This paper is presented as part of the Working Papers series for COMM-ORG: The On-line Conference on Community Organizing and Development. Copyright is held by the author. To cite, use: [author] [date] [title], paper presented on COMM-ORG: The On-Line Conference on Community Organizing and Development. 

Cyberspace vs. Face to face: Community Organizing in the New Millennium(1)

Randy Stoecker

University of Toledo


The Question of the Future
The Internet
Organizing and the Internet:  A Brief History
The New Millennium


Any title with both "cyberspace" and "millennium in it just begs for fortune telling.  And prognosticating the future is fun. It's fun because you can say the most outrageous things, and by the time you're proven wrong everyone's forgotten what you said in the first place.

But I don't want to prognosticate. That's a waste of time and it's disempowering. The point is not to predict the future as if we are all passively predestined to a certain fate, but to make the future, understanding the forces pushing us in different directions.

Another thing I don't want to do is give answers. Especially in the arena of social protest and social change, the academics' job is not to give answers, for the academic is often missing the essential knowledge that comes from experience. Advice from middle class white guy academics about what poor black women should do to win against oppression will always be bad advice, if only because it maintains the "victim" in a passive victim role receiving the "expert's" advice (see Stoecker, 1998).

What I will do is offer some questions, and some examples for people to chew on, to start their own discussions, and to begin to actively envision and collectively shape the future.

So let's begin.


What future do we want to make? Well, we all pretty much agree that we want to end poverty and the consequences for people's life chances that result from poverty (except, of course, for some conservatives out there who think that poor people are useful in serving as a threat to the rest of us).

There are also those among us who want to move from simply alleviating individual suffering to actually building collective power. The mild version of this is the civic participation perspective. These are the folks who want to rebuild face to face communities. They appear in the guise of "communitarians" (Etzioni, 1995; 1996), "new urbanists" (Wood, n.d.; Davis, 1997; Beatley and Manning, 1997), and a variety of lesser-named practices. The more muscular version is the community organizing perspective. Community organizers want to not only rebuild civic community, but want to also transform the structure of power that stands in the way of civic community. They do this by building organizations controlled by people normally shut out from decision-making power, who then go on to fight for changes in the distribution of power (Beckwith, 1997 Alinsky, 1969; 1971). It is this second, community organizing, perspective I want to focus on.

Community organizing has experienced a resurgence during the past decade, with an explosion of small organizing efforts and the start of some better-publicized efforts by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in various places (Tresser, 1999), by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) (1999) and the New Party (1997) in their Living Wage efforts, and by many other groups and networks (COMM-ORG, 1999b) including the rapidly expanding National Organizers Alliance (1999). But two long-standing conundrums remain for community organizing. The questions of "what works" and "what scale" haunt the practice.

On the question of what works, there are those who believe that every community organizing situation is so unique that there is no hope of ever building more general models. And there are others, of course, who adhere rigidly to their own special model of organizing. The champions of various organizing models draw sometimes intense boundaries between things like the "institutional model" that believes existing institutions and organizations are the basic building blocks of community organizing, and the "individual membership" model that believes individuals are the basic building blocks. They argue whether you begin organizing the poor or the working class first to make real social change. They argue over whether "confrontation tactics" or "consensus tactics" are the most effective means for winning power. They argue over whether multi-local "networks" like the Industrial Areas Foundation (Tresser, 1999) are more effective than independent "unaffiliated" local organizations.(2)

Then, on the question of what scale, there are those who believe that everything must start and focus on building face to face relationships in specific local places. For these organizers, you have succeeded when you have built a strong neighborhood organization. There are others who believe that nothing can change until people are organized on a less face to face but much broader geographic level. These groups, following the "Public Interest Research Group" or "Citizen Action" model, often don't operate at any level lower than state policy. Yet others believe that, until community organizers can bring groups together at the national level, real victory will remain elusive.

So we have two questions: 1) whether we can build organizing models that apply across situations, and 2) how much to concentrate at a local vs. a regional, national, or even global scale.


Well, you have been very patient with me so far, as I have yet to utter a single word about the Internet. That is appropriate, for my concern is not with the Internet, but with community power. And we live in an era where the seductive multimedia-ism of the Internet can easily obscure the questions and leap right to "virtual" answers. So it is crucial, as we think about the Internet, to keep the questions of model and scale of community organizing in mind.

