Creating Web Alerts
An action alert is a message that someone sends out to the net asking for
a specific action to be taken on a current political issue. Well-designed
action alerts are a powerful way to invite people to participate in the
processes of a democracy.
If I sometimes seem stern or didactic
in my prescriptions, please forgive me. It's just that I've seen badly
designed action alerts do an awful lot of damage.
- Establish authenticity. Bogus action alerts, such as the
notorious "modem tax" alert, travel just as fast as real ones. Don't
give alerts a bad name. Include clear information about the sponsoring
organization and provide the reader with several ways of tracing back to
you, e-mail address, postal address, URL, phone number, etc. Including
this contact information makes sense anyway, you want people to join your
movement, and this means establishing contact with you. One way to establish
authenticity is by appending a digital signature, presumably using PGP.
Few people will check the signature, though, and many people will remove the
signature when they forward your message to others. So there's no substitute
for clearly explaining who you are and giving people a way to reach you.
- Put a date on it. Paper mail and faxes get thrown away quickly,
but action alerts can travel through the Internet forever. Even if an alert
seems to have faded away, it can sleep in someone's mailbox for months or
years and then suddenly get a new life as the mailbox's owner forwards it
to a new set of lists. Do not count on the message header to convey the
date (or anything else); people who forward Internet messages frequently
strip off the header. Even better, give your recommended action a clearly
stated time-out date, e.g., "Take this action until February 17, 2017".
If you think there will be follow-up actions, or if you want to convey
that this is part of an ongoing campaign, say so. That way, people will
contact you or look out for your next alert.
- Include clear beginning and ending markers. You can't prevent
people from modifying your alert as they pass it along. Fortunately, at
least in my experience, this only happens accidentally, as extra commentary
accumulates at the top and bottom of the message as it gets forwarded.
So put a bold row of dashes or something similar at the top and bottom
so extra stuff will look extra. That way it will be very clear what you
and your credibility are standing behind.
- Beware of second-hand alerts. Although it is uncommon for
someone to modify the text of your alert, sometimes people will foolishly
send out their own paraphrase of an alert, perhaps based on something they
heard verbally. These second-hand alerts usually contain exaggerations
and other factual inaccuracies, and as a result they can easily be used
to discredit your alert. If you become aware of inaccurate variants of
your alert, you should immediately notify relevant mailing lists of the
existence of these second-hand alerts. Explain clearly what the facts
are and aren't, implore the community not to propagate the misleading
variants, and provide pointers to accurate information including a copy
of your own alert. This action has two virtues: first, it may help to
suppress the mistaken reports; and second, it positions you (accurately,
I hope) as a responsible person who cares about the truth.
- Think about whether you want the alert to propagate at all.
If your alerts concern highly sensitive matters, for example the status
of specifically named political prisoners, then you will probably want to
know precisely who is getting your notices, and how, and in what context.
If so, include a prominent notice forbidding the alert's recipients from
- Make it self-contained. Don't presuppose that your readers
will have any context beyond what they'll get on the news. Your alert
will probably be read by people who have never heard of you or your cause.
So define your terms, avoid references to previous messages on your mailing
list, and provide lots of background, or at least some simple instructions
for getting useful background materials. In fact, you might consider making
the e-mailed alert relatively short and include the URL for a Web page
that provides the full details. Your most important audience consists of
people who are sympathetic to your cause and want to learn more about it
before they can take action. Write your alert with that type of reader in
mind, not the complete insider or the apathetic stranger.
- Ask your reader to take a simple, clearly defined, rationally chosen
action. For example, you might ask people to call their representatives
and express a certain view on an issue. In this case, you should provide
a way to find that representative's name and number, and explain how
to conduct the conversation: what to say, how to answer certain likely
questions, and so on. The purpose of such a script is not to impose
your thinking but to help people to learn a skill that might otherwise
be intimidating. Decide whether to ask for e-mail messages (which can
be huge in number but near-zero in effect), written letters (which will
be fewer but more effective), or phone calls (which fall in between).
Consider other options as well: perhaps the sole purpose of your alert
is to solicit contacts from a small number of committed activists, or
to gather information, or to start a mailing list to organize further
- Make it easy to understand. It is crucial to begin with
a good, clear headline that summarizes the issue and the recommended action.
Use plain language, not jargon. Check your spelling. Use short sentences
and simple grammar. Choose words that will be understood worldwide, not
just in your own country or culture. Solicit comments on a draft before
sending it out.
- Get your facts straight! Your message will circle the earth,
so double-check. Errors can be disastrous. Even a small mistake can make
it easy for your opponents to dismiss your alerts, and Internet alerts
in general, as "rumors". Once you do discover a mistake, it will be
impossible to issue a correction, the correction will probably not get
forwarded everyplace that the original message did.
- Start a movement, not a panic. Do not say "forward this to everyone
you know". Do not overstate. Do not plead. Do not say "Please Act NOW!!!".
Do not rant about the urgency of telling everyone in the universe about your
issue. You're not trying to address "everyone"; you're trying to address a
targeted group of people who are inclined to care about the issue. And if
the issue really is time-critical then just explain why, in sober language.
Do not get obsessed with the immediate situation at hand. Your message may
help avoid some short-term calamity, but it should also contribute to a much
longer-term process of building a social movement. Maintaining a sense of
that larger context will help you and your readers from becoming dispirited
in the event that you lose the immediate battle.
- Tell the whole story. Most people have never heard of your issue,
and they need facts to evaluate it. Facts, facts, facts. For example,
if you believe that someone has been unjustly convicted of a crime, don't
just give one or two facts to support that view; most people will simply
assume they are getting half the truth. If your opponents have circulated
their own arguments, you'll need to rebut them, and if they have framed
the facts in a misleading way then you'll need to explain what's misleading
and why. On the other hand, you need to write concisely. Even if you are
focused on the actions, good explanations count more. After all, one of the
benefits of your action alert -- maybe the principal benefit -- is that it
informs people about the issue. Even if they don't act today, your readers
will be more aware of the issue in the future, provided that you don't insult
their intelligence today.
- Don't just preach to the converted. When you are very caught
up in your cause, it is easy to send out a message in the language you use
when discussing the issue with your fellow campaigners. Often this language
is a shorthand that doesn't really explain anything to an outsider. If
you really care about your issue, you'll take the time to find language
that is suitable for a much broader audience. This can take practice.
- Avoid polemics. Your readers should not have to feel they are
being hectored to go along with something from the pure righteousness of
it. Some people seem to associate non-polemical language with deference,
as if they were being made to bow at the feet of the king. This is not
so. You will not succeed unless you assume