Feminism2.0 breakout session: “bloggers and activists: an intimate and frank conversation”

Moderator: Gloria Pan, VP Internet Communications, Turner Strategies

Kim Gandy, President, National Organization for Women
Liza Sabater, Blogger, Culturekitchen
Tedra Osell, Blogger, Bitch Ph.D.

The online world is loud and chaotic, with many and different voices rising at different times to add insights, disagree, argue or just piss people off. Effective activism requires cooperation and organization to create momentum for change. In this session, two of the loudest voices in the women’s blogosphere and the leader of a major women’s advocacy organization will learn about each other’s worlds — what makes them different… and what they have in common.

Kim Gandy: Active with NOW since 1973. Spurred to action when she discovered she needed her husband’s permission to sign up for 401k at her own place of employment. Got active, stayed active. Has 2 teenage daughters, serve as constant reminder that feminist work is ongoing (impact of pop culture)

Liza Sabatar: Blogdive on twitter. Culture Kitchen and Daily Gotham publisher. Blogger since 2001. Homeschooler. Child of civil rights workers. September 11th catalyst for adding her voice to the political and social blogosphere. Got really politically involved locally (NYC).

Tedra Osell: perviously a moderator on HipMama. Got PhD. Left academia, now housewife. Exploring sphere of housewives/soccer moms/non-traditionals as feminists.

Gloria: throws out idea that bloggers start out more introverted; those in public advocacy start from place of extraversion.

Kim: agrees – advocacy has pressures to get audience to agree and empathize; bloggers get to say what they want.

Liza: paucity of women at media/tech conferences & new media events. Her life partner created Barbie parody-site, he got sued by Mattel. First IP lawsuit over Internet art, hard to find lawyer. Liza became incensed by prospect that Mattel was about to destroy their lives – found she could engage worldwide network of activists and artists to spread the word.

Tedra: Problem organizations have is that they want to use the Internet, they just don’t understand how or why. They don’t understand that the thing that keeps people clicking late into the night are the shitstorms and the flamewars. Organizations hire bloggers with controversial posts in their past and they come back to haunt them. (see also: Edwards campaign).

Liza: Organizations have to decide how to get fresh faces out front really speaking to the issues.

Circulation of Ms. Magazine is rising, not falling. Counter to trends in MSM.

Gloria: have organizations adjusted the language that they use in response to expectations of new media focused readers?

Kim: Language choices? No, haven’t changed. Length and depth of reporting has changed though. Regrets that stories aren’t as long and juicy (3000 word stories w loads of background) but web doesn’t lend itself to that form.

Tedra: Thinks long-form journalism isn’t DOA, we’re learning how to make it attractive even on the web. However, long-form journalism is expensive to produce and support and indie websites can’t do that.

Liza: Surprised how often advocacy groups still send pitches and press releases and ask that she publish them for them as a story. Online world doesn’t function based on full-narratives, web-based existence fractured and based on keywords and developing thoughts and fragments. Eventually it coalesces into a whole.

Suzanne Turner (turner strategies) broke in to pose question to panel about the role of advocacy groups as mainstream media loses strength. Who fills the void left by extinction of in-depth nightly news stories a la Edward R Murrow.

Discussion of long-form versus shallow content as false dichotomy.

Kim: Example: Controversy over family planning funding being pulled from stimulus bill became rallying cry for activists and advocates. BUT: Talking points over-simplified the issue and told misleading story. Lots of behind the scenes back and forth about how to distill a complicated issue and guide the story. Medicade/birth control legislation was pre-existing and not a new piece of stimulus, but that part of the story got lost.

Liza suggests that better strategy would have been to go straight to most prominent feminist bloggers and work with them to really move the message.

Audience member: with new administration, how do we challenge status quo

Panel: Tedra: maybe we don’t. Maybe answer is to work to shape conversation through participation rather than just rail against established members of Congress, etc. Liza: Organizations need to empower bloggers to be the bad cops and speak out and be assertive.

Audience question: flip side – how do organizations minimize vulnerabilities and liabilities of blogger’s opinions being held against organizations.

Liza: Working in cooperation (not as employee) with organizations and being really vocal and outfront about issues builds good relationships and provides validation for your blog. Validation is social capitol for bloggers.

