the Net and participation

Right now, Hurricane Isabel is howling around us and most work has

ceased. The University has taken its server down, blessedly cutting

off my email. Yesterday afternoon, when the skies were still clear,

I met with Marty Kearns of Green

Media Toolshed, who is full of fascinating ideas about how the

Internet and other distributed technologies (including billboards

and buttons) can be used for political activism. Meanwhile, I was

reading reviews of Bruce Bimber and Richard Davis’ new book, Campaigning

Online: The Internet in U.S. Elections. Apparently, they argue

that the Internet is effective for mobilizing strongly committed partisans,

but it does not increase net participation in politics and elections.

This is consistent with CIRCLE research on young people, and also

with my predictions in a 2002 essay

on the Internet and politics.

Marty Kearns makes me optimistic about the political power of digital

technologies and their value for progressive organizations. But I

also worry about the chief barrier to participation. It’s not the

digital divide, or technological literacy, or the power of major media

companies to constrain the ways that the Internet is used. It’s rather

the lack of motivation to participate politically—the lack of

identity as citizens—among many marginalized people. In the

past, people developed that kind of identity and motivation by enrolling

in disciplined organizations with strong cultures: unions, political

parties, religious denominations. I’m not convinced that we’ve found

replacements for such organizations in the digital age.

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