With his new website, Joshua Errett hopes to create a hub for online activism and to fill the gap between the "like" button and City Hall.
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked for a prorogation of Parliament in 2009, Joshua Errett was upset. So he did what a lot of upset people did: he clicked the “like” button on a Facebook group full of like-minded people. And that was it.
Errett, a technology writer for NOW (and one of the founding editors of Torontoist), wrote a column at the time decrying the inability of Facebook protests to affect change. Now he’s attempting to provide better tools for online activism.
With his new website campaign.to (that’s “Campaign to…,” not “Campaign Toronto”—though Errett says he doesn’t mind the confusion), Errett is aiming to create a place to house campaigns and provide all the tools someone needs to take a campaign from a complaint to a movement. Through the site, users can develop petitions, add videos and other background information, send updates to supporters, and even print posters complete with tear-off contact-information tags to post around the neighbourhood.
Errett is a fan of existing social media, like Facebook and Twitter, but he says their primary function is to communicate, not to enable activism. “Tweets come and go. Facebook is not indexed by Google, so it’s hard to search,” Errett told us at his launch party for the site on Thursday at the Academy of the Impossible.
Along with his co-founder, Jason Spitkoski, Errett conceived, built, and launched the site without any corporate funding, and he hopes to keep it that way for as long as possible. “This is all blood, sweat, tears, and my own paycheque,” he joked.
When talking about what he imagines the site can do, Errett points to Occupy, the student protests in Montreal, and even the Tea Party as examples of people’s impulse to rise up. “People are getting together, but they’re not getting together at the town square any more. They’re getting together online,” he says. “[Campaign.to] can revolutionize the way people are getting their message across.”
Though the site may have been inspired by events of national importance, it may be best suited for small-scale activism. Users can search for campaigns based on location, which means campaigns like this one to get the Yogurty’s in the Annex to either turn off its air conditioning or close its front windows can target support from people who would ordinarily just walk by that Yogurty’s every day, groan a little, and walk on.
For the bigger ideas, such as A Stop to Needless Shootings in T.O.’s Priority Neighbourhoods, the strength of something like campaign.to over Facebook is harder to see. Nebulous targets of mass frustration may garner lots of support, as with the Occupy movements, but solving such multi-pronged systemic issues is hard, even with the power of the web. So we asked Errett if there is a plan for roping in experts, like policymakers, to work with the campaigns, but Errett was firm that the campaigns be about self-organization and the will of the people. “My philosophy is anti-expert,” he said. “My philosophy is people.”
It’s too soon to say whether the site will help convert online activism into real-life change. But, for now, Errett reveals he does a soft spot for one of the campaigns: Bring Down the Price of Cheese.
“He’s got a good idea.”