As people gain confidence on the internet, feeling more comfortable about managing their presence and interaction, and especially their use of social networking sites like FaceBook and Twitter, they are discovering new ways to collaborate on issues that matter to them.
One example is the increase in popularity of online protests. They have come along way since yezzi.org staged a 100-person online protest to coincide with the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunisia from 16th to 18th November 2005. Why go online to protest? The organisers faced similar problems as experienced in dictatorships and repressive regimes the world over:
Since we are physically unable to demonstrate within Tunisian public spaces, we will use the internet to organize permanent virtual demonstrations in order to express our total disapproval with the Tunisian dictatorial regime.
Allthough most protesters were anonymous the Tunisian regime censored the website in Tunisia the day it was launched. If that proved anything, it showed that the regime was much more frightened than the 100 virtual protesters.
But repression is not the sole reason behind the success of online protests. They also enable passive participation, perfect for confirmed armchair activists as well the more ecologically aware, who enjoy the secondary benefits of zero environmental impact offered by virtual events. Another very positive aspect of virtual protests is that they are open to people with mobility issues or other disabilities that restrict their movement.
In this age of over-commitment, over-crowding and over-priced transport, letting your computerised self do the protesting makes a lot of sense. Organisers however see an additional boost: volume. Take a look at the Online Tax Revolt website http://www.onlinetaxrevolt.com/ for an example of this in action. At the time of writing, 112,200 Americans had registered on the site to join the walk to Washington, and the numbers are growing fast. These protesters actually give their name, email address and zip code which makes me wonder if I would be reporting 7-figure attendance if this event allowed participants to remain anonymous.
Then again, I have been debating the pros and cons of anonymity with a friend today, when we were discussing the Global Freedom Movement’s upcoming virtual protest on 8 March for International Women’s Day http://globalfree.wordpress.com/. On the one hand, anyone with basic web development skills (that includes me) could hash up a page with as many avatars or markers on it as they wished, and claim that they had themselves a successful online protest. It must be remembered that for many people, their need to remain anonymous outweighs their desire to join a virtual event. Fear of discovery and the inevitable retaliation from a violent regime such as the one in Iran is no trivial concern. Yet the people of Iran have a genuine need to have their voices heard and to bring world attention to their situation. Fortunately, social media provides a workable solution: using a FaceBook Event or inviting people to register by posting a tweet allows attendees to be ‘counted’ while allowing them to retain their online privacy in line with the settings on the application. It’s not perfect, but what is?