The Virtual Activist

A Training Course
presented by Audrie Krause, NetAction
Michael Stein, Children Now, and Judi Clark, WomensWork

A Note About Using This Site

This training course includes links to many other sites, which we are using to provide you with examples of how the Internet is being used for activism. We recommend that you BOOKMARK THIS PAGE now so that you can return to it easily as you make your way through the curriculum. Or, if you prefer, you can use the BACK button to return to the site after leaving it to view one of the examples we have linked to it.

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Copyright Notice

Copyright 1998 by NetAction/The Tides Center. All rights reserved. Material may be reposted or reproduced by non-profit organizations, provided NetAction is cited as the source. Contact NetAction for information about licensing the material for commercial use. NetAction is a project of The Tides Center, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Many thanks go to Michael Stein, of Children Now, and Judi Clark, of WomensWork, for their help compiling this information.

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To arrange for licensing of the training course, contact:
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Part One: Introduction

So you want to be a Virtual Activist!

The Internet makes it possible for activists to expand our networks by identifying and contacting activists in other communities who have similar interests and concerns. If you're a grassroots activist, chances are you already know the people in your own community who share your concerns. By joining the appropriate discussion lists and news groups, you can identify and communicate with activists in other communities who are working on similar issues. By sharing information, strategies, and/or advice, you may be able to enhance the effectiveness of your efforts. Even activists who have the resources to broaden their networks by attending conferences and meetings outside our own community will benefit from the additional networking opportunities provided by the Internet.

For an example of regional networking, see: ALAI (Latin American Information Agency)

With literally hundreds of email discussion lists and news groups on the Internet, there are bound to be some that you will find useful for networking. There are several ways in which you can put these tools to work for networking purposes:

Email tools are active, web tools are passive

It is important to understand the difference between active and passive techniques for communicating electronically. When you send email, whether it is a private message to one individual or an electronic newsletter to a list of subscribers, you are driving information to others. Your message or newsletter shows up in their mailbox when they download email. While you cannot be certain that your information will be read, you can count on it being delivered, just as you can count on the Postal Service to deliver your letters. This is an active form of electronic outreach.

In contrast, web pages are a passive form of outreach. The information that you post on a web site is there for anyone to read, but they must visit your web site in order to read it. In this sense, web sites are more like bulletin boards in an office, or billboards on a highway. The reader must pass by the information in order to know it is there.

Both types of tools can be useful, each supplements the other

Email and web site outreach can be integrated for maximum effectiveness as outreach tools. If you are sending an email message or an electronic newsletter, you can include a hyperlink to relevant URLs by typing the complete URL into the email message text.

Example: If I want to refer readers to the NetAction web site, I type in the message. In most email browsers, the reader can point to the URL and double click to go directly to the web site.

It is also possible to include a "mail-to" hyperlink to an email form in the text of an email message. This makes it easy for readers to contact you. By pointing to the "mail-to" link and double clicking, the reader opens a mail form pre-addressed to your address. All they need to do is fill in the subject line, type the message, and click on "send" to deliver the message.

Example: If I want you to reply to this message, I will type directly into the text of the email message.

Outreach from Web sites can be enhanced, also. One way is by including email forms that enable the reader to write to you directly from the web site. Another is by including a link that lets the reader subscribe to a newsletter or action alert directly from the web site. Web-based outreach and advocacy is discussed in Part 2.

Identify the core competency of your organization and its need for a web site. Build your web site around your core competency, so visitors will have fewer things to choose from and fewer choices. Do less, but do it better. The less you do on your web page, the easier it will be to keep it updated and fresh.

Think about how your interaction tools are going to work on your site. Will you use mailto, mailform, address, fax, phone? How do you want to manage the communications that will result from your Internet presence? Do you have a staff response plan in place?

Think about how you are going to build and maintain your web site. Will you be doing it in-house, or will you hire a consultant? Will a volunteer do it? If you're going in-house, what HTML editor will you use? Do you have templates or style sheets for the various pages?

