Counterpoint: The Citizen and His Browser, Volunteering Alone

Counterpoint: The Citizen and His Browser, Volunteering Alone

BY Michael Turk | Sunday, February 13 2005

I spent a good deal of time reading and digesting Zephyr Teachout’s article on the nature of society, the need to be a part of social groups and the desire to use that need to organize. It really is an interesting read – unfortunately, in my opinion, it’s wrong in almost all of its assumptions and conclusions about the nature of people, society and the transformative power of the Internet.

Invoking Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and Peter Najarian’s Great American Loneliness, Zephyr seems to argue that people need societal collectives to be complete but ignores the fact that the trends they document stand in stark contrast to the Locke-esque belief she espouses. Everything she cites reinforces the notion that people are growing further and further apart, but there is little recognition given to the possibility – or probability – that this may be by choice.

There are many hypotheses as to the specific catalyst for this societal dissolution, but clearly society – or more specifically the institutions of society – have lost their hold over humans who are increasingly predisposed to individual action, rather than collectivism.

There is no greater display of this trend toward individualist activity than the Internet. As people are more exposed to the Internet, they pay less attention to other media. Today, people are spending more time online and less time engaging with the mainstream media due to the nature of the self-supporting content selection opportunities available through the Internet.

The Internet is the ultimate expression of individuality – enabling the user to interact with institutions and information on the user’s terms.

Government at Your Keyboard
I have been fortunate to spend time working on eGovernment projects to improve service delivery from government to citizens. If you look at eGovernment projects that bring the bureaucracy out of the offices and onto the Internet, it will shape your beliefs about online activism in a manner very different from Zephyr’s hypothesis. Specifically, you will begin to think in terms of institutions and the constraints institutions place on the people that interact with government.

Until the very recent past, citizens who needed to interact with government agencies were forced to rearrange their schedules to accommodate the transaction. They had to close their business or take time off from work to travel to the agency office, get and complete the forms necessary, and interact with government on the bureaucracy’s terms.

Today, however, with thousands and thousands of transactions possible online, citizens accessing government services no longer have to choose between conducting their lives and completing government transactions. They have access to government online and can complete the transactions whenever and wherever they choose.

Nobody argues that removing the constraints placed on the citizen by a government institution, which is open for limited hours only, is bad. Yet, they will categorically object to the concept of removing constraints placed by other institutions and decry the notion that people are choosing not to interact with inflexible institutions.

This is true not only in government, but in commerce. Online retailers serve customers who want to spend their time doing something other than shopping. I could travel to a bookstore; hope they have the book I want; discover they don’t; drive to another store; spend an hour in traffic; and possibly, if the book is popular enough to be stocked, but not so popular that it has sold out, be able to complete my transaction.

Or, I can visit Amazon.com or BarnesAndNoble.com. I can choose a book; place my order; and have the item in my possession the next day. The transaction has taken only moments of my time and my need is met. By going online, I have avoided the burden of the institution.

The same principles applied to eGovernment and commerce apply to activism.

Freedom to Act on Your Own
Volunteers have lives - they own businesses, they raise children, they go to school. Yet politics operates on models that are organization-centric. Phone banks and neighborhood walks are organized around the campaign schedule. Volunteers have to pick the event that best fits their otherwise hectic schedule.

Zephyr’s thesis assumes two things with which I find fault. First, it assumes that choosing not to interact with others based on outmoded institutions is somehow a character flaw on an epic scale. The person who chooses to pursue individual – rather than group – activities is somehow defective.

Second, it assumes a model of Internet activism that is based on preserving institutional practices so we have a sense of belonging, rather than requiring our institutions to modernize those practices to meet our changing human behavior. She says online activists should be “run – not walked” to a local meeting without ever questioning whether the individual is perfectly capable of contributing to the cause without ever meeting another person face to face.

Her model of Internet-based activism seems to be a bunch of like-minded activists gathering together to sit around and talk about why we like our candidate and how we could actually help him if we weren’t sitting in a coffee shop telling our life stories to one another.

The Internet has the power to remove campaigns from activism in the same way eGovernment removes the government from transactions. It’s just the citizen and his browser. People choose to be active on their schedule. The campaign or party empowers activism, but allows me to be active on my terms.

The true model of Internet activism is the activist, for example a small business owner, who comes home from a long day of work, eats dinner and sits down at the computer or watches TV.

An ad, television or banner, targeted to the demographics of the specific channel she is surfing, catches her eye. She decides to get involved in the campaign.

She follows the url in the ad and comes to the candidate or party website; she gets a call sheet of voters who live nearby and a sample script. She picks up the phone and calls 10, 20, 30 or more neighbors to tell them why she – someone just like them, only blocks away – supports a particular candidate.

When she completes the calls, she goes back to the website and enters data into a form and tells the campaign who she called; what they said; and most importantly, whether they support the campaign and whether they might also be willing to help.

She goes to sleep with the sense of satisfaction that comes from being involved, but that involvement has placed no additional burdens on her time, her schedule, her business, or her family – no babysitters, no time off.

An individual contributing to the process not based on archaic structures and controls, but based on their sense of civic involvement using tools that provide empowerment with no strings attached. Activism built not on institutions, but on the desire of people, in the comfort of their own home, to take the initiative to talk with friends, family and neighbors and make their opinion heard.

This is the transformative power of the Internet.

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