Web 2.0 in student activism

Those of us who work as educational technologists dream of combining online services and participatory sites in order to enthuse students to research a topic, work together and present results to each other. To my amazement, I’m seeing this happen right now and it’s nothing to do with the curriculum.

In response to Scientology’s attacks on the Internet, especially the recent deletion of YouTube clips of an internal video, thousands of people are gathering under the name “Anonymous” to attack the organisation in a variety of ways.

They are using a full range of online tools. Here for example is a mashup using Google Maps to show the location of Scientology properties and protest events. Wikis and Facebook groups are being used to organise a forthcoming London street protest (and similar protests around the world). Bittorrent and file-sharing services are being used to distribute leaked Scientology documents (the “secretdox”). YouTube is being used for sharing opinions, parodies and spreading film of real-life activism. Digg is being used to promote anti-Scientology links (at one point 9 of the top 10 Digg links were Scientology-related). Some of these activists are students (see the article in the Imperial College newspaper). The planning is very decentralised, but there are clearly people involved who are technically savvy and informed about the issues.

There are also some childish and counter-productive attacks going on, such as Denial of Service and other such attacks on Scientology web-sites, which reflect the origins of “Project Chanology” amongst “script kiddies”, but the rules being shared in the wikis and videos are much more sensible and long-term.

In the first major wave (1994-6) of the Scientology versus Internet war, we were using Web sites, FTP sites, Usenet groups and anonymous remailers. For example, we organised street protests to take place outside Scientology bases around the world on the same day in September 1995: the first time such a protest had been organised through the Internet. I remember that at the time most journalists thought these technologies were cool but didn’t really understand them: “Why is some of the text blue?” asked one when looking at my web page. There were internet supplements in the major newspapers, but understanding of the Internet hadn’t crossed into the mainstream.

The technologies and terminology used by this new generation of activists are potentially as confusing to the mainstream media and to the older (i.e. 30+) generation as our technology was for most people back then, and it has been interesting to watch the mutual incomprehension between Anonymous members who have never heard of a newsgroup, and older activists have never heard of the 4chan community.

There is probably a lot to learn here for anyone interested in motivating or teaching “digital natives”. Finally, here’s someone’s attempt to sum up in a 1’49” video-edit what has happened so far:

(Student use of the internet has previously drawn a lot of interest as a topic on Ancient Geeks)

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