Welcome to Activist Land!

Activist Land provides tools and a pragmatic forum for the progressive activist community. It aims to complement traditional political blogs by emphasizing how you can get involved in specific issues and how to integrate activism into your life in an effective and sustainable way. Therefore, in addition to calling for action on a particular issue, it encourages people to post "activism opportunity" posts that describe the nuts and bolts of how one would, or did, take action in a particular instance.

My main area of focus is media reform. I've been working with Save Boston's Progressive Talk to help bring progressive talk radio to Boston, and I've written interviews to publicize "The Real News", an independent international news network. My secondary area of focus is election integrity. I maintain a set of Voting Rights pages with an emphasis on an election integrity timeline. I've written pieces on these and other subjects for Daily Kos and my local newspaper. For more info, see my first post. Come and join the community!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Potato Chips, Prometheus, and the Blogosphere

[completed on December 30, 2007]

I give the blogosphere a great deal of credit for countering my isolation as a progressive in a conservative country, familiarizing me with political figures, prepping me for debate, introducing me to issues. It's hard to imagine another medium that could have gotten through to me with the message that indeed I could make a difference. Magazines? Canceled my subscriptions long ago to avoid the clutter. Posters on bulletin boards? Never saw them after college. Conversation at parties? Too few and far between. Not since grad school had I been in contact with anyone who might even try to explain to me how I could get personally involved. So without both the technology and the electronic appeals of the late 1990s and early 2000s, it might have been difficult indeed to find my way back to activism. But now I often wonder whether the blogosphere's fast-paced, salty commentary on the state of our world has lost its ability to satisfy me. It's as though I've passed through a phase where I compulsively worked my way through mounds of potato chips but now simply stare at the half-empty bag.

In 2003 and 2004, MoveOn.org, Meetup.com, TextPad.com, and DailyKos.com led me in a straight line to personal involvement. MoveOn invited me to the worldwide rally protesting the imminent Iraq War, then urged me to support the presidential candidate of my choosing (Howard Dean). Meetup told me where I could find meetings devoted to learning about and supporting his campaign, and then, after his campaign was torpedoed, where I could find, and eventually set up, meetings for Kerry. TextPad let me set up a little blog for friends and family to try to coax them into political activism. But it was Daily Kos that had the biggest effect on me.

In January 2004, I came across Daily Kos while doing a net search on behalf of my parents who had heard that Dean had made an anti-Israel remark. It turns out that the quote had been taken horribly out of context. But even after I found the answer to my question, I continued to read the site hungrily until late at night. Over the next few days, I began to use Daily Kos as a "link pad", a place where I could post information that people could read without a password (unlike my friends-and-family blog). Since I assumed that no strangers would read what I wrote, I decided I could post whatever scraps I wanted to keep for reference, either for myself or people I knew. My first post looked like this:

Favorite Links
Tue Jan 13, 2004 at 07:12:53 PM EDT
Favorite links:



Political blogs:





I posted a few more diaries that were really glorified sets of links, then discovered that people actually were reading and commenting on them. Some chastised me for not including my own commentary. Others looked at my cut-and-pasted implicit criticism of Wesley Clark and speculated that I was a Republican "troll". (One person commented "Ugh. It's about time Kos do a little Freeper-like cleaning of the rolls to expunge the Republicans from this board," to which another responded "Unfortunately... This guy's a Deaniac and, even more unfortunately, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.")

In those days, one could post roughly whatever one wanted. Shortly thereafter, standards would be introduced, many enforced either by software or by vigilante "diary police". Diaries had to be of a certain length and could not cite more than a few paragraphs of copyrighted material, and one could not post more than one diary a day. Eventually, the concept of "recommended" diaries was introduced: if enough users hit the "recommend" button for a diary, it would enter a special prominent list.

In any case, after my first spurt of short diaries, I began posting less and reading more. And I soaked up quite a bit during that time. Earlier in my life, I had distanced myself from politics partly due to distaste but also due to a reluctance to reveal my ignorance. Here, in this anonymous, constantly changing environment, it was possible for me to learn simply by watching. Only then did I try my hand at writing again.

The high point for me was when my piece The hat and the hamster, about the difference between the Bushes and the Kerrys as dramatized by their daughters' speeches at the Republican and Democratic Conventions, reached the top of the recommended list and received a number of enthusiastic comments. One responder asked whether he could send it to friends and family. But diaries that I published subsequently only attracted a small amount of interest.

The diaries I most enjoyed reading during those wary but hopeful days preceding the election included encouraging anecdotes of once-diehard but now defecting Republican family members. I also enjoyed reading optimistic predictions along the lines of George W. Bush is toast. Alas, when the election was called for Bush, and Kerry conceded, the warm feelings evaporated, replaced by a nasty battle between those who placed their hopes in investigations of election irregularities and those who felt that the best use of our effort was to move on. When I saw a comment from a site administrator comparing "fraudsters" to the Swift Boaters who had maligned Kerry, I felt betrayed, and stayed away from Daily Kos for months. Eventually, I came back to find that the conflict had faded. But its nastiness had soured my fondness for the site. I felt that the commenters who were primarily irritated with the "fraudsters" for interfering with their reading pleasure were extremely short-sighted in missing the most important threat to our electoral system: attacks on election integrity itself. It felt as though there were a lack of wisdom on both sides: those who were calling for investigation of the fraud were unsavvy in the repetitive, shrill, and ineffective way they appealed to the readership, but those who shouted down and eventually banned their diaries were making an unsavory decision to bolster the attractiveness of the site at the expense of its greater reach.

