Sunday, September 17, 2006


Jorge Dominguez, Executive VP of Atina Chile, speaks to a group of university students

1. A New Kind of Activism

In the past few months, Chile has witnessed several instances of citizens using the internet, particularly blogs, to effect social change. These actions are different from other forms of internet activism, like Amnesty International's Irrepressible campaign or 's efforts to influence the senatorial campaign in Connecticut. These two actions were realized by large organizations. However, events in Chile mark a new type of internet activism in which individual citizens use the internet as a low-cost mechanism to publicize a message, attract allies, and collaboratively plan and execute actions.

The most noteworthy example of this individual-led internet activism is that of the thousands of Chilean students who went on strike around the country and staged rallies demanding the removal of fees for college entrance exams. Many high schools set up photoblogs to show their affiliation with the campaign and to disseminate information, such as the times and locations of rallies. The work of individual webmasters was key in spreading information in this decentralized campaign, which resulted in the government raising the education budget by $200 million.

When a homeless poet in Chile's capital, Santiago, was taken to a mental hospital against his will, the people in his neighborhood campaigned for his release by starting a blog which informed the public about the case, called for meetings, and organized a protest in front of the mental hospital where the man was being held. Supporters also used, a photo-sharing site, to post photos of the man, who calls himself "the Antichristo." Two days later, the man was freed.

Chile is also the home of Atina Chile, a unique web-based organization that uses the internet as a tool for active citizenship. The site has 30,000 members, many with blogs hosted on the site. Atina Chile provides a home for citizen-led projects and also offers the expert advice to social entrepreneurs.

Section 2: Why is this Happening?

Do these instances of internet activism in Chile amount to a significant social movement? Not yet. Currently, these activists represent only a vanguard , the early adopters of the internet as the individual's tool for social change. According to a recent report released by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), 28% of Chileans are frequent internet users and among young people in their teens and early twenties, the percentage is closer to 85%. However, these users are not going online to change society. They are going online to chat, send e-mail, read the news, do schoolwork, and download music.

Nevertheless, these habits could change soon. Although most Chilean internet surfers do not use the internet for political activism, they do see the political possibilities of the internet. According to the same UNDP survey, 39% of frequent users think the internet can increase the ability of public campaigns to influence decision-makers.

There is another connection between internet use and internet activism: the latter cannot exist without the former. If you do not know how to use a blog, you will be unable to use a blog to create social change. However, if you have already mastered the blog's traditional uses as an online diary or a self-published op-ed column, you are in the position to innovate by creating new blog uses. In a questionnaire sent out to bloggers involved in the student protests, almost all had a blog or photoblog before they began blogging about the student movements. Wrote one blogger, "I [already] had my own blog and photoblog, but when the movements began they invited me to create a blog about the student movements, dedicated to informing the students in my school." Internet expertise is the necessary foundation for internet activism.

Blogging is another important part of that foundation. According to Leo Prieto, the " best web designer in Chile ," Chilean blogging really exploded between 1999 and 2000. Although teen photobloggers make up a large percentage of the total, Chilean blogging is not limited to a particular age, class, or geographic area. (This is partially due to the efforts of Atina Chile, which held dozens of blogging workshops around the country, teaching people how to use the internet to express themselves.)

However, "self expression" does not fully capture the importance of blogging to the history of internet activism. Previous forms of self-expression, like e-mail and instant messaging have allowed people to use the internet as a communication network. Blogs are more. Blogs allow people to create the internet. Suddenly the internet was not just a communication network or source of information, it was a platform for personal creation and public self-definition. Before blogs, creating the internet was the exclusive preserve of geeks and professional web designers. New everyone can create content.

Blogging is necessarily an active and entrepreneurial enterprise, so it is no surprise that the first grassroots internet campaign in Chile came out of the blogging community. That campaign was " Mi Primer PC, pero de verdad! " (My first computer, but for real!), which was launched in 2005. It was a reaction to a public-private initiative, Mi Primer PC, which was backed by President Lagos and aimed to provide low-priced computers to poor Chileans. However, bloggers objected to the use of proprietary software (as opposed to open source), which increased the cost of the computers by 20%, as well as the limited functionality of the systems. What began as a discussion among bloggers became an active campaign to change the Mi Primer PC program, including an online petition with over 11,000 signatures, an official website, blog badges, and in-person lobbying with government officials in charge of the program.

With regard to its stated goal, the campaign was only a partial success. It succeeded in killing the original Mi Primer PC program, but the bloggers' alternate proposal, Nuestro PC (our PC) was not adoped by the government. However, as a milestone in grassroots internet activism in Chile the campaign was extremely significant. The campaign, which was covered extensively in the mainstream media, demonstrated that the internet could act as a launchpad for real-world social change. The Mi Primer PC protest campaign increased the public's perception of capacities of the internet. Whether consciously or not, Mi Primer PC affected the decision of the students to use the internet as a tool in their campaign for higher quality education. Their consciousness of the internet had changed. It was not only a source of entertainment and a way to chat with friends. It was also a way to change their world.

3. What's Next? Maybe Not Blogs.

So, what's next for internet activism? First of all, new tools are needed. Blogs are serving as the principal means of expression and action for individual internet activists, but are they really the best tools? Blogs are appropriate for running commentary and updates. They are not the best way to explain an issue or share resources.

To illustrate, allow me to jump from Chile to Egypt. In May, I took part in an internet-based campaign to free the jailed Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah. He was connected to the Global Voices network, and immediately the e-mail list lit up with news of his arrest. Within 48 hours other concerned community members and I had created a Blogger blog calling for his release and blog badges for other bloggers to put on their sites to raise awareness. Pretty soon, support was coming in from around the world. A man in Florida began a Wikipedia entry. A group from Boston created an online petition . A man from Holland made a Flash animation. Reporters Without Borders , based in Paris, lobbied the European Commission to press for Alaa's release. Our news hit the mainstream media. Articles about Alaa appeared in USA Today and Newsweek International , and his arrest was discussed on the BBC World Service. On June 20th, Alaa was freed.

Our campaign was a success, but I wish we had had more effective tools. When we set up the blog we explained Alaa's case in the first post. However, as soon as we began adding posts this key information became lost at the bottom of the page, and then became lost in the archives. If people wanted to know what our campaign was about, the information was not readily available. I wish we had had a fixed homepage that explained the Alaa case. Blogs do not offer this option. A similar problem occurred with all the great multi-media materials people made to support the campaign. We inserted them in posts and then they too became lost in the archives. I wish we had had a media page, with all downloadable media and codes in a single place for people to use and share. Blogs do not provide for multiple pages (other than a profile page).

A blog is only one type of content-creation platform. We need more. We need activism campaign websites that are as professional-looking and easy to create as a Blogger account. Some organizations are rising to the challenge. Democracy in Action offers server-based open-source activist tools to grassroots organizations. CivicSpace , an activism-support organization born of the Dean for President campaign, has created CivicSpace On Demand , currently in an alpha version, which promises to provide "any individual a simple, web-based solution to the problem of bringing individuals and groups together on the internet."

The internet is increasing the power of the individual. In the past you needed a rebel army to change the status quo. Then you needed a pre-existing network with man-power and resources. We are arriving at a time when any individual will be able to use the internet to bring attention to her concern, gather allies, and collaboratively plan and execute actions. A world of individuals each with the tools necessary to change the world.

categories: internet activism_, chile_

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