Make the information on your site easier to retrieve by customizing the search engine function of one of the commercial search engines. Here is an example of a search on Alta Vista for these terms: "distance learning" and "organization" and "fifth grade" and "technology grants":

Web centrism is the temptation to do it all on the web, and to ignore text-only technologies. Text-only (email, mailing lists, newsgroups) are still far more popular. The web remains a "pull" technology--people must come back to your web page as a result of their actions. The simplest and most effective "push" technology is text-only. People check their email first. Bring people back to your site with targeted, content-rich email announcements and reminders.

Maintain your email box on a regular basis. People will send you email off your web page, and expect a quick reply. Create standard reply files for easy email management. Compile a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) file for quick reply. As people email you with repeat questions, try to add this information to your web site. Improve your web site so that it tries to address the concerns and questions of your audience.

On your web site, create links to your email and your mailing list. Make it easy for people to switch between the web and text-only Internet technologies.

Part Two: Using Email for Outreach, Organizing, and Advocacy

Organizing is the process of building interest in and support for a cause or an issue.

Organizing online is not much different than organizing by more traditional methods. As activists, we organize by communicating. One-on-one communication can take place in face-to-face meetings, by telephone, or by email. To communicate with a group, we can attend a meeting, mail a flyer, initiate a phone tree, or send email to a discussion list or news group. Verbal and written communication are both used when we organize by traditional methods; only written communication is possible when we organize electronically (for now). Either way, it is necessary to articulate and communicate our concerns and identify our goals in order to recruit the support we need to succeed in our efforts.

Here are some examples of how activists are using email for organizing:

Different types of email outreach

Do's and Don'ts of Electronic Action Alerts

Example: Caral
Example: EPIC Alert

Advocacy is action directed toward achieving a goal related to the cause or issue.

Internet advocacy can take many forms, nearly all of which are also possible with more traditional forms of advocacy. We urge people to write, phone, or send faxes to policymakers. We draft and distribute press releases. We attend and participate in public meetings. With the Internet, we can also urge people to write, phone, or send faxes to policymakers, and we can draft and distribute press releases. Creative activists are also experimenting with electronic "town halls" that make it possible to interact directly with decision-makers from our homes.

Here are some examples of how activists are using the Internet as an advocacy tool:

Email Tools

Different types of email lists:

Cyberspace Networking

Because of the borderless nature of the Internet, it can be a powerful tool for networking. Organizations with similar concerns can form coalitions and alliances that literally span the globe. The following sites are sponsored by coalitions that developed as a result of cyberspace networking.

Forming Cyberspace coalitions:

Example: Global Internet Liberty Campaign
Example: People's Global Action
Example: Internet Free Expression Alliance

Using the Usenet

Usenet is a globally distributed discussion system that consists of "newsgroups" with names that are classified hierarchically by subject. Messages are posted to these newsgroups and then broadcast to other interconnected computer systems via a wide variety of networks. Like email discussion lists (discussed earlier), some newsgroups are "moderated."

See What is Usenet and Another View for a more detailed discussion of newsgroups.

Cross-posting information

Cross-posting information means that the same message is posted to more than one discussion list or news group. Since there are likely to be several discussion lists and/or news groups that deal with the same general issues, it makes sense from an outreach perspective to post the same message to all relevant lists and news groups. In some cases, however, the same individuals are subscribed to several lists. This means that people may receive multiple copies of your message, which can generate complaints from the recipients. If you are getting a lot of complaints about multiple copies of messages, you might want to reduce the number of lists and news groups that you post to.

Locating and subscribing to discussion lists and news groups

How do you identify the news groups and discussion lists that would be useful to subscribe to? The simplest way is to ask another activist for suggestions. You can also find them by surfing sites that interest you to determine if the organizations that sponsor them have lists you can join. For a more systematic approach, try some of these search tools:

Intranets and electronic networks

Intranets and electronic networks are common in workplaces. They enable a specific group of computer users to communicate online, but they are not part of the larger Internet. America Online is an example of a commercial intranet. If you subscribe to AOL, you have access to a variety of forums, discussion groups, and online services that are not accessible to the general public. Non-profit organizations and grassroots groups can also set up these types of networks.

