Passive Activism

Passive Activism

Passive Activism

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Feb. 24 2000 3:30 AM

Passive Activism

{{Industy Standard Gif#34651}} Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.


{{Slate's Political Roundup#73099}}

Political Web sites generally fall into one of two categories. There are sites for people who like to watch and sites for people who like to do.

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Broadly speaking, for-profit political Web sites want you to watch and not-for-profit political sites want you to do. But a small number of for-profit, activist sites have emerged as a third category. They want you to do something. They just don't care what that something is.

Traditional political portals such as Politics.com (or the similarly named Politics1.com) aspire to be one-stop shops for political information on the Web. (Click here for a "Net Election" column surveying these portals, or here for Slate's own political portal.) These sites want to inform you and entertain you, but they don't care what you do with their information and entertainment. They're after your eyeballs.

The second type of political Web site is operated by political parties and interest groups. They may seek to inform and entertain, but they also have a third and, in their view, more important mission: to enlighten. These sites want to convince you of the correctness of their viewpoints, and then they want you to be more than a spectator. They want you to do something specific—at the very least to send them money or to vote a certain way.

The third type of political Web site doesn't want you to do anything specific. It wants you to do something in general. This kind of site promotes a fuzzy notion of democratic participation in government. Two of the newest and most prominent of these for-profit sites, SpeakOut.com and Grassroots.com, demonstrate the problems with this concept. SpeakOut.com calls itself a nonpartisan "activism portal" where individuals can take a "powerful role in the decisions that affect their lives." Grassroots.com is even more ambitious, billing itself as a "political action destination" designed to enable citizens to effect change that is "positive" and "democratic."

It's unclear whether these sites will be any good at making money, but it's pretty clear that, so far, they're not very good at encouraging activism. For example, Grassroots.com allows users to form and to join their interest groups, such as one called "Fighting Against Skateboard Laws." Unfortunately, there aren't very many of these user-created groups on the site, at least so far. Among the possibilities at SpeakOut.com is an option for users to create online petitions—of which there are currently zero.

Grassroots.com has a slightly different, but no more inspiring, approach. It uses an Internet application called "CapitolWiz" to help voters learn about their representatives at the state and federal levels. But once again, the aggressively nonpartisan nature of the site detracts from its usefulness. If I want to know more about, say, Rep. Dennis Moore, a Kansas Democrat who is likely to face a tough re-election campaign in his Republican-leaning district, Grassroots.com can give me his Web address, his phone and fax numbers, his address, his hometown, his previous occupation, his birthplace, his religion, and more. But it doesn't tell me a thing about how he voted on any particular issue or, for that matter, why I should care if he did.

There is little doubt that the Internet can be a powerful tool for political action, be it for raising millions of dollars for John McCain or for lowering the geographic barriers for like-minded people to communicate with each other. But sites like SpeakOut.com and Grassroots.com are unlikely to foster extensive participation in the political process. As well-intentioned as their attempts to foster "grassroots political activism" are, these efforts misunderstand how political involvement works. You can rouse people to get active in an issue or a cause or on behalf of a candidate. But no one is stirred by "activism" in the abstract.