Times Change, Online (Guerrilla) Tactics Don’t

Alan Rosenblatt has unearthed a most fascinating artifact: a guide to online activism produced by a white supremicist in the days before the World Wide Web was all that wide. Alan ran across it in the late 1990s and recently found it again, and he’s published it on his site in part because he doesn’t want it to disappear. Why?

First, it’s a glimpse into the self-justified worldview of a genuine and sincere racist who is not ranting like a crazy man, which has anthropological value on its own. Second, it’s a comprehensive guide to promoting an unpopular stance, in this case one associated with illegal acts, while alienating as few people as possible and simultaneously staying out of jail — a line that radical groups of all political stripes sometimes walk. Finally, as Alan points out, the guide shows that online social media outreach began before what most of us would now consider the internet even existed.

You see kids, back when I joined the online world in the ancient days of 1995 (you wouldn’t BELIEVE how much of a pain it is to cram a cuneiform tablet into a modem), the internet was a much different realm — email existed, FTP existed, a few text-heavy websites existed, but a significant part of our social interaction took place in a huge and diverse set of discussion groups collectively called the Usenet.

Early cybernauts accessed these Usenet “newsgroups” through a “newsreader,” a standalone program that displayed the discussion threads to which you’d subscribed. Usenet groups broke down by topic, with a characteristic naming convention that set off subtopics by dots, and they could spin off in interesting directions, as in the legendary alt. wesley.crusher.die.die.die. Each newsgroup worked sort of like a combination of a blog comment thread and a listserv, and participants could “cross-post” messages to connect conversations across several groups.

Back in those distant, innocent days, people were just beginning to pitch products and brands via Usenet, sparking accusations of spamming and a strong backlash in some communities. Those of us thinking about pitching candidates and ideas faced the same potential to shoot ourselves in the foot, making direct outreach something best done softly. Usenet as a realm for public discussion died fast with the rise of websites, Yahoo/Google Groups and other alternative online social spaces, and it survives now primarily as a distribution channel for big (and often pirated) binary files. But as this guide shows, the rules for effective Usenet outreach foreshadow those of modern social media marketing.

The basics: participate in the conversation, and in the process be relevant, be consistent, avoid needless public arguments, don’t miss an opportunity to provoke discussion, reach out to potential sympathizers to help bring them fully on board, and monitor what the other side is saying. Sound familiar? These rules would apply to outreach via blogs, Twitter, listservs, YouTube and just about any other online community — they’re based on the idea that you RESPECT the community and attempt to contribute to it, and that you promote your ideas as you can in the process.

Well, perhaps “respect” is a bit far to take it in this case, considering the author of this particular guide and the “truths” he was trying to promote, but you get the idea: social marketing is an inherently interactive act, something done more peer-to-peer than one-to-many, though many may listen in. Give Alan’s article a read — it’s reminder both that the tools don’t care who uses them, and that the rules of social marketing change relatively little even as particular online channels come and go.


Written by
Colin Delany
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