Audience question: is there an actual positive measurable impact for organizations to have bloggers actually blogging through their websites? Where does convergence take us (as opposed to co-promoting and developing independently)?

(I suspect that discussants are talking apples and oranges – some advocating orgs create an alternative to blogspot versus organizations letting bloggers blog in an official capacity but conversation is ranging away from the topic so I haven’t interjected a clarification question yet)

Panel discussing value of diversity of voices. Organizations giving bloggers a place to voice their opinions and feel a sense of ownership and inclusion in the organization. Audience and focus of Bitch Mag versus Bust versus Ms.

Gloria: wrap-up question – how do bloggers handle situation of advocacy organizations not communicating with them?

(Kim notes she’s here and interacting with the membership)

Liza: Feels like organizations feel like they have something to lose from relationship with bloggers due to blogger rep for jumping gun on stories, etc. We’ve got to keep having conversations and looking for ways to work together to build trust.

now that I’ve posted this I see that it’s not only absurdly long but a bit redundent and incoherent. Nevertheless, I promised no editing, so there will be no editing. That’s how I’m justifying the fact that I’m too lazy to clean this up, anyway…)

Anyone who has taken one of my classes (or spent more than 6 minutes with me) no doubt knows that I find Wired to be a deeply flawed publication that has not only failed to evolve beyond the early elitist techno-rah-rah days, but has in fact devolved in terms of representation of progressive issues. You can’t blame Conde Naste’s takeover, either, this has been going on practically since issue 1.

Sure, it’s fun to live in the techno-elitist-libertarian fantasy world Wired represents now and again. After all, “everyone” is online now (except for those damned social parasites who keep themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty and welfare cause they’re too lazy to get a job), right? Right.

Why am I so wound up about Wired today? You may be asking yourself. You’re still here, so you must be asking that. Or, you’re really, really bored. Either way, I’m going to tell you.

I just excavated down into my email far enough to find this article from Wired News, Today’s Tech-Dependent Activists. The article had been sent to me by a couple of people and had also sparked an interesting debate amongst them. I’m going to call them Activists here, to make things easy, even though most of them (myself included) eschew the word. I’m also not pulling any of their ideas into my babbling, I take sole responsibility for whatever emerges.

Before I babble about my impressions of this article and what it represents, I want to clarify that I’m not revising, rewriting, or giving deep thought to anything here. It’s just off the top of my head. I’d swat my students if they tried to pass off the kind of rambling I’m no doubt about to do as anything more than, well, rambling.

I’d also like to point out that the conception I, and the folks who brought this article to my attention, have of social responsibility is not of the “shop at fresh fields, protest visibly, and be smug while talking constantly about how great we are” school. We’re too old for that kind of attitude and I think I can fairly say we all view “activism” (for lack of a better word) as something more akin to buddhist practice. Small, quiet actions that day by day radiate out making a difference. Banner drops and actions are critically important for many reasons and participating can help keep you connected, but it’s what you do afterwards that has the most impact.

Having said all that, these are just my opinions and impressions. So back to the article:

In addition to picket signs and megaphones, activists protesting globalization policies at next month’s meeting of the World Trade Organization in Cancún will be armed with a number of new, high-tech weapons for getting their message across.

These include using peer-to-peer networks to distribute video to television stations and setting up wireless access points so that activists can post updates to their weblogs. The aim is to help demonstrators make a bigger impact, even with fewer people, say protest organizers.

OK. Fair enough. I’m not getting how this makes these particular activists “tech-dependent”, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the sheer complexity of getting to Cancun and getting a message out once you get there, and this keeps me reading.

“Technology gives us the ability to shift the power in the protest to the dissidents,” said Rabble, an activist with the Independent Media Center who requested that his real name not be used. “It’s an incredible tactical advance from the days when the police were the only ones with a reliable communications network during protests.”

Fair points, if short-sighted.

Young activists argue often that Seattle marked the beginning of technology in activism. I’m not sure how they think leaflets, underground newspapers, posters for wheatpasting and the like were produced before 1999. I do understand that “technology” has become short-hand for “new media” and I agree that these technologies give those on the scene unprecedented opportunities to get their message out. (Not to mention that movements like the SOA Watch have been using email and the internet as an effective tool for organizing for years, long before the hip glitz of the Battle for Seattle).