Example: PeaceNet
Example: HandsNet

Collaborative Discussion Tools

The hotword of the day is "community" -- everyone wants to build or be part of an online "community." Non-profits are their own community with common interests: fundraising, advocacy, membership, and others. Your membership is another community, and your organization is representing and addressing their interests. We have seen many ways (above) to reach out to your members. However, some organizations want to be a little more interactive.

There are two forms of interactivity: immediate, no archives, often referred to as chat or chat rooms, and nearly-immediate, archived for later reference and participation, often called web forums, bulletin boards, or online conferences (discussed later).

Here's a helpful article.

Chat and IRC

Chat is a form of communication which allows immediate interaction on the Internet. The earliest form was Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a text-based communications network. Now, there are newer Internet technologies which make it possible for a group of people to meet and converse online. With chat technology, all conversations take place in real time. That's why IRC has been used extensively for live coverage of world events, news, sports commentary, etc. For activists, it can be a useful tool for convening online meetings, debates, conferences, and town halls.

As a communication tool, chat is somewhere between a personal phone call and an announcement over the radio. Yahoo's Chat Help file has some useful tips for using chat appropriately.

Example: Chat as a Guest at Yahoo
Example: TalkCity (also commercial, uses java software)

Part Three: Web-based Outreach and Advocacy Tools

Web Content

Consider how different web browsers will view your page. View your page(s) with different browsers such as Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Explorer, and AOL's browser.

Web Page Backward Compatibility Viewer

Be conservative in the use of frames and high-end multimedia, as they're not widely adopted yet. Using fancy, advanced features of web-sites, such as large graphical images, photos, frames, Shock-wave animations, or Java applets, will reduce the number of users who can view your website, and will cause long download times even for those who can view it. If you can, survey your membership and watch your logs to understand their technological "level" so you can adapt the technology on your web site to fit their needs, interests and abilities.

Save the Redwoods League: (lots of graphics, takes a while to load)
The Role Model Project for Girls Bookstore (gives choice of frames or not)
Electronic Frontier Foundation (example of page using frames--also has "no frames" option)

Don't forget to prominently display your phone number on your web site, and invite people to call.

Create good "ALT" tags tags on your web site for visitors with images turned off or text-only browsers, or create "text-only" web pages.

Examples: Corporate Watch

Web Promotion

Web site promotion and maintenance should be considered as you begin to design your site. In this section, we identify some of the things you need to consider.

Web Forums

Web Forums are areas on the web where you can post and respond to messages. It's likely that in the future, many businesses, government offices, schools and non-profit organizations will have forums on their web sites.

Web forums are similar to "usenet" in that both forums and usenet allow users to post and respond to messages. The difference is that web forums are based on the web (rather than a separate Internet system like usenet), and are considerably more flexible than usenet (especially with respect to customization, security, and advertising). Web forums are also similar to "chat" in that both forums and chat allow users to gather and interact on the web. The main difference is that forums do not require all participates to be online at the same time.

Since conventional search services are not designed to efficiently index forum discussions, Forum One Communications Corporation has made its Forum One index available to the public at no charge.

Examples of non-profits using open source and shareware tools to create forums:

Example: Environmental Defense Fund
Example: Multicultural Education Discussion Board

Other Web Tools

Password protected Web sites let you limit access to an entire site, or to portions of a site. This configuration can be useful for membership organizations that wish to provide dues-paying members with services or information not available to the general public. It can also be a useful way for an organization's leadership (Board of Directors, steering committee, etc.) to exchange information or discuss strategy.

Set up a page on your site with links to other web pages relevant to your message. Whenever you provide a link to another site, contact that site's webmaster and ask for a reciprocal link back to your site. Reciprocal links can help drive traffic to your site from other sites, as well as enrich the content that you offer readers since you are pointing them to other relevant information. But keep in mind that these links can also drive traffic away from your site. That it why it's important to ensure that the links are relevant to your message, and to ask for a reciprocal link back to your site.