What happens when you throw the Internet into the community organizing equation? What in particular, happens to the questions of model and scale?

The Internet is a horribly contradictory beast. It provides more people with more access to more information, and more means to present their own information, than any other medium. Just think about the resource difference in creating your own newspaper, or your own community cable TV show, compared to creating your own web site. Also on the optimistic side is the promise of "e-democracy"--that through the Internet we can participate in public policy construction in ways never before imagined. We can have direct discussions about policy questions, with policy makers, and even vote (Minnesota e-democracy, 1998) from our keyboards.

So, we say, the Internet is the very embodiment of information democracy. At the same time, we know that because there are no regulations on web content it's often impossible to tell what information is good and what is bad. And of course now that corporations have discovered the Internet, the chances that it will become just another exclusive and restrictive conspicuous consumption junkyard grow ever greater. If e-democracy is based on bad information and exclusive participation, are we really better off?

Those of us who care about community also fear that the Internet is isolating us in front of our monitors, keeping us off the streets and every more brain-addled by junk media. There are reports of research on personal and family relationships strained by "excessive" Internet use (Greene, 1998) and fears of "net addiction." At the same time, it also appears that much of people's Internet time is coming out of their TV time (Patrick, 1997; Moskowitz, 1998), and if there were ever a form of media that is truly junk, it's TV. E-mail is connecting more people than ever before. Just think, how many of you who would never dream of picking up a pen and writing a letter send out e-mail each day?

But even with all this communication, what is the quality of those cyber-based relationships? Sociologists like to distinguish between "primary" relationships and "secondary" relationships, also called "strong ties" and "weak ties" (Granovetter, 1973). Strong ties, or primary relationships, are the "I would do anything for you" kind of relationships and, for most of us, are precious few. Weak ties, or secondary relationships, are the "Hi, how ya' doin'" kind of relationships. We have many more of these. How many of those chat room, e-mail, and on-lind forum relationships can we really count as primary relationships? Or even secondary relationships? Perhaps, to the continuum of "strong ties" and "weak ties" we should add "no ties" since so much Internet communication is faceless one-dimensional stranger to stranger interaction.

What does this mean for community organizing? Well, the implications are equally contradictory. There is more information available than ever before through which to build an organizing campaign. On the other hand, getting it, sifting it, evaluating it, and using it, can be a time-consuming distraction. One of my favorite quotes regarding this problem is from Doug Schuler (1996) which starts with a quote from University of Washington professor Philip Bereano. Schuler cites Bereano as saying "Only the naive or the scurrilous believe the Third Wave claim that 'information is power'. Power is power, and information is particularly useful to those who are already powerful." Doug Schuler himself goes on to say:

Information is actually quite plentiful: we are already on the receiving end of a firehose of information with neither the tools or the time we need to give it adequate consideration. If all this information were power then surely there would be enough power for everybody! We find that the opposite is closer to the truth: the asymmetry of power is becoming greater every day, and computer networks are probably contributing to the problem."

Simply dealing with information issues can consume all of our energy. At the same time, so many organizing battles are lost because the challengers haven't done their research, or have overinterpreted their information, or have substituted fiction for the information they don't have. Here the Internet provides it's greatest potential. You can get the actual text of bills in Congress (Thomas, 1999). And you can distribute it by e-mail. You can do on-line research on your target, if they're big enough (Comm-Org, 1999c). You can get training materials (Comm-Org, 1999d). You can even do a strategic plan (Innovation Network, Inc., 1999).

Then there is the question of relationships. The research out there on social movements shows that weak ties are often the basis for movement recruitment (Snow, Zurcher, and Ekland-Olson, 1980; Klandermans and Oegema, 1987). Weak ties connect separate networks. A union member who has an acquaintance at the church, and a church member who has an acquaintance at the local women's club, links three potentially mobilizable networks. But we also know that sustaining a challenge over the long haul, particularly one that requires some personal risk, may be best done through strong ties (McAdam, 1986).

The worst thing about the Internet right now is the number of people who use it for the "no ties" strategy of mobilization. The most recent example, of which some of you may also have been victims, comes from the effort of someone to get TIAA-CREF (essentially an academics retirement fund) to divest its tobacco stock holdings. They sent a mass e-mail out to a thousand some recipients, and all they got were a bunch of irate responses from people who didn't know they were on the list, didn't know anyone else on the list, and didn't want to be on the list. The "organizers" didn't know any of us and they didn't even try to get to know any of us. Many of you also probably belong to list servs and you know how many calls to action you receive through those lists. I moderate a list serv on community organizing, and I dutifully send out those calls to action from our subscribers. But I, and others (Agre, 1996; 1999), are skeptical that mass e-mail from stranger to stranger, using the "no-ties" model of community organizing, matters.

At the same time, I have seen, and experienced through my work with the COMM-ORG (1999) web site and list serv, how the Internet can build weak ties and even strong ties. People learn about each other through seeing their name on a list message, or finding their web site, and then contacting each other one on one. A few exchanged e-mails may lead to a phone call, and even a face to face meeting. Particularly for those of us who feel isolated in our local circumstances, the Internet becomes a lifeline. And those of us who can traverse the divide between local space and cyberspace can become the weak ties that link neighborhood organizing to regional, national, and even global efforts.

So to the organizing issues of model and scale we can add the Internet issues of information and communication. How do these interact? Well, information can allow us to build models and show how they can be adapted across diverse circumstances. Of course, bad information will lead to bad models. Communication can allow us to strengthen local organizing and better link it to larger efforts. Of course, that communication can dissipate organizing energy if it's not building weak ties and then strong ties. When you combine the organizing issues of model and scale with the Internet issues of information and communication, the contradictions multiply.

So there is a continuum of possible futures ahead of us. At one extreme, we become divided into those isolated in their homes in front of the TV scared to go out because of the guns and drugs on the street, and those others isolated in their homes in front of a computer monitor too disinterested to go out on the street. At the other extreme is a global network of activists linking strong locality-based organizations with exactly the information they need when they need it at their fingertips. I certainly know which scenario I prefer. But how do we get there? Well, there you get a big "Idunno" shrug from me. But I do think there are some examples that are illustrative.


In some ways, the connection between organizing and the Internet developed in the 1960s, before the Internet even existed.  Back then a computer software "sharing community" grew up in the midst of all the anti-capitalist alternatives of the era.   Richard Stallman of MIT became part of that group.  In the 1980s the community began to disintegrate, as did all things progressive.  But in the mid-1980s he helped found the GNU (which stands for GNU's Not Unix--a form of acronym unique to computer hacker culture) project to write a completely free computer operating system and accompanying software.   Free, in this context meant that the software would be available without cost, and it's "code" would be freely available to anyone to modify, in contrast to corporations like Microsoft which do not make their code available. This led to the founding of the Free Software Foundation and the practice of "copylefting" software to make sure the computer code of the GNU's software was always freely available to anyone to develop and modify (Stallman, 1999).

The dream of a free operating system did not come quickly, however.  But by the early 1990s a Finnish computer programmer named Linus Torvalds was disgusted with the lack of reliability and flexibility of Microsoft systems and the cost of the Unix system, and had created the basics of a free operating system, operating on more or less the same principles.  This operating system, now known as Linux, came together with with the GNU and provided the foundation for the full fledged Linux alternatives we see today, especially the Linux/Gnome project (Gnome, 1999; Stallman, 1999).  This was quite literally a global project and the GNU related free software and varieties of the Linus operating system were developed and tested by thousands (some say millions) of people operating around the globe and communicating via the Internet (Linux Online, nd).

The free software movement, organizing against corporate-controlled software on a global basis, provided the model for how to use the Internet for community organizing.  And that model has developed rapidly in place-based community organizing.

Perhaps the first case showing the Internet's role in place-based activism came from events in China surrounding the Tiananmen Square occupation in 1989. With virtually every other source of contact between activists and the outside world shut off, the Internet became a means of getting information from activists out, and of getting information of the outside world's reactions in to activists. The Chinese government knew well how to censor the most popular forms of communication of the time, but not e-mail. So "way" back before the Internet was a pop culture revolution, it was an important source of communication and fundraising (Swett, 1995).

