Webbing the Barricades

by Garret Keogh

Wired, December 1996; UK

Cast your mind back to July 1995, and the infamous "Stop French Nuclear Testing!" chain email petition. Initiated by Yuichi Nishihara and Shimizu Seishi, both physics undergrads at the University of Tokyo, the chain email quickly grew into a monster, irritating sysadmins worldwide as it gobbled up bandwidth. The site at www.nbi.dk/~dickow/stop-chain-letter.txt tells how the beast was eventually reigned in; the protest was then transfered to a dull web site, wherupon it soon withered and died. The lesson? A Web site is compelling , or it's history - protest or no protest.

All to often, protest sites fall into the trap of preaching to the converted. Fine, if you view the Web as a simple information sink for existing supporters, but wasteful if you're after new converts. Ecological activists Earth First ( www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/campaign/efhtmls/aulat.html) and Reclaim the Streets ( www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/campaign/RTS.html), both fall headlong into this trap.

Unsuprisingly, Friends of the Earth (or foes! at www.foe.co.uk) is a far more professional effort, but the site is a window into the home of a community, rather than an open door. Sure, there's a secure credit-card-enabled membership form, but little on the site genuinely to engage the surfer. Brochureware 1, Community Building 0.

But hey, it's not all the doom and gloom down on the online barricades. The McDonalds-baiting McSpotlight site (www.mcspotlight.org) is a fine blueprint for all protest sites. Even if it's only to cause Mucky D's management to froth at the mouth (who mentioned mad cows?), this site compels. Make that Compels. McSpotlight not only dishes out the dirt via a vast FAQ, it also encourages participation by asking daily news updates, debating rooms and a truly inspirational frames-based guided tour - complete with translation - of McDonalds' official Web site. It nutures a like-minded community by arguing a case, rather than blugeoning with rhetoric. Ronald must be choking on those gherkins.

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