Consider the accessibility of your site to users with older versions of browsers, and to the disabled. Sites with low graphics are going to be more accessible than sites with high graphics or advanced features like video streaming. For a discussion on accessibility, see NetAction Notes No. 33.

Examples: Best Viewed With Any Browser Campaign

Set up a good META Tag for web crawlers

Key words, page descriptions, expiration dates and other information about your page and site can be "tagged" with html code in the header lines so that they can be located by search engines such as Alta Vista or Infoseek. This will increase the chance of your site being located in a search. See the example below for more information on how to use Meta tags.

Examples: Web Design Group's FAQ (question 26)
Examples: How to fill out The HEAD Section in an IEEE Template
Examples: HTML Meta Tag (Note: this one best used by those familiar with HTML) (Your new web site will have good META tags to show people, but the redesign isn't ready yet...)

Do pro-active promotion to mailing lists and newsgroups

Example: NetAction Notes #32
Example: Jakob Nielsen's Alert Box alert-box.txt

Enhance staff/board signature files to provide a friendly reminder for your correspondents

Examples: a few email signatures (.sig, pronounced dot-sig) samples

Create campaign icons for linking with other sites.

Icons can be very effective in advocacy campaigns, and they may also help drive traffic to your site. The best icons are simple, small, and easily associated with the issue. They can also be integrated with other aspects of your advocacy. For example, the same graphic can be used on bumper stickers or buttons.

Examples: Golden Key Campaign
Examples: Any Browser Campaign
Examples: NetAction's Fish Campaign

Regularly review your web site statistics to analyze how your site is doing. Obtain statistics not just on your main page, but for other main "section" pages as well.

Examples: NetAction Sample Log

As you see in reviewing the sample log from NetAction's web site, there is a lot of information that can be collected and analyzed. The Internet Service Provider who hosts your web site may have a uniform way of reporting the statistics on your site, in which case you will have less flexibility about what information you can obtain and analyze.

Monitoring your web site statistics is useful for a number of reasons. First, it can help you gauge the effectiveness of your Internet outreach. If the statistics tell you that only 150 people have visited your web site in the last six months, you will probably want to consider other strategies, or possibly reconsider whether maintaining a web site is the best use of your organization's resources. You can also use the statistics to determine which aspects of your site are attracting interest, and which are not. This could be useful when you consider a redesign of your site, or the addition or deletion of specific information.

Non-profit organizations may also find the web site statistics helpful in convincing potential funders that your efforts are worthy of their support. For example, you can document the number of signatures on an electronic petition, or the number of faxes sent to a member of Congress from your site's fax server.

Web Activism

Email and the web are both useful tools for advocacy, and can be integrated to drive traffic to a web site for more information and/or action.

In the fall of 1997, NetAction organized a "lobby day" and recruited volunteers to visit with their representatives in Congress to discuss the need for stronger enforcement of antitrust laws against Microsoft. The entire effort was organized online, with a combination of email and web-based outreach. The event was initially publicized in the Micro$oft Monitor, one of NetAction's electronic newsletters. Media interest in the event resulted in news stories in several online publications, and the publicity helped generate interest in the event among Internet users.

The email outreach directed Internet users to NetAction's web site, where volunteers could register to participate by completing a form that was then automatically emailed to NetAction. NetAction followed up by contacting the volunteers by email to confirm their participation. A few weeks before the event, NetAction established a majordomo list for the volunteers to communicate regarding plans for the event.

On the day of our scheduled visit, we set up a fax server to enable Internet users outside of Washington to contact their representatives in Congress to express their concerns. Several hundred faxes were generated to members of Congress, supplementing the efforts of the volunteers who were making personal visits to their representatives in Washington.