The next important case was the reaction against the 1996 United States Telecomm Act's Internet censorship provisions, called the "Communications Decency Act.". Here the Internet went from being simply an information conduit to becoming a medium of activism. At the moment that President Clinton signed the bill on 11am February 8, 1996, thousands(3) of web sites went to black backgrounds in protest. Remember, this was still before the web's explosion of popularity. Now, this took some organizing. The Coalition to Stop Net Censorship, who was sponsoring the "Paint the Web Black" campaign, had to get the word out. They had to teach people how to make the technical switch at just the right moment. The activism continued with an attempt to crash the White House server by a massive timed e-mail protest. Activists got a quick court decision against the Telecomm Act's censorship provisions in mid 1996 (Akdeniz, 1997) and the Supreme Court affirmed that decision in mid 1997 (Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition, 1997), so it's not clear how effective their efforts actually would have been in influencing legislators. However, these cyberactivists were also able to generate 115,000 plus signatures in 5 months to support legislation that would prevent Internet censorship and support families in preventing children from encountering Internet porn (Center for Democracy and Technology, n.d.).

A third, and again international, example, comes for the struggle in Chiapas, Mexico. There the Zapatistas, based in the indigenous population of the region, are struggling against cultural, and we could also say actual, genocide. And like student activists in China, the Zapatistas have been effectively cut off from access to the usual media sources. So once again, the Internet became important for organizing support. But the Zapatistas have added a couple of dimensions to our usual understanding of the Internet in activism. You might, for example, be thinking "just how many people in one of the poorest regions of a poor country actually have Internet access?" And your question would be right on. Because not many do. So Internet communication has to be mediated. As one activist says:

Despite all the media hype which came with the discovery of the role of cyberspace in circulating Zapatista words and ideas, subcommandante Marcos is not sitting in some jungle camp uploading EZLN communiques via mobile telephone modem directly to the Internet. Zapatista messages have to be hand-carried through the lines of military encirclement and uploaded by others to the networks of solidarity. (Cleaver, 1999)

Much of the Internet communication is about practical issues. When the Mexican government shut down a sympathetic radio station, supporters used the Internet to mobilize pressure and the radio station returned to the air (Cleaver, 1999). Another story is told of a Chase Manhattan Bank memo pressuring on the Mexican government to crush the Zapatistas, revealed in a low-circulation print article by the progressive journalist Alexander Cockburn, but then widely  redistributed through the Internet. The resulting protests led Chase to back off (Wehling, 1995).

But there is much more. Because around the very practical concerns in the struggle of the Zapatistas are complex and abstract issues of global capitalism and colonization. And the Internet has become a source of a global discussion that feeds the simultaneous development of Zapatista political economic theory and radical political economic theory around the globe. One manifestation of that discussion was a 1996 event in Chiapas where over 3,000 grassroots activists and intellectuals from 42 countries on 5 continents met to discuss the linkages between the theoretical global political economic issues and the practical strategic issues facing the Zapatistas and other insurgencies around the globe. There is now a global activist network supporting the people of Chiapas and each other, and building theory that can inform, and be informed by, action (Accion Zapitista 1999). The Zapatista movement has also become the center of people's thinking about how the medium of the Internet, and related media, can engage with social struggle (Chiapas Media Project, 1998; ZapNet, 1996).

Perhaps the most successful example of the Internet in activism was the successful scuttling of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, or the MAI, in 1998. The MAI was the brainchild of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development--essentially a plan for global corporate rule that would have placed corporations above national laws. Among the groups who organized to stop the MAI was the Council of Canadians, who got a draft report of the MAI plan and posted it on their web site (Drohan, 1998). On the other side of the world, the Malaysian-based Third World Network (1999) joined in the opposition leadership. From there, a global coalition of 565 community-based organizations and non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, from 68 countries (Third World Network, 1999c) built up, mainly through Internet communication.

The Internet was the perfect medium for globally organized opposition to global corporate role. As Maude Barlow, the chairwoman of the Council of Canadians was quoted: "We are in constant contact with our allies in other countries…. If a negotiator says something to someone over a glass of wine, we'll have it on the Internet within an hour, all over the world." OECD members themselves credited the Internet with providing the means for effectively fighting the MAI (Drohan, 1998). Joint petitions, e-mail campaigns, call-ins, research posted on the web showing the dangerous underside of the MAI, and then of course local face to face mobilizations, occupations, street theatre and other actions around the globe to pressure individual governments, including an 'International Week of Action' on 7-17 February 1998 (Khor, 1999)--were highly effective. When activists got France to withdraw from the MAI, they knew they had the momentum to stop the deal.

It's difficult to say whether this international level of community organizing could have occurred without the Internet. At the very least it would have been a lot more expensive and time consuming for activists to find,  develop, and coordinate mobilizable networks. And finding the networks may have been where the Internet was essential. Groups too poor to afford dozens of overseas phone calls and too time stressed to research what group, in what country, was taking what position on global capitalism, could get that information through belonging to a few selective e-mail lists, doing a few web searches, and browsing a few web sites.

The anti-MAI coalition built toward the World Trade Organization meeting at the end of November 1999, where they expected another version of the MAI to be on the table. The Third World Network (1999b) quickly gained 414 signatories to a statement opposing a WTO-based trade agreement. People prepared for protest in Seattle as groups from around the world move into town for massive protests and disruptions (Parrish, 1999).  The predictions turned out to be understated if anything.  Tens of thousands turned out and shut down most of the first day events of the WTO.  The Internet-based protestors out-organized the forces of control in Seattle and police from around the state and the National Guard were called in an attempt to control the city.  A global network of activists made sure accurate reporting came out of Seattle through the Independent Media Center (1999).  They publicized street actions and police brutality using the Internet's multimedia capacity and found their reporting quickly transported worldwide through various e-mail listservers.  Most importantly, in one case, an independent reporter "copylefted" the photography he sent to the Independent Media Center (Herrick, 1999). The "Electro Hippies" conducted a "virtual sit-in" on the official World Trade Organization website  (ehippies, 1999; Wall Street Journal, 1999)  Copylefting is a practice founded by the free software movement and brought full circle the connections between those activists who built much of the Internet and those activists working on the ground.  The demonstrations, which were brutally attacked by police and involved the arrest of 600 people, helped destroy any agreements members of the corporate-dominated WTO helped to achieve.

Finally, there is the case of MoveOn.Org (1999). MoveOn.Org was formed by a couple of people who were fed up with Republican's obsessive attempts to oust Bill Clinton from the White House. So they made a web site with a short on-line form to fill out. They got the initial word out through, interestingly enough, personal contacts who knew how to get the web site advertised (MoveOn.Org, 1999b). In just a few days they had hundreds of thousands of "Signatures" and knew they had stumbled onto a sleeping giant. Through the massive, sudden network they built up they were able to conduct e-mail protests that on at least one occasion crashed the Congressional e-mail server and left 300,000 e-mail messages undelivered (Crofton Online,1998a). They claim to have ultimately generated over a million e-mails and 250,000 phone calls around the impeachment issue (MoveOn.Org, 1999).

What was most interesting about MoveOn.Org, however, was that as the impeachment battle dragged on, organizers realized they could not rely on the Internet alone to fight it. So they started organizing a door to door petition drive. They went from cyberactivism to face to face activism. They mobilized "2,000 volunteers that have distributed more than 20,000 paper pages of comments to politicians and directed 30,000 phone calls to district offices." (Brown, 1998). Now they have been fundraising to target Republicans for defeat in the next election, and have received millions of dollars in pledges.

We don't know how influential MoveOn.Org was in Clinton's acquittal, but we know they impacted people who got involved. Many of those are continuing their involvement. Their current statistics are amazing: Over 500,000 supporters, $13 million and 750,000 hours pledged by 30,000 volunteers to year 2000 campaigns (, 1999). We also don't know how much of this will come to fruition--whether MoveOn.Org has been able to develop weak ties and strong ties or will be beset by the lack of mobilization characterized by Internet-based "no ties" organizing. But their ability to shift back and forth between Internet-based and traditional organizing has been impressive so far. They have also coined the term "flash campaign" to describe their form of mobilization:

A flash campaign is a completely new phenomenon emerging from the radically reduced cost of communicating. Traditionally, political campaigns have been run by existing organizations with long histories, high overhead and inertia. MoveOn literally sprang from nowhere, with no affiliations or external funding. This is only possible in a world where you can communicate with 100 million people for $89.95. (MoveOn.Org, 1999b)


So what do we learn from these examples about the questions of model and scale, and information and communication, in the nexus of community organizing and the Internet?

The first lesson concerns how useful the Internet is for multi-locational organizing. For issues that occur on a global scale, and require coordinated actions in multiple sites, the Internet plays a crucial role. While many may see the Internet as a high-tech high-skill medium that only middle-class white guys really use, it has shown amazing ability to reach into the most remote locations from Chiapas to Kosovo to India to many others (Verton, 1999;, 1999). Whether it is linking up remote struggles in places like East Timor or Chiapas with support from the rest of the world, or coordinating global actions against global threats such as the MIA, the Internet clearly excels. We are left to wonder what the results may have been for the Civil Rights Movement, or the anti-war movement, had the Internet been available to those activists. The Internet is cheap and it's reach is nearly instantaneously global. Would the Internet have allowed activists to recruit even more people to even more actions? Would it have allowed for more funds to support more organizing? Would it have allowed for better information about the realities of racism in the United States, or the truth about the Vietnam war?

