A couple of weeks ago in the Best of Seattle issue, we cited a local Usenet newsgroup, seattle.general, as "best crowd-control device for free-range weirdos." The response from the group was both loud and gratifying, catching me as it did in one of my bomb-throwing moods.
I'm a Usenet ancient, and the throwing of bombs (a.k.a. flames) is one of the small pleasures of a life spent online. Call it road rage on the Information Superhi . . . actually, please don't. In any case, what rocked me back a bit was the claim by one group regular that by mentioning the group, we had rendered them "irrelevant."
Huzzah! Here, thought I, here is a fellow who didn't get the memo about Usenet being dead and the Web being the province of the big mega-funded sites. Here is a fellow who believes in the one-person-one-voice democratic ideal that the Net was supposed to make real. (I revised that opinion somewhat after reminding myself that Usenet in general, and seattle.general in particular, and this fellow in particular in particular, have a bad habit of flaming the snot out of folks who offend their sensibilities. But I digress.)
Here is, in short, a fellow who would not take it anymore, a fellow who stood up against the scum, the filth, the anonymity of the Internet circa 1999. S/He clearly feels about the Net as I do about journalism and as Tip O'Neill did about politics—it's all local, all of it that matters. But relevance? Are opinions expressed online relevant to The Powers That Be? Are they reading? Do they care?
The good news is that politicians care more about the Net and its denizens now than they did three or four years ago, when most politicos were more likely to have bad anti-Net laws in the hopper than have email access. The bad news is that they're not reading Usenet or even surfing. Instead, it's email that carries the weight with your representatives.
Three years ago, email to your elected officials generally dropped into Ye Olde Bit Bucket without making a splash. But now, says state senator Bill Finkbeiner (R-45th), people expect more democracy, not to mention fewer stamps. Finkbeiner, who several years ago arranged for all senators to get free email access only to discover that they didn't want the nasty stuff, sees a increase in email's respectability amongst his peers.
Email from a constituent on a topic of concern to an elected official is almost as closely read as that which arrives in an envelope. (Some politicos give points to snail mail for the effort expended to locate a stamp, which is only fair since most of the rest of us do too.) On the other hand, email in often gets email back. Lisa Herbolt, chief of staff to Seattle City Council member Nick Licata, says that not only does he read his email, he's apt to take a whack at answering what one might call the "miscellaneous" stuff—email not targeted to a hot-button issue.
No strangers to mass mailings, politicos are increasingly using the "send" key too. According to Herbolt, Licata writes his long-running newsletter himself, which (speaking as someone who gets her own, much fluffier newsletter out maybe three times a year) impresses me hugely. Mayor Paul Schell, on the other hand, sits down with deputy communications director Victoria Schoenberg to do his regular epistle—one to one and straight to the Net, an off-the-cuff arrangement that Schoenberg notes "makes the rest of his staff quite nervous."
Don't discount the Web, though. A site is de rigueur for national candidates these days, as are the anticandidate sites that rise up as inevitably as Seattle rent. And they aren't just billboards. Presidential hopeful Bill Bradley has raised a significant amount of campaign cash from his site, and the Federal Election Commission is stepping up efforts to improve the online donation process.
Closer to home, the City of Seattle Public Access Network site (www.cityofseattle.net) is awesomely comprehensive, with a respectable 1.2 million pages served every month. The site includes email and straw polls as well as phone numbers and addresses, and according to PAN doyenne Rona Zevin other services are going electronic: You can, you lucky stiff, now pay your parking tickets online. (PAN's technology-literacy program is also worthy of positive mention, preferably to someone you know who's not online. Duh.)
And Usenet? Is my irrelevant-feeling friend really so off-base? Well, public discussion is a good thing, online or off—but none of the politicians I talked to follow Usenet, for reasons of time as much as anything. Online petitions don't get much play, and spam is as annoying to politicians as to the rest of us. So, fellow seattle.general patrons: Battle on, but once you're done a-flaming, take the opinions you've sharpened on the skulls of your enemies and drop 'em to your legislators in a nice note.