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6 June 2001 Issue
A Primer For Online Activists

Copyright 1999 by Michael Cerkowski
Distribute freely, but do not modify

INTRODUCTION:

Although this document was conceived as a guide for new animal rights activists, the principles discussed can be generally applied to virtually any activist working online. It is not intended to be a list of absolute rules, nor is it meant to be a strict characterization of my own posting style. It IS meant to be used as a reference by people who have little or no experience with online activism.

ONLINE DIALOG:

The Internet has been around in one form or another for several decades. This, along with the somewhat parallel development of dialup Bulletin Board Services (BBS's), has resulted in the evolution of an Online Culture of sorts, with its own "nettiquette." For someone posting online for the first time,
cyberculture can be confusing at best, and downright offensive at worst. Since the Internet isn't going to change for the sake of new people (known as "newbies"), it is important to be able to understand this medium, and to use it to communicate effectively. Since the cyberculture vocabulary extends to acronym-like abbreviations, and to punctuation-based indicators of tone called "emoticons," I have included a short list of the most common shorthand expressions, and a helpful link, at the end of this document. While it is very important to understand whether the post to which you are responding was intended to be serious, or just tongue-in-cheek, the most vital aspect of online activism is your own presentation; how you represent yourself and your cause, and how well you communicate.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS:

When you are posting online, people don't know what you are like, how nice you are to your family, or how intelligent you are at your job. They often don't even know your gender. Consequently, your online identity consists almost entirely of what you write. I say "almost," because many people adopt online aliases, either to help protect their identities or to make a statement about who they are and what they believe. This means that if you post under the name "MoltenDeath" or "AK-47," you have lost quite a
bit of your audience's respect and empathy before you write a word. If you want to use an alias, it's a good idea to pick one that isn't instantly offensive.

The first time that you post in a newsgroup or other online forum, it is important to think about what you want to say before you click the "send" button. If you are angry, take the time to calm down a bit before you respond. Your first post doesn't have to be profound, but it's a good idea to avoid being remembered as "that jerk." This is of course a good idea for all posts, not just your first one. Depending on the situation, you may want to indicate that you have been following the discussion, and perhaps
explain why you have decided to participate. That doesn't mean that you are expected to tell the Story of Your Life in your first post, or that anyone will appreciate it if you do.

It's generally better to slip into a discussion than to crash it. That means following a topic "thread," and reading a few older posts if necessary, before you participate. Try to get a sense of the topic, and of the positions and personalities of the people involved in it. This will help you to contribute something meaningful.

CIVILITY:

One of the worst things an activist can do in any discussion is to lose his or her temper. This may not be obvious to everyone; there are many people online who view personal insults and inflammatory rhetoric (known as "flames") as a perfectly acceptable everyday conversational style. Some people, often called Trolls, post not to advance the discussion but to provoke angry responses. Don't fall into the trap of fighting Fire with Fire; the only people who truly appreciate that sort of "debate" are those who will never change their minds, and those who make better opponents than allies. The better way to win a skirmish is to be the one who remains calm, not the one who comes up with the nastiest flame. If you do lose your temper, apologize. When dealing with people who just can't be civil, humor, used in an appropriate manner (not as a substitute for debate) can be effective. Avoid "baiting," or deliberately provoking anger.

ARGUMENT 101:

When debating matters of fact, avoid the pitfall of posting your own opinion as established reality. If you believe that something is true, but do not absolutely, positively know it to be true, it's a good idea to indicate that by writing something along the lines of "It's my understanding that..." or "I'm pretty sure that...". This can save you enormous grief if you turn out to be mistaken. On a similar note, remember the Monty Python "Argument Sketch": contradiction is not debate. Support what you say with reasoned arguments, facts, or both.

When paraphrasing someone, never use double quotation marks. Use single quotation marks, or none at all. Never edit a quote to change the meaning, and if you do edit for length, indicate that you have done so. Always indicate whom you are quoting.

There are a handful of descriptive terms that get bandied about in online discussion groups. They describe tactics that do not represent honest debate. Avoid stating that a person or source is completely untrustworthy because they have lied in the past ("poisoning the well"), appealing to emotion rather than intellect ("ad hominem"), excusing behavior on the grounds that the opposition engages in it (tu quoque), and avoid attributing a position to someone that they do not hold, and then rebutting it ("straw man fallacy"). You may be accused of engaging in these tactics anyway; be prepared to defend your posts in a reasonable manner. Avoid using a double standard: judge your opponents and their organizations by the same ethical yardstick you use to judge yourself and the organizations that you support.

Even when arguing passionately, try to refrain from using excessively dramatic language, and, especially, don't make sweeping generalizations. The latter can be used to dismiss your position out of hand, even if it is quite valid in a more limited sense. For example, the statement "Many animals in slaughterhouses die in a manner that isn't fast or free of extreme suffering" is a little dramatic, but defensible. The statement "All animals in slaughterhouses die a slow, horrible death!" is not accurate, and will, rest assured, be used to discredit you.

LISTEN!:

The most valuable asset that an activist can bring to a debate is an open mind. Listen to what your opponents are saying, and if it repels you, think about it anyway. Even Trolls can present valid arguments. Remember that no side is wrong (or right) about everything, and that you can learn valuable lessons from your opponents. What you learn can help you to grow as an activist and as a person. Try to give yourself some time away from the fray on a regular basis; it will help you to remain calm, sharp, and most importantly, sane.

SOURCES:

When looking for facts to support your argument, one of the absolute best places to look is in the material provided by partisan, biased organizations *who support the opposing position*. Quote a statement by PETA to support a pro-animal rights argument, and the opposition will laugh. Quote a statement from one of their own sources, like the NRA or AMPEF - one that presents facts that speak against their own interest in this case -- and they will be hard pressed to refute it. Relatively neutral sources, of course, are also excellent. Remember that all sources are biased in one way or another, and don't treat any advocacy group, no matter how close to your heart they may be, as infallible. Above all, think for yourself!

NETSPEAK:

IMO - in my opinion
BTW - by the way
AFAIK - as far as I know
LOL - laughing out loud
ROTFL - rolling on the floor laughing

EMOTICONS:

:) happy, friendly, or joking
;) winking or joking
:( unhappy

Many variations of these, and others, exist. They are used to indicate tone and mood in a medium where those things are not always readily apparent.

The use of asterisks to indicate *emphasis* (as italics are used) may be desirable, because typing in all capital letters is often considered to be SHOUTING.

More useful information for newbies can be found at:

http://www.newbie.net/ 

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