The second lesson is that the Internet's ability to dramatically increase the scale of activism can also lead people to bad organizing models. This "cyber-organizing" model, also dubbed "McActivism," has been promoted since at least 1997 and involves things like e-mail action alerts and web-form protests (Civille, 1997). There is a serious misunderstanding, I think, among too many cyber activists, about what it means to organize people in a real struggle against real oppression. Take this quote from Audrie Krause (1997) of NetAction:

Organizing in cyberspace is really not much different than organizing anywhere else. E-mail action alerts are the electronic version of the flyers that grassroots organizers hand out on street corners or at rallies. The difference is that e-mail alerts reach people far more people, reach them instantaneously, and cost nothing to distribute.

The really important difference is that, in cyber-organizing, people are not developing face to face relationships, and when the going gets rough are they going to support each other getting clubbed, gassed, or worse?  Before Seattle, I was certain they would not.  Now I am not so sure.  But I still think we should be wary about relying solely on the Internet for getting people on the streets when what is really needed is disruptive action that requires high-risk involvement most likely to occur through strong-ties relationships.  Even in Seattle, actions were organized through strong-tie face to face "affinity groups."

Much of the struggle to save the Community Reinvestment Act--which is the only thing that gets banks to actually make loans in poor neighborhoods--from the ravages of a corporate-controlled Congress is being waged through list-serv announcements. The effort to get TIAA-CREF to disinvest from tobacco profits is being waged through the Internet. Neither of those tactics are building organization or relationships. As a consequence, these activists are very limited in their tactical responsiveness--no large demonstrations, no high-risk activism. There is a dangerous overconfidence among too many that somehow a mass e-mail to a thousand people you don't know will result in activism of any consequence. Even worse are "chain-letter petitions" which ask you to sign the petition and e-mail it on to others (Agre, 1996). This is where the example of MoveOn.Org is instructive. They realized that sustained activism would require shifting at least partly from a cyberactivism model to a face to face organizing model (Raney, 1999). On the other hand, for quick actions where efficiency and quantity of communication counts, such as in policy struggles, the Internet can be a powerful tactic. When the FDIC proposed to monitor individuals' bank transactions, a Libertarian Party activist picked up on it and sent a message to their 10,000 member e-mail list. That led to a flood of over 200,000 e-mail protest messages being sent to the FDIC through the LP web site, and grew the LP e-mail list to 140,000. When there is almost no time to organize anything but a cyber-protest, it is certainly worth the effort. But sustained struggles require sustained relationships.

The third important lesson is how to use the Internet's information potential appropriately. For groups cut off from access to the mainstream media, such as the Zapatistas, the Internet may not only be the best but the only means of getting the word out. I manage a list serv and website on community organizing (COMM-ORG, 1999), and we got word of the massacres in Chiapas two days before the mainstream media. Independent Media Center of Seattle (1999), on the web, was the first and best source of information on what was actually happening on the streets of  Seattle during the WTO demonstrations and police riots. There's reason to believe the mainstream media got their initial information from the Internet as well. Of course, there remains here the problem of information efficiency and accuracy. Even on COMM-ORG, I have occasionally sent out bad information. But the anarchist nature of the Internet quickly brings challenge to bad information. Thankfully, on COMM-ORG, there are a number of individuals who watch for bad information. The trick, then, is to build places on the Internet that can be trusted for good information on the issues you care about. This is what makes the web site/e-mail combo so powerful. it's difficult to trust information coming through an e-mail alone. But an e-mail with a web address, and a site at that address with links to other sources, is more trustworthy. A trusted third party who can verify information independently is even better. Much of that process happens informally now. It would be nice for Internet information verification to be more organized.


OK, now some of you have been really patient, since you were probably expecting me to say something about the future. Well, as I mentioned, I'm not real big on future-telling, but there are some more questions about the organizing-Internet connection that I think will be relevant in the new millennium.

