"Action" is the term used to describe the change-oriented activities
done by feminist activists. Feminist action may involve writing letters to
Members of Parliament, organizing conferences, or staging
international events like the 2000 World March of Women. Action may be offline (i.e. Take Back the Night marches) or online
(Black Screens for Art and Censorship).
Many online communities, including PAR-L, focus on political and social
activism. While serious economic, cultural, and linguistic barriers
continue to limit women's access to the new technologies, both in
Canada and worldwide, people with access can use Cyberspace to
share information and mobilize great numbers of people quickly and
In a case study of PAR-L, for example, we showed that among women
who have time and access to equipment and training, "participating in a feminist
electronic discussion list may create a new form of community which includes women
previously isolated or separated from one another, often bridging the gap between
community and university-based activists. It may also foster empowerment by giving
voice to a larger segment of the feminist community than has usually been possible, and
forge a valuable tool in organizing for change" (Ollivier and Robbins,
An action alert is an e-mail message that a person can send asking for
a specific action to be taken on a current political or social issue.
Well-designed alerts are a powerful way to encourage women and
men to participate in political activism. Alerts are sent in the hope that
they will reach the maximum possible number of sympathetic Internet
users. They may also reach unintended audiences who had no
previous knowledge of the topic. The main advantage of an action alert
via e-mail is that it spreads very rapidly, with little cost to the original
sender of the message.
In designing effective action alerts to be spread via e-mail, it is very
important to remember the following guidelines.
Determine in advance the purpose and goals of the action, and ask yourself whether the Internet is an appropriate medium. Remember to give people sufficient lead-time time since not everyone reads all their e-mail regularly every day.
Avoid spreading erroneous content or providing insufficient information. Alerts that are perceived as not legitimate will be deleted and not read by the receiver.
Double check all factual claims made in the alert, as a small mistake can make it easy for others to dismiss or attack the message. Proofread and revise it very carefully. Remember, once an alert is broadcast, there is no bringing it back or changing its message. It is difficult to issue a follow-up correction, as the message will not necessarily get sent everywhere that the original message was sent. People join and quit e-mail discussion lists all the time.
It is a good idea to begin with a clear headline that identifies the issue, the recommended action, and the place. If you want to mobilize activists for a rally in Fredericton, let's say, it is a good idea to put "Fredericton V-Day Event" as your subject header. The place name is important as it alerts people in this city directly.
Use plain language, short sentences, and simple grammar that will be understood worldwide.
Do not send attached files. Many Web server systems and e-mail software will not accept attachments. You need to cut and paste your message inside the "message text" area of your e-mail.
Authenticity is critical. Include clear information about the sponsoring organization and provide the reader with several ways of tracing the message back to the originating author. An alert should include an e-mail address, postal address, URL, phone number, and contact person.
An alert should have a date on it. Action alerts can circulate on the Internet or lie in a mailbox for a long period of time before it is read and then passed along. An action alert should indicate a clearly stated expiry date, such as "Please ensure to e-mail this message before December 6th, 2002".
There are many advantages to using electronic action alerts. The issue raised by the alert and the associated request for action spread very rapidly. A networked alert can travel far from its origin by being forwarded from friend to friend and list to list. Creating and sending an electronic alert may be less costly than a similar styled print-based activist campaign.
There are some disadvantages. It is not always clear how recent an alert may be from the content. This may be due to a poorly designed alert, or one that has been recirculated and constantly edited. It is not possible to prevent people from modifying an alert as they forward it. In addition, there is no control over where it is sent and to whom or why. As a result, the action alert may be sent to the very people it is requesting others to challenge! E-mail inundation is also a major barrier to a successful electronic campaign. People are already swamped with e-mail, spam, and alerts every day. People tend to delete and ignore much e-mail that is sent.
For the same reason, people are often also inundated with the same
action alert. The first time one is sent an alert, they may react. But
when it is received every day for weeks, people get annoyed and angry
at the alert and the organization. Similarly, with many groups sending
action alerts electronically these days, more and more requests arrive
daily by e-mail. This ultimately becomes irritating as well.
It is very important to recognize that alerts themselves have a limited
effect. Forwarding an e-mail endlessly around the world is a small
contribution to social change. It gives people the impression they are
helping the cause. However, social and political change requires time
and energy, as well as financial support, from global citizens.
USING WEB SITES AND DISCUSSION GROUPS
Web sites and electronic discussion groups can be useful in preparing
to act on an issue or problem.
Information about the issue and any planned activities, whether electronically-based or not, can be provided for regular visitors to Web sites or to subscribers of a discussion group.
Interested activists can share tools (how-to-manuals, pamphlets, public relations materials) electronically that they, in turn, can use with their members or the public. A Web site or discussion group allows a number of individuals or groups to co-ordinate their actions, and to inform each other of progress in a process that is taking place over time.
New technological features of the Internet, such as real time communication (ICQ, IRC), further provide activists with tools for sharing knowledge, resources, and coordinating activities.
Sharing information electronically can allow individuals or groups to determine whether a particular action has been tried elsewhere, and what lessons have been learned, prior to organizing their own action.
The least effective method of online activism is the chain-letter petition.
A chain-letter petition is an action alert that includes a list of names at
the end. It typically invites people to add their own name to the list,
mail the petition to a source (usually the author or an intended official)
if their name is a certain number, and forward the resulting alert and
signature list to others. This idea sounds positive in theory, but it is
The problem is that most of the signatures will never reach their destination, since the chain will die out before reaching the proper number it needs for mailing the alert to a source. What's even more negative is that only a small proportion of the signatures will be received at the source, and they will be repeated numerous times in multiple returned alerts. If the signature alerts are being sent to the office of a responsive official, it will be annoying to the staff. It may also persuade the office that they're dealing with an incompetent activist movement. Overall, chain e-mail petitions with signatures is a very ineffective method for disseminating information and promoting activism.
Compared to e-mail petitions, posting a petition on a Web site, whether
of a well-known organization or of an individual, is a much more
efficient way of collecting signatures in support of a cause.
Sponsors of the petition retain greater control over the process and duration of the action. While e-mail petitions may continue to circulate on the Internet for many years after their expiry date, petitions posted on Web sites can easily be removed from the site and sent to their destination after a certain time.
When a petition is posted on the Web site of an individual or organization, people who sign it can get more information about the political orientation and other activities of the sponsors. It is easier for them to establish the authenticity of the petition and to get assurance that their signature will reach its destination.
A well-designed action alert circulated among targeted newsgroups and listservs is an effective way of calling attention to the petition and of directing traffic to the sponsoring site.
Written by Jennifer Brayton, Michèle Ollivier, and Wendy Robbins, March 2002.
Ollivier, Michèle et Wendy Robbins, « Electronic Communications and
Feminist Activism: The Experience of PAR-L », Atlantis, 24(1), 1999,