Advocacy Tools

Pros and cons of sending email to decision-makers

It is increasingly common to find government information online. Many agencies, from the U.S. Congress to the local township, have set up web sites. In many cases, decision makers can be contacted via email. At this time, however, email is not the best way to communicate with most elected officials. That's because few elected officials actually read their email. So even a large volume of email is not going to have the same impact as a stack or letters or faxes, or a constantly ringing telephone. Over time, this may change. But until it does, activists seeking to influence elected officials are likely to be more effective by sticking with the traditional methods of communicating -- letters, postcards, faxes, and telephone calls.

Of course, there are exceptions. Email communication can be effective when directed to the staff of governmental agencies. For example, the Federal Communications Commission staff took note when tens of thousands of Internet users sent email messages objecting to a proposal by the telephone companies to make Internet Service Providers pay access fees. The volume of email was so high, in fact, that it literally caused the FCC's server to crash.

Part Four: Membership and Fundraising

The Internet provides activist organizations with new ways of communicating with members, recruiting new members, and soliciting contributions. With some exceptions, Internet membership building and fundraising activities will mostly have an incremental effect in the short run, and it is too early to predict what will occur in the long run. Organizations that start now to integrate an online presence into existing activities will be in the best position to capitalize on the technology as it evolves.

Your Membership


Many organizations are experimenting with cyberspace fundraising. Email solicitations are increasingly popular, especially as year-end appeals. And despite early concerns, these solicitations are not generating widespread complaints about spam. The key is to limit your online soliciting to those individuals who have already expressed an interest in your work, by becoming a member, joining a list service, or participating in an action or event that your organization sponsored.

Many organizations have set up membership forms on their web sites. These efforts range from "bare bones" efforts that provide a postal address and encourage readers to send in a check, or sophisticated secure servers that enable the donor to use a credit card.

Some groups raise money by online sales of buttons, bumper stickers, T-shirts, publications, or other items. Others offer donors a technology-oriented gift. Examples range from simple items such as mouse pads, to fairly sophisticated screen saver software that the donor can download in exchange for a contribution. Some of the issue-oriented organizations have set up links with, which donations a portion of the book sales to the organizations promoting the books.

General fundraising articles

Example: Taking the plunge into e-mail fundraising
Example: Fundraising Over the Internet, by Anna Couey

Three different examples of fundraising approaches:

Example: EPIC
Example: CARAL
Example: WomensWork's secure server

Security should not be taken lightly on the net, especially when you are trusted with other people's financial information. It is not wise at this time to send your credit card information over the net without using some kind of secure methodology, be it encryption via PGP and/or use of a secure server. Many non-profit organizations house their web sites on external site hosting providers, while others are in full control of all resources related to their Internet connectivity. Similarly, you may have the capability of implementing electronic commerce software on your server or through your host service provider to offer the security needed for credit card transactions. Alternatively, you may choose an intermediate service such as a trusted third party (such as First Virtual), funds transfer (such as CyberCash), digital cash (as it is), or an outside credit card processing firm to handle your transactions.

Related resources:

Financial transactions on the web can be handled in a couple of different ways.

CyberCash is a secure payment technology that facilitates financial transactions between banks, financial institutions, transaction processors, merchants, and consumers. Consumers must first establish an account with CyberCash. Once they have done so, they can make purchases from participating merchants, and CyberCash collects a fee for processing the transaction.

Credit card processing firms, such as, facilitate financial transactions by providing a secure server through which the transaction is processed. This prevents the consumer's financial information from being read by any of the computers it goes through as the data travels from the customer's computer to the credit card company.

A third alternative is to encrypt, or code, the data so that it cannot be read as it travels over the Internet. Here is some background on PGP, one popular encryption technology.

