I wrote this in 1995
Taking your first step into the online political arena is simple--express an opinion online. On television and in the traditional media, we are always being told what others think, what "the American people think," according to the polls, what the politicians think, what the journalists think. But how many times have you been asked what you think, with time to reflect and give a thoughtful response?
Isn't that what democracy is supposed to be about? You, me, "we the people", average citizens studying the issues and engaging in dialogue about the issues of the day?
Right from your desktop computer, you or anybody in the world can track the President's activities and call up the text of his every public utterance. You no longer depend on some reporter to summarize and characterize the news in a positive or negative light. You can call up documents on health care reform and decide for yourself what you believe. And then you can discuss your views with your fellow citizens from around the country.
You'll find Democrats for Dole and Republicans for Clinton, federalists and states' rights advocates, civil libertarians and people who want tougher prosecution of criminals, gun owners and gun control advocates, people who favor abortion and people who think it's murder. You'll probably find lots of Libertarians and lots of people who are angry and alienated from the political proceess.
Whatever your position on an issue, someone is sure to passionately disagree with you, and mince no words about it. I thought I had the most cogent arguments, of course. But invariably someone would come up behind me and post a note saying flat out that I was wrong. The Internet is a perverse medium, the political message boards especially so. If you offer a strong political opinion, people are far more likely to post an opposing view than to agree with you.
At first this practice irritated me. Gee, anybody can post anything, I thought. There's no filter, no intermediary, no gatekeeper to decide which arguments are proper and which arguments are not. This is anarchy!
But in time, as I learned to ignore the adolescent insults of a few idiots, I engaged in some provocative debates that sharpened my own thinking and helped me to see others' points of view. I found myself competing with others to offer the most well-reasoned arguments and to ask the most penetrating questions. I read the newspapers and magazines more alertly, hoping to find an issue I could discuss and debate on-line. You might call it intellectual calisthenics.
A few vitriolic posters seemed hellbent on not just disagreeing but attacking and destroying the opposition. They weren't interested in reason or honest dialogue. Their strategy was attack, attack, attack, without any sense of personal responsibility because they didn't use their real names, and rarely revealed what they believed because to do so would put them on the defensive, leave them vulnerable to attack and searching questions which they preferred not to consider. They made me so angry, I decided to try another on-line forum where surely the political culture would be more civil, I hoped.
But I was wrong. The online political culture on Compuserve and Prodigy and Internet usenet groups was no different from what I had experienced on AOL, perhaps less civil, dominated by radical libertarians and name-calling reactionaries.
At the time, 1993-94, on-line forums were a rather lonely place for people of moderate and progressive political views. I felt defensive and embattled, spending most of my time on-line fending off attacks on whatever position I might espouse.
Occasionally on AOL, I noticed another moderate or liberal voice who also seemed embattled like myself. Slowly, I collected a few e-mail addresses, and send out a message to about a dozen letting them know they were not simply "voices crying in the wilderness," that I and others agreed with them. This simple step was my first attempt to create some sense of community on-line. The radicals and reactionaries were more vocal than we were, I wrote, but their numbers were not so large. Perhaps we could strategize in private e-mail on how best to use our time on the message boards, and at least draw strength from knowing we had compatriots on-line.
"My quick tally of regular contributors to the White House Forum on AOL indicates 20 Clinton supporters and 20 Clinton opponents," I wrote the group. "But the opponents are clearly energized and we supporters may be in what columnist E.J. Dionne calls 'the Democratic Doldrums.' In today's Washington Post, he observes that supporters of the President and the Democratic Party stand to lose big in the November elections unless they can drum up enthusiasm in the President's natural constituencies and counter the constant assaults from the right. Clinton's message isn't getting out. Perhaps we can help build a network that helps get it out?
"Would you be interested in participating, or, at a mimimum, receiving further e-mail from a Pro-Clinton Network? If so, reply by email.
"Who am I? One citizen with no official affiliation with any political group. I simply recognize the enormous potential power of this medium for networking and political activism."
The next day I turned on my computer and found nine e-mail messages:
"Hi...your notion sounds interesting. I have been both horrified and amused by the conservative right's voluble and energetic attacks on the president. It seems to me that most open-minded individuals (liberals? free thinkers? you decide) tend to be lazy and not particularly interested in telling other people what to do or think. Unfortunately, rigid uptight right-wingers LOVE to tell everyone what they should do and think. It is an affront to their belief systems when someone (anyone) subscribes to a different philosophy of any kind whatsoever. (E.g., their religion is the only religion, their notions about politics are the only right way, and thought control [so long as it is executed by themselves] is a GOOD THING.
"I am not certain that contributing to this ongoing debate between Clintonites & anti-Clintonites will accomplish anything much. But I am all for the effort. I personally am getting tired of arguing with the likes of "SeaSoldier" et al. They don't hear anything. They don't appreciate anyone's point of view but their own.
"Sometimes I think Clinton himself could do a much better job at getting his message across...all he'd have to do is address the nation now and again and explain his positions. Though he gives press conferences, he rarely goes live on TV and talks to us. I think this is a mistake....It seems to me other presidents communicated more frequently with the American people. I could be wrong, of course. I mean I know he goes on radio once a week, but how many people actually hear his address? I know that I never get a chance to hear what he has to say.
"Those are just a few of my many redundant and pushy thoughts on the subject. Let me know what you think. Thanks for including me in the conflict. Just think, with 20 arguers on either side, we could settle the whole thing with a big tug of war!" BelleView@aol.com.
"Jim--your e-mail message was forwarded to me. I find this very intriguing -- am interested in hearing your ideas....Who am I? A person who is interested in bettering this country for my children and believe the President has our best interests at heart." JaneH42@aol.com.
"Jimbuie, I enjoy your contributions too. I'd like to do what I can, but can't compromise my position as a journalist. What I write has to be balanced and fair. But I'd be happy to work to BRING some balance and responsibility to the public discussion. As it is (as you say), the antis are making all the noise and getting all the attention. Clinton's many accomplishments are ignored. And his true flaws (which are many and should be debated) are ignored in favor of all these absurd things that have nothing to do with what he was elected for). Count me in." NDCajun@aol.com
"Jim, yeah....I'd like to participate. Sounds challenging and very cutting edge. Inasmuch as I'm currently job searching, I'll have more time "upfront" than I likely will later on. But, I am very interested. You should know at the outset that I believe that our beloved republic needs both legitimate conservative as well as liberal views expressed and advocated. Please note the word "legitimate"....like the rest of you, these bumper-sticker conservatives and Christian Coalition types scare hell out of me. Thanks for the invite.......keep sending!!" Jim Spalding/Avalon9@aol.com
"Yes, I would be interested. But, I wouldnt worry about the polls right now; they will be all over the map, the important poll is the elections themselves. Clinton has a great ability to come back from the grave. We do need to work in the 1994 elections though, and I am worried about the acid drip drip drip of 15+ hours of Rush Limbaugh and all the other conservative detractors of the President. Please keep me informed, and thanks for your idea and asking me to participate. " JackB29@aol.com
"Good, Idea, Jim. Count me in. I am a sort-of activist in Southern California, but it looks like there is a lot of action on these boards. The religious right is getting scarier and scarier and I am all for a good counter-punch-- I mean, you know, that the right wing minion are well organized." Regards, Maudie (Maudies5@aol.com)
"Thanks for the invitation. I would be very interested in participating. I'm very troubled by all of the unfounded mudslinging by many posters on AOL against Mr Clinton. Constructive criticism is fine but the out and out vile, blind hatred that I have been reading is quite nauseating." IDOUBT@aol.com
"I am happy to help. Clinton has earned it! This virulent right wing is a danger to us all and needs to be countered by active support from Clinton backers." Speakout@aol.com
"I have been thinking about starting such a group for weeks, but we had an important re-nomination fight here in Virginia....With the help of the President and the Vice President, Senator Robb was endorsed by the Democratic Party, in a primary, with 58% of the vote. Some 220,000 registered voters participated.
"One of the first things we can do is be clear and open about our current affiliations etc etc. I am a member of the State Central Committee of VA for the Democrats and I would NOT be considered an unbiased "average voter" for sure. I will not be able to actively discuss or work for any Republicans or endorse strong positions that go against the platorm of the DNC. But I will respect any intelligent and logical viewpoints and be glad to debate the merits of issues. I will be glad to point out where I have disagreed with the President, but I am not going to drone on about it....I AM READY!!! COUNT ME IN." EdHERLIHY@aol.com
The discussion group quickly grew to about 50 names, the maximum number allowed at that time by AOL's group list software. With a brief and simple e-mail message, I had become a political organizer. I marveled at how easy it was. And I instantly realized that I had stumbled upon a powerful new technology that once it caught on with other citizens would change the face of American politics forever. In time, my simple little e-mail list, created by one citizen working on a home computer out of a basement, would grow to thousands.