In later days, the site's founder showed a predilection for insulting groups (feminists, for instance) and chasing their supporters away. I explored other blogs, some of which made a conscious effort to be more harmonious, but none had the same level of activity that could be found at Daily Kos. A post might attract a handful of comments, not enough to get the adrenalin pumping. But as Daily Kos's readership soared, its popularity caused some unfortunate side effects. The size of the recommended diaries was held constant, so the competition for the recommended list grew more fierce. The snowball effect grew stronger, so diaries that acquired early momentum due to the reputation of their writers or the outrageousness of their headlines were able to shoulder out the rest, which scrolled ever more rapidly off the page.

A friend of mine wrote in her piece DailyKos Fiddles while America Burns that we tended to focus on salacious issues such as Cheney's hunting accident while ignoring more important issues such as the impending appointments to the Supreme Court. Prominent members rushed to assure the community that, in fact, Daily Kos is doing fine and its recommendation mechanism did the job, even if it led to a focus on repetitive diaries on some subjects while others went unnoticed. But the romance was irretrievably broken for me in January 2007, when I posted a five-part interview, "Go big or go home", with Paul Jay, head of Independent World Television. Two Daily Kos diaries on the network years earlier had attracted a great deal of attention, and later in 2007 I was to see another diary on IWT land on the recommended list. But my series attracted relatively little attention, despite the substantial work I invested in it and my intense efforts to "market" it by sending e-mail to people who had expressed interest in the subject before. The lack of response was probably due to overshadowing by a transitory controversy over whether a particular well-known blogger was correct in defending an accused troll, a discussion that received thousands of comments. (I've described this process in more detail in So how does Daily Kos measure up?)

I came to feel that Daily Kos was failing to serve me as an effective message board, or a reliable way to find the most important news, or a place to find wisdom or even necessarily a good read. But it's worth remembering that this may be due not only to changes on the site but to my own evolution. When I first started reading Daily Kos, I knew relatively little about politics. Hence, just about anything I read was new and worthwhile to me. I also was unprepared for the possibility that anyone would comment on my diaries (which I initially intended merely as placeholders for my own future reference), so when I received a few notes, I was surprised and gratified. When I began, there was no need for a recommended list; later, when such a list was introduced, and I once found myself on it, I was thrilled; only in the following years did it begin to feel that without landing on the recommended list (which felt ever more difficult), I would attract virtually no notice at all. Early on, the genres distinctive to the partisan blogosphere -- the snarky "modest proposal", the personal narrative, the photo collage, the call to arms -- were new and exciting to me; later, they lost their novelty.

I must also admit that I wanted not only to read about effective ways to get involved, but to be the one to bring these messages to others, to serve as Prometheus, carrying fire to the world. But every time my diaries failed to attract attention, I shared in Prometheus's torture: having my liver torn out as my diary scrolled into oblivion, only to have it grow back as I hoped that my next diary would meet a different fate.

I also began to believe that my blogging was preventing me from being an effective activist if there were other tasks competing for my time. A post would take me at least three hours to complete, and it often seemed as though the audience were too small to merit the effort (though the fact that I could cross-post it and post a link to it even years later helped to balance out the equation). Without posting frequently, I could not build the name recognition that would allow my pieces to gain the early cumulative attention that would save them from oblivion. And my full-time job would not allow me to carve away blogging sessions, in addition to the fact that I simply did not have something new to say every day. In early 2004, I felt free to simply post whatever I ran across; by 2007, it became clear to me that there was already more than enough content being recycled across the blogosphere, and most of it originated within the mainstream media that the blogs frequently reviled.

Over the course of 2007, I became more and more deeply involved with an organization attempting to bring progressive talk radio back to the Boston airwaves. I felt good about this, as I took to heart Hillary Rettig's advice in her book The Lifelong Activist (which I've frequently mentioned here): one can be much more effective when focusing on one or two areas of activism than when spreading oneself over a great number of activities. The work has been a great education to me, both inspiring and sobering. I had never worked my way deep enough into an organization to realize that there was a place where the grassroots had to reach out to resources where money and political power were concentrated. The real challenge, beyond getting those resources to listen to us with the appropriate urgency, was in figuring out how to deal with them in a way that did not compromise our ideals. I also discovered that transparency, laudable as it might be, had its limits. We could not make important decisions on the message board itself -- too many hostile outsiders could read it. And as the number of relevant things we could discuss on the board dwindled, the filler material grew. So did petty spats between readers. Constructive posts to the board (for instance, links to relevant Daily Kos diaries) went largely ignored.

On a more upbeat note, however, I must point out that today, after spending hours discussing my growing dissatisfaction with the blogosphere, I came across an e-mail from one of the leaders of the Columbus, Ohio progressive talk radio group. He was calling attention to a diary that he had written about their station and to his comment about my dKosopedia (Daily Kos Wikipedia-style) progressive radio timeline and list of progressive radio stations. All of a sudden, I found myself energized. I added a few comments to his diary, posted links to it on the dozen or so progressive talk message boards, and watched for a while as a few more people added their comments and recommendations. Once again, I felt hopeful. What if we could get a diary on Columbus's success, the most inspiring development in progressive talk radio in many months, rise to the top of the recommended list? That might well require the building of an external network (phone tree?) to break through the inertial forces (campaign fever, etc.) that keep the issues and names on the recommended list largely static and limited, but it's worth a try. It's true that Daily Kos is dedicated to those who are devoted campaign-watchers, but occasionally another subject gathers mass interest. And in fact, Daily Kos is where I found out about the movement to save progressive radio in the first place, so even the sparsely-visited diaries serve some purpose.

So hand me another plate of potato chips. My liver has grown back and I'm getting hungry again...

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