First, as interaction through the Internet becomes more comfortable for more people will the importance of relationships change? We are currently breeding an "extreme sports" youth culture. They're growing up with the risk of AIDS, the uncertainty created by the very idea of a new millennium, and an inherently unstable economy that makes stable employment a concept relegated to the "good ol' days." To them, developing a relationship through the Internet is no more risky than any other part of life. So I wonder, as time moves on, whether Internet-based organizing becomes more effective and face to face organizing less important? Will "no ties" cyber-organizing work with the next generation who don't require relationships to take risks?

Second, as global capital becomes more and more powerful, will the necessity of global activism become more and more important? Corporations who can use workers in Bangladesh to undermine labor organizing in Mexico to hold down wages in the United States cannot be fought using the old models. Likewise, corporations operating with impunity across national borders make even national government irrelevant as a target. In such cases of frighteningly large, powerful, complex, and footloose corporations, will getting good information and coordinating highly sophisticated multi-local action be more important than ever?

Of course, even if that's true, the question is whether there will be any "local" left. If the Internet is making some of us a world of networked strangers, it is also leaving many behind (Benton Foundation, 1998; U.S. Department of Commerce, 1995; 1998). What happens to those without Internet access? I completely agree with those who argue that the ultimate cause of the problem is not in the neighborhood but in the effects of global corporate greed. So to ultimately solve the problem you have to fix the cause, and that means networking globally to be able to act against global corporate power. At the same time, the social problems caused by global corporate greed do not occur in cyberspace but in real space, and if we neglect organizing in real space we cannot depend on "trickle-down" benefits from any victories at higher levels. It is not enough to win a policy battle. it's easy for a corporation, or a government, to say "OK, you win." But then those victories must be implemented in real places. So those without the Internet do not become part of the struggle unless they become part of the network, and the network doesn't become relevant unless it is grounded enough to be mobilizable for poor people's issues. And how do we solve that problem?

There are those working in the arena of "community networking" (Schuler, 1996b) trying to make sure that poor communities are not shut off from the hardware, and the skills, to use the Internet. And they are showing results in places like the poor neighborhoods of East Palo Alto, California (Lillie, 1998). And the wonderful benefit of such projects is that they are building face to face relationships at the same time they build cyber-relationships. The regulars who come to the community computing center or come to the steering meetings for the local community network, create new forms of relationships in communities that have few other public gathering places.

There is also a new network just formed, the Organizers' Collaborative (1999), whose goal is " harnessing the collaborative potential of the Internet and working to making computers accessible as a tool in support of community-based, social change organizing."

So what will the future be? The Internet has the power to isolate us and bring us together. It has the power to fool us and inform us. Community organizing has the power to create change, but only when its participants guess right about their context and their strategy. Ultimately, the future will be what we make it. And, by appropriately bringing together the power of community organizing with the potential of the Internet, we can make the future ours.


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Beatley, Timothy, and Kristy Manning. 1997. Beyond the new urbanism : planning for environment, economy and community. Washington, DC : Island Press,

Beckwith Dave, with Cristina Lopez. 1997. "Community Organizing: People Power from the Grassroots." COMM-ORG Working Papers Series, 1997 Working Papers.

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Chiapas Media Project. 1998. Progress Report April 4, 1998.

Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition. 1996. Online Free Speech Supporters.

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Civille, Richard. 1997. Environmental Organizing on the Internet.

Cleaver, Harry. 1999. The Zapatistas and the Electronic Fabric of Struggle. An html version of the original draft of a chapter for John Holloway and Eloína Peláez (eds.), Zapatista! Reinventing Revolution in Mexico, London: Pluto Press, 1998. September 22, 1999. Internet to reach poor Indian villages with video e-mail.

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Crofton Online: Move On Flood of Anti-Impeachment Email Crashes Congressional Servers, 300,000 More Messages In Limbo; Hand Delivers Petitions to House Members.

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1 There is some debate about when the new millennium begins, with many experts saying it doesn't begin until 2001 and some biblical scholars saying the 2000th anniversary of the famous birthdate all the hype is based on actually happened in the late 1990s.  Just thought you might be interested.  :-) An earlier version of the paper was prepared for a talk at at the Syracuse Social Movement Initiative, Program on the Analysis and Resolution of Conflicts, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, 1999. The paper continues to undergo revisions, and I welcome comments.

2 Though many of those groups also come together under the general umbrella of the National Organizer's Alliance (1999).

3 Voters Telecommunication Watch (1996b) listed over 1400 web sites, while the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition (1996) listed over 4000.