Getting Over the Online v Offline Debate

Getting Over the Online v Offline Debate

by Amanda Marcotte

My fondest wish for 2012 is that it becomes the year where we, as a society, stop chewing over the supposed distinctions between online and offline life, and especially online and offline activism. So much has changed about the Internet since organizers first started worrying that people are spending too much time online and not enough with other people. When that debate began, most people’s interactions online were conducted with a veil of anonymity, online dating was stigmatized, social networking didn’t exist, people wrote emails like they were letters, and picked up phones and spoke into them for the majority of their same-day communications. Back then, there was a meaningful distinction between online and offline life.

But now as I write this, the distinction between online and offline life is collapsing to the point of meaninglessness, making some of the discussion about online and offline activism sound a little like having a debate on cars that assumes they are used mostly for recreation instead of a primary form of getting around to live your actual life. You can try, I suppose, to run offline activism as if the Internet didn’t exist, but that’s a little like sending telegrams because you find telephones disconcertingly modern. I’m sure some people do it, but I’m 34 years old now and I can’t actually say I’ve ever really participated in any kind of pure offline activism in my life. Even when I do offline activism, it’s still online.

©Cindy Cooper

Let’s take, for instance, a protest in New York City in February 2011 on behalf of Planned Parenthood, and where I spoke. The protest — a version of it happened in many cities across the country — was successful, and helped convince the Democrats not to cave into Republicans holding the federal budget hostage in order to strip the organization of its funding. It was the sort of event that people who sneer at online activists would praise since it was really cold and everyone sacrificed some personal comfort to be there. (I often get emails — oh irony — from offline activism chauvinists who want to impress upon me how much more activist-y activism is if your feet hurt at the end of it, as if personal sacrifice somehow matters more than effectiveness.) But for me, the online and offline aspects of it were so intertwined as to be inseparable, and I would argue that the best model of activism going forward is one that assumes this collapse of difference between online and offline life.

Hitting the Right Buttons

I was invited to speak at this rally because I had started a Twitter campaign supporting Planned Parenthood and I invited people to thank the organization while using the hashtag #thanksppfa. Thousands of stories were collected in one spot over just a couple of days. The organizers of the rally spread the word through online means, such as Facebook and blogs. Before the rally, a friend of mine used online methods to organize a sign-making party, and we made sure to take photos of our signs with our cameras and post them online.

The usefulness of online organizing for an offline event was evident in the size and make up of the crowd, which was bigger and more youthful than many people expected it to be. Young people are much less likely to make these distinctions between on- and offline life, and so the best way to speak to them in many ways is to go through online channels.

The most important way that the rally demonstrated how these distinctions have collapsed occurred in the critical work of publicizing the rally during and after the event. In the past, protest organizers were quite often at the mercy of the mainstream media, who could render a protest basically useless by deciding not to cover it. With the Internet — and especially with smart phones — that becomes much less of an issue. During the rally, a constant stream of tweets and pictures went online, allowing people who couldn’t be there to participate virtually, and making it all-too-clear to outsiders how large the crowd actually was. For days afterward, discussion and pictures of the rally continued, causing it to have a much greater impact than it probably would have had with a single day of media coverage before drifting under the waves.

media was simply

Fears that the Internet would somehow discourage people from getting out in the world and having that critical face-to-face interaction that adds depth to our activism are often proving to have missed the point completely. People crave reasons to leave the house and meet others, and the Internet gives them more reason to do so. In the past, going to an activist event often was a matter of luck — did you see the right flier or come across the right person before the event? Now, you can create invite chains on Facebook that will reach people that were unreachable before, and integrate them more readily into the community.

In general, what online activism does better than any other activism before is allow a message to reach a welcoming audience that had no access before. Compare feminist blogging, for instance, to Riot Grrrl, an early 90s movement that had a similar mission of reaching out to young women and inventing a new kind of feminism that fit better with their age. In the early ’90s, if you didn’t live in a city with a Riot Grrrl presence, go to shows or luck into finding Riot Grrrl zines, the movement had no impact on you during its run. Many to most Riot Grrrl fans probably came in the years after it petered out, because the word-of-mouth media methods then were simply time-consuming.

Now it takes 15 seconds to alert everyone in your Facebook list to something cool you’ve seen. A young woman who wants to learn about modern feminism today doesn’t have to consult with a librarian or luck into finding a flier, but can simply fire up Google and will likely be reading Feministing within five minutes.

Racing to Keep Up

This isn’t to say that online activism is all roses. The biggest problem for online activists is that the very technology that makes our lives easiest and more efficient can be used to shut out the voices of activists, as well. Look, for instance, at the trajectory of the online petition. In the early days, thousands of people sending emails to a politician or corporation could really create a situation the recipient could not ignore. Now, most people in power have created email filters that keep any of those emails from ever getting through, rendering the strategy useless.

Of course, offline activism has the very same problem of people in power developing an immunity to activist strategies, as demonstrated by the increasing problem of media blackouts for protests. The difference is that the world online moves faster, allowing the powerful to find ways to stop listening to activists even faster. The response to this from activists shouldn’t be to give up and allow nostalgia to fool us into believing offline strategies worked better. We just have to be cognizant of these barriers and constantly brainstorm new ways to get the message out.

You don’t have to luck
into finding a flier

The only downside to staying on top of the latest Internet activism methods is that it’s a lot of work. (Of course, the advantage is that this hard work can be thrown in the face of those who argue that online activism makes people weak and lazy!) Integrating the online and offline worlds for better political activism is, in fact, hard work – but all successful activism is hard work. Ultimately, though, the integration of the two brings the highest potential for a return — and that’s what really counts.

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based former Texan. She writes for Pandagon, Double X, and RH Reality Check, and has published two books, “It’s A Jungle Out There” and “Get Opinionated.”

Also see: Marcha de las Putas: SlutWalking Crosses Global Divides by Stephanie Gilmore in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Also see: Our Little Light: Letter From A Young Activist by Ileana Jiménezin this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Read the Cafe for new and updated stories.