Effecting Change Using Internet Media

This post was written for Blog Action Day 2009.

The internet shrank the world more than any other innovation of the twentieth century: tightening social and economic ties between businesses, cultures, and nations more thoroughly than the genesis of commercial flight, or the threat of atomic war.

Map of the internet dated Jan 15, 2005 courtesy of the Opte Project

Today the internet is a staple of modern life. Broadband connections—once reserved for large corporations, research centers, and institutes of higher education—are now common place, and the fastest transcontinental networks can transmit tens of gigabits per second; a speed which will most likely become outdated within the next decade. It has opened new, and often exclusive, windows for business ventures of all sizes and has (in short) become an integral part of the functional corpus of our society.

As more and more home users have access to high-speed networks, the internet has also become more than just a place for businesses and organizations. It has become a dynamic and social entity in which individuals can maintain a voice and can make their thoughts available to a wider audience than was previously possible. It has evolved new and exciting uses such as blogging and social-networking. Even more recently “microblogging” sites such as Twitter have pushed the boundaries of the social web and arguably remain largely unclassified; still finding their niche in the greater virtual ecosystem.

Recently, a 1948 essay coauthored by George Orwell was brought to my attention by Blogger’s Rick Klau. As Klau points out, Orwell’s essay on pamphleteering “reads like a modern-day essay about blogs.”

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is one of the most famous and widely published pamphlets of all time

In his essay Orwell discusses archetypal themes such as censorship and freedom of speech; ideas which, though opposite in their form, both find a place in human nature. Orwell states, “Pamphleteering can only flourish when it is fairly easy to get one’s writings printed, legally or illegally,” and “good pamphlets are likely to be written by men who passionately want to say something.” Clearly the world has not changed much in the past few centuries: news often still has to be smuggled across national borders (though today’s proxies don’t involve horses), and, though it may be easy to get one’s writing printed, without real passion it is often difficult to have it heard. Individual pamphleteers publishing their works and distributing them may reach only a few in a community, are easily censored, and—unless the work is truly outstanding—they will never appeal to a wider audience. However, there is a key difference between the eighteenth century pamphleteer and the modern blogger: we are not alone. Pamphleteers met in small groups of a few individuals and were often separated from their contemporaries by great distances which made collaboration slow and cumbersome. Enter the internet.

The copyleft symbol: Copyleft uses copyright law to remove restrictions and grant freedoms which can in turn be used to develop an idea further without fear of legal retaliation

The recent trend towards openness, copyleft, and net-neutrality on the internet (and in the world in general) has created an environment where it is easy to find and build upon ideas and where collaboration is not only possible, but encouraged. It may be difficult to hear one voice, but what if thousands were to call out, all at once, using the full body of information freely available to them: establishing an audience using sheer volume? Just as it served the revolutionaries during the late eighteenth century it can now serve us today.

Franklin’s “Join, or Die”

Whether you are a blogger, tweeter, podcaster, videographer, or use some other medium it is only possible to create global impact when united for a common cause. Through coordinated events such as Blog Action Day, or simply by constructively presenting your ideas in an open and thoughtful manner it becomes possible for the virtual to influence the physical. It becomes possible for tiny members of a larger construct to influence the temperament of that construct as a whole.

This year Change.org has selected “Climate Change” as the official topic of Blog Action Day ‘09. This important issue facing peoples in all reaches of the globe will require more than just temporary actions to fix. It will require a change in the entire social landscape; a change of mindset which, like all large scale changes, terrifies us.

Ship tracks as seen by NASA’s Terra satellite

Like the pamphleteers that dreamed of a free and unified nation we must not only strive to help ourselves, but also to draw others attention to the aforementioned issues so that they also may benefit in the knowledge of what must be done to ensure a victory for the human race. What lies beyond victory is difficult to see, and so we must not simply stop there. As Orwell stated about pamphleteers, “their victory brought no actual benefit, but merely the promise of one.” We may never reap the benefits or suffer the consequences of our errors, but by acting against climate change we ensure a possible benefit for our decedents: that they may be free to strive for a better world in new and previously unrecognized ways, instead of trying to reverse the damage done by our failure to act.