I first logged onto the internet in 1998. That year I also stumbled across White supremacist networks, and I backed away from their dumpster fires as quickly as I could.
I also kept the lessons they demonstrated for me.
Effective organizing requires that people have direct access to information, regardless of their education status, and direct access to their peers and their peers’ work, regardless of their location.
It’s true that the open web can bring us information, misinformation, and disinformation. Stories—true, false, and garbled—transit the planet in hours.
Used strategically, the open web also allows strong non-local communities to connect and stay connected, and to share ideology, strategy, and encouragement. Weeks of synchronous face-time become unnecessary. And so does the prior approval of conventional institutional gatekeepers.
White supremacists have used the internet to their benefit for more than twenty years. They’ve been building capacity and diversifying tactics quietly and persistently for all of that time, and they went into overdrive in 2008. Last decade, information-dense online networks cracked open my isolation, got me reading material I’d probably not have discovered on my own, connected me to non-local people I’d otherwise never have met, and so helped to save my life. All this means is that the same connecting tools can provoke great evil and great good.
The internet is a connecting tool we can and should use for good. But if we don’t value online organizing, and cede digital ground to supremacists and malevolent profiteers, we’ll lose.
Across the United States, in religious traditions like Adventism and beyond, people are busy working for justice without the full-throated support of their administrations. They need the social internet to find, encourage, and amplify one another.
Other people are busy actively promoting the ideologies and theologies that keep Othered communities marginalized. They, too, use the web to find, encourage, and amplify each other. Some of those committed to injustice were so moved by their digital connections that they traveled nearly 2,600 miles to join the Charlottesville rallies.
At the same time, in Virginia this week as in Missouri three summers ago, local people’s social media feeds and live streams have kept non-local advocates in the loop. Their proactive communication connected people across state lines and time zones and opened lines of financial, tactical, and moral support long before conventional powers surfaced with the banal concern for “both sides.”
People committed to justice must master the open web and build proactive information networks. We need to combine concentrated offline organizing with the decentralized online work of so-called “keyboard warriors.”
Ultimately, we get to choose whether online organizing will work for us as well as it has for White supremacists. We’re more than twenty years behind, though, and working defensively, ad hoc, in isolation, and in suspicion of non-local people will not suffice.
If you want people to be able to find you in a world that values information, you’ll have to shake off the shadows and say something… in public… something both a “friend” and an “enemy” could find if motivated to search.
In an information culture, what can’t be found might as well not exist.
My mother taught me this verse when I was a child:
The codfish lays ten thousand eggs;
The homely hen lays one.
The codfish never cackles
to tell you what she’s done.
And so we scorn the codfish,
while the humble hen we prize—
Which only goes to show you:
it pays to advertise.
This verse isn’t about clickbait or working purely for praise. It’s not even about the hard work of deciding which meetings or actions need to be made public and which should be held in confidence or reported only on the day of.
It’s about the strategic value of a trail, a record of building mass, and markers of community tipping points.
What happens, a mentor once asked, if you stop a war before it happens? The only answer he accepted was “No one will ever know you did it.”
I still believe that’s the right answer for some change work. I now understand it’s the wrong move for other kinds. If colleagues are to find each other despite pacifying propaganda, institutional resistance to innovation, and the raw isolation of feeling like the only one in a group with questions, atypical opinions, or something to lose, we can’t all do super-secret silent shadow work.
Someone has to stretch their neck and become more visible. In some contexts, that someone is me. In other contexts, that someone will be you.
We’ll just have to be bold about it together because we can’t get to a more just world on our own.