Part Five: Netiquette and Policy Issues

What activists call "outreach" and businesses call "marketing" is referred to in cyberspace as "spam." Many Internet users get very upset when they receive unsolicited email, particularly if it is commercial in nature. However, unsolicited email that is political in nature may also be viewed as spam by some. As activists, we need to be aware of the difference between outreach and spam. After all, our efforts won't be successful if we alienate the people we are contacting. See the list of "Do's and Don'ts" that will help you avoid spam in your outreach. In addition, NetAction discusses the differences in an article which was first published on the Mother Jones Website:

Internet Service Providers generally have conduct codes for subscribers

Example: Excerpt from Subscriber Agreement of the Institute for Global Communications (IGC)

Spam and junk email

Example: Responsible Net Commerce
Example: DEMMA

Cookies, encryption, and other privacy concerns

Activists who use the Internet for organizing and outreach need to be aware of the privacy implications of electronic communication. When you visit a Web site, or post a message to a news group, you leave an electronic "trail." Some of this information is being collected, analyzed, and used for commercial purposes. The Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse are excellent resources for information on these issues.

Example: Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)
Example: EPIC's Cookies page
Example: Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

Copyright and content issues

The ease with which electronic information can be copied and shared has prompted policy makers to reexamine copyright and other intellectual property issues, largely in response to the concerns of the commercial media. Activists should be aware of these issues since they may ultimately effect our online outreach. Again, there are some excellent online resources for information on these issues.

Example: Consumer Project on Technology's Intellectual Property page

The Virtual Activist Reader

Section I: General Resources for Activists

Section II: Additional Resources on Web Page Development

Section III: Articles on Internet Activism

Section IV: NetAction Notes Articles on Internet Activism

Bibliography Books logo

NetAction's Virtual Activist bibliography is offered in association with A portion of the proceeds from books purchased from NetAction's web site will be donated to NetAction to help support our work. Our bibliography is by no means comprehensive, and we welcome your suggestions for other relevant books to include.

Internet In A Nutshell
By Valerie Quercia
450 pages $19.95 * ISBN 1-56592-323-5
Published by O'Reilly & Associates * 101 Morris Street, Sebastopol, CA 95472
Phone: (800) 998-9938
Fundraising on the Internet
Edited by Nick Allen, Mal Warwick, and Michael Stein
168 pages * $24.95 plus $4.50 postage and handling * ISBN 0-9624891-8-2
Published by Strathmoor Press * 2550 Ninth Street, Suite 1040, Berkeley, CA 94710-2516
Phone: (800) 217-7377 or (510) 843-8888
Government Online
By Max Lent
208 pages $$15.00 * ISBN 0-06-273301-X
Published by HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. * 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
Phone: N/A
NetActivism: How Citizens Use the Internet
By Ed Schwartz
212 pages $24.95 plus $5.95 postage and handling * ISBN 1-56592-160-7
Published by O'Reilly & Associates * 101 Morris Street, Sebastopol, CA 95472
Phone: (800) 998-9938
NetResearch: Finding Information Online
By Daniel J. Barrett
240 pages $24.95 * ISBN 1-56592-245-X
Published by O'Reilly & Associates * 101 Morris Street, Sebastopol, CA 95472
Phone: (800) 998-9938
New Community Networks - Wired for Change
By Doug Schuler
528 pages $26.85 * ISBN 0-201-59553-2
Published by Addison-Wesley Publishing Company * 1 Jacob Way, Reading, MA 01867
Phone: (800) 822-6339
The Nonprofit Guide to the Internet
By Robbin Zeff
256 pages $34.94 * ISBN 0-471-15359-1
Published by John Wiley & Sons * 1 Wiley Drive, Somerset, N.J. 08875
Phone: (800) 225-5945
Where the Information Is: A Guide to Electronic Research for Nonprofit Organizations
By Helen Bergan
257 pages $29.95 plus $2 shipping * ISBN 0-9615277-2-2
Published by BioGuide Press * P.O. Box 16072, Alexandria, VA 22302
Phone: (703) 820-9045
Working Together Online (not available through
By Maureen James & Liz Rykert
168 pages $24.95 * ISBN 0-9682576071
Published by Web Community Resource Networks
401 Richmond St. West, Ste. 103 * Tornoto, Ontario, M5V 3A8 * Canada
Phone: (416) 596-0212

Bibliography compiled by:
NetAction * 601 Van Ness Ave. #631, San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone (415) 775-8674 * Fax (415) 673-3813 * E-mail:
NetAction is a project of The Tides Center, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization