Weaving political webs

November 18, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

PHILADELPHIA -- Ed Schwartz has been organizing for a lifetime, starting with "student power" pressure as president of the National Student Association in 1967. In the '70s and '80s, he became a leading neighborhood activist, Philadelphia city councilman and housing commissioner.

And now Mr. Schwartz has a new idea -- that community groups can use the Internet, especially its interactive forums and customizable information resources, to execute a clever end-run around the one-way medium of regular newspapers, radio and television.

The Internet has taken its share of hits of late. One of its chat rooms frequented by sexual deviates led to a murder. State militia gun nuts network through it. Critics call it an impersonal medium keeping us indoors, away from neighbors, further atomizing American society.

Neutral technology

Mr. Schwartz replies: The Internet's a technology, just like radio, newspapers, the telephone, faxes. The technology's neutral; it's up to us to use it right.

The message of employing the Internet creatively to enrich community life and promote citizen activism is precisely the focus of Schwartz's new book -- "Net Activism: How Citizens Use the Internet" -- a primer on cyberdemocracy just published by O'Reilly and Associates.

"I didn't come to the Internet as a technology fan," says Mr. Schwartz. "I came to it as a political and civic activist, asking how do we use this as a vehicle for civic and political empowerment?"

And what impressed him the most was not the World Wide Web, with its incredible diversity of global and local information sources, but the capacity to set up electronic mailing lists (also known as listservs, after an early software program).

Listservs permit online conversations in which dozens, even hundreds, of people exchange ideas with one another.

"It's on e-mail lists," writes Mr. Schwartz, "where people share information and ideas and explore common projects." People get to "have a dialogue with each other on their own time and terms."

No pre-existing technology, he says, ever made it so easy and inexpensive for people scattered across neighborhoods, cities and the globe to communicate.

Isn't it easy to be overwhelmed by the flow of communications on a listserv? Maybe, he replied. Just take care to shop for lists that match your real interests, and are as moderated or freewheeling as your tastes (and time) allow.

But web sites and listservs related to one's own neighborhood, community and political interests intrigue Mr. Schwartz the most. One example: the web site of the Downtown Minneapolis Residents Association, which welcomes any voting age resident of downtown neighborhoods, invites opinions and concerns, sets up local meetings, provides critical community information.

The service, notes Mr. Schwartz, combats residents' sense of isolation. They learn about local civic groups and their programs, which government offices have which responsibilities (and how to contact them), how to participate and have their voices heard.

The possibilities range from block or town watches to soliciting volunteers to helping kids with homework to learning how to pressure local elected officials (their names and fax numbers and e-mail addresses all listed).

It's real civics, in other words. Mr. Schwartz, in fact, is founder of the Institute for the Study of Civic Values in Philadelphia. He's also set up an especially rich Neighborhoods Online web page and discussion forum that's intended to support neighborhood activism.

National lobbying

On broader social issues and national lobbying, the veteran service is HandsNet, which includes e-mail forums on topics ranging from welfare to juvenile justice to community building.

On the election side, several web sites are trying to expand voter turnout -- clearly a huge need after the dismal turnout this November 5. One example: "Rock the Vote," aimed specifically at 18- to 24-year-olds.

Then such experiments as Minnesota's E-Democracy let participants meet electronically to debate parties, issues, candidates, campaigns -- all without tearing one another apart.

The 1,000 or so people on E-Democracy are small compared to the Twin Cities' 800,000 voters, notes Mr. Schwartz, but "those 1,000 know how to reach the 800,000 through the media, public events, canvassing within neighborhoods."

Obviously the agenda here is far removed from the Christian Coalition, which turned to the Internet early and heavily, and made a massive impact through it in the 1994 elections.

Mr. Schwartz's argument: The rest of America has to learn to do the same. "Americans are no longer rallying around leaders. We are rallying around ourselves. Now -- through the Internet -- we can start talking to one another."

Neal Peirce writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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