Bemoaning the lack of political outrage on college campuses, Tom Friedman in yesterday's NYT (Oct 10) raised the issue of whether the online medium in effect has taken the steam out of politics.

As he puts it:

“America needs a jolt of the idealism, activism and outrage (it must be in there) of
Generation Q. That's what twentysomethings are for – to light a fire under the country. But they can't e-mail it in, and an online petition or a mouse click for carbon neutrality won't cut it. They have to get organized in a way that will force politicians to pay attention rather than just patronize them.

Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy didn't change the world by asking people to join their Facebook crusades or to download their platforms. Activism can only be uploaded, the old-fashioned way – by young voters speaking truth to power, face to face, in big numbers, on campuses or the Washington Mall. Virtual politics is just that – virtual.”

Does pre-occupation with virtual politics make it too easy for an “activist” to feel like they've actually done something?

I'm a big believer in the empowering potential of the online medium, as regular Agitator readers know. Certainly the internet has proven its ability to generate political money. And yes, I can submit questions to candidates via video to streamed online debates (questions just as intelligent and probing, or not, as if I asked them face-to-face).

But I fear Friedman might be right. It's easier than ever to be an armchair activist. Now it's just called a laptop activist. Campaigns talk of turning laptop activists into real on-the-ground support and votes as the holy grail of online politics.

Same applies to issue activism. Sure, the online medium offers tools with amazing potential to empower. But where's the evidence of political change as a result?

If your nonprofit is of the cause variety, don't be deluded by your ability to generate a lot of online smoke. Offline is still where the rubber must meet the road.


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