Money often equals power, there’s no question about that. But having the money to use groovy new technologies doesn’t automatically equal increased power. It all still boils down to what you do with the information you gather. Information is not power unless you know what to do with it.

During the WTO meeting, which will take place from Sept. 10 to 14, Rabble and others plan to use a peer-to-peer video-sharing service called v2v to transmit broadcast-quality video of the protests to television stations and other activists.

They also will set up wireless networks at the protest welcome center in the nearby town of Ciudad Cancún, and will stream audio recordings of interviews and speeches over the Internet for rebroadcast on participating radio stations.

This is good, although you have to keep in mind that the people who are in a position to own and use such equipment and the people who are in a position to access the results back home cannot forget their obligation to make this information available to everyone so as to truly change popular opinion.

People who rely on their communities and mainstream media for their news, are still best-reached by the organizations that flack for the WTO. They’re bombarded with the message that free trade equals jobs and better wages, and it takes time for their realities to reflect that this isn’t true. By then the horse is out of the barn. The nightly news portrays protestors as elitist rich kids whose only contact with the poor is when they’re being waited on.

Becoming too reliant on one type of communication and dissemination can reinforce that view to onlookers. You have to have email access on your cellphone to be an activist? That’s not my cause, I’m staying home. (OK, that’s simplistic, but I don’t feel like it’s that far off the mark).

Have you ever been to a protest on the National Mall where everyone is chanting a slogan about what democracy looks like, only to look around and realize that there, in a place nicknamed “Chocolate City,” you’re surrounded by a sea of what at least appears to be white privilege? Is this really what democracy looks like? Are the users of the web the true “democracy”? Is everyone else marginalized because they can’t be out in the streets?

It seems to me that a democracy only as strong as it’s most vulnerable citizens. Those who can mobilize the energy, make the time, to go out and protest have an obligation, in my opinion, to seek social justice because they can. Many people can’t protest for myriad reasons, but that doesn’t mean that their voices should be silenced in the struggle. Hell, they’re struggling to live, to provide for their children. Maybe they can’t be arrested in civil disobedience actions because they do not have the post and forfeit money, or it would negate their ability to receive social services that can mean the difference between life and death to their families. Or they can’t afford medication to control a medical condition, meaning they can neither work nor protest. Or maybe they’re just tired. Whatever the reason someone isn’t out on the streets (and frankly, they don’t need a “reason”, I just can’t come up with a better word), it doesn’t mean they should be shut out.

But it’s not enough to protest on behalf of the “less fortunate”, you still have to get your message to people. Not just the people on the streets or the people who watch the 11:00 news that night. The organizing and the information sharing and the lobbying and educating needs to go on after the streets are quiet again.

You have to give people, all people, the information they need and the motivation and opportunity to vote and express their opinions that the middle class has. Just having the technology isn’t enough. Once you get the word out, your obligation isn’t over. That’s like saying a teacher’s role is over once they hand out the textbooks.

The technologies are part of a growing collection of modern protest tactics, many of which originated during the highly publicized anti-WTO demonstrations that took place in Seattle in November 1999.

“There are always technological developments in activist practices,” said activist Mike Bonanno. “Since 1999, the importance of e-mail lists and Web publishing to help organize people on the ground and disseminate information has not diminished.”

Bonanno is a member of the Yes Men, a group that builds parody websites as a way to protest the policies of various organizations.

During the Seattle protests in 1999, the Yes Men launched GATT.org to protest the WTO. He says the group will continue updating the site during the Cancún meeting as a way to point out what they believe are flaws in the WTO’s policies.

“We plan to use the GATT.org website to continue representing the positions of the WTO more honestly than they care to represent themselves,” said Bonanno. “This has always been a goal of ours: to explain how WTO policies hurt the poor and the environment, but doing it with a healthy dose of satire.”

Representatives of the WTO did not respond to requests for comment.

Surprisingly, one high-tech protest tactic that is likely to be absent from this year’s demonstration is the use of distributed denial-of-service attacks to shut down the WTO website.

The electrohippies, a British group that called for such attacks during the 1999 meeting, have since disbanded. And many protest organizers today say they would not support such an attack if another group made a similar call.

“Taking down the website might be fun and headline-grabbing, but I personally don’t think it’s a good tactic,” said Rabble. “The WTO does not function because its website stays up; it functions because corporations and governments give it tremendous power.”

As more solidly middle-class people become dependent on the web for everything from bank transactions to car registration renewals, any kind of attack on a website – no matter what the site represents – plays poorly on the nightly news. When your goal is to make the evils of the WTO transparent to a broad audience, flashy actions can be tricky.

Parody and satire are critical tools that we must employ strategically, and it’s great to see it being used as just that, one tool among many. The idea of the web as the be-all end-all of social change is, thankfully, receding, as more and more people realize that putting something on the web is only one step, human action and reaction to that information is still what brings about social and political change.

Another tactic that is not likely to make an appearance is the use of mailing lists to create “flash mobs,” a way of mobilizing large groups of people by sending out a single message to awaiting recipients.

“The ‘flash mob’ concept generally works best when enough people are around to receive e-mail and react quickly,” said Bonanno. “It gets more difficult if such communications technologies are not available to people.”

Just 10 percent of Mexico’s population regularly goes online, according to the country’s Internet association, AMIPCI. The percentage is expected to be lower on the Yucatán peninsula, where Cancún is located, because of poverty in the jungle-covered region.

It’s critical to remember that the people who would be mobilized in this way are most likely those who have travelled to the site to protest. There’s nothing wrong with mobilizing them in this way, but when not everyone is in the loop things can get tricky fast. Think how quickly communication breaks down in a simple game of telephone. Multiple that by thousands, throw in a plethora of different languages, protest philosophies, etc., and the idea or relying on the concept of flash mobs probably becomes less appealling.

I have to give the author credit here for not using any trendy terminology revolving around the word “smart” (see also: smartmobs.com). I could spend the rest of the day ranting about the subtle and not so subtle ways we equate access to technology with superiority and never get to the point. (not that there really is a point here)

The increasing pressure on public libraries to slap filters on public internet terminals makes it much harder to reach those who rely on these connections to access the internet. Hell, it seems as difficult as ever to get your average “activist” to wheatpaste outside gentrified areas of the city at all, let alone think about other ways to reach The Other in their communities. (My distinctions about Other here are based more on thinking about class than race, but those variables depend on the issue at stake and the geographic location of both that issue and the protest itself).

Despite this, organizers say they are confident that the available technologies will allow them to mobilize participants more effectively than ever before.

“Even with the distance and expense associated with getting to and protesting in Cancún, we’re expecting between 10,000 and 20,000 people to participate,” said Starhawk, an organizer with the RANT Collective.

“The Internet has allowed us to have a different kind of global conversation,” she said. “Organizing for Cancún wouldn’t be as effective without it.”

(To be fair, I’ve been following Starhawk’s organizing online for Cancun and I agree with her 100%. I’ve also participated in one of her actions and have various other associations).

There’s no question that technologies like the internet and cellphones are critical to modern protest organizing, particularly in far-flung places. Technology gets people there, but when all is said and done it’s having people there and what they do when they get there (and after they leave) is still what matters most.

Howard Dean’s campaign, so very internet-oriented, reminds me of a re-run of the Nader campaign. Not in terms of tactics, but in terms of demographics. In the case of Dean, I wonder if the people of privileged classes, organizing in a way that excludes socio-economically vulnerable people, will be able to sustain the momentum they have. The dot.com bubble has burst, but the delusions that technology equals a utopian future still blind us to other possibilities.

Are communications technologies enabling people to organize and protest and engage in activism in new ways, or are people using communications technologies in new ways to make activism more visible? It’s not just semantics, it’s a question that gets to the heart of why some people who lack disposable income for shiny tools are becoming increasingly marginalized in activist circles. Protest is still, when all is said and done, about mobilizing people to sway public opinion and/or the opinions of law-makers or other governing bodies.

If no one knows about the protest, it’s a bit of a bust, so of course the more people you have documenting it the better. Or if it’s wildly misrepresented by the media, who love ignoring peaceful protestors to focus on violent activists, for example, you have a better chance of disseminating alternative viewpoints. But to say that activists are dependent on technology is to suggest, among other things, we’ve given up thinking all together and just go where we’re told and pose for the best photo-op.

Sorry I don’t have a witty conclusion, but a conclusion would suggest that I’m done thinking about these issues when in reality this is only pieces of what should be a much larger conversation.