizing, and Advocacy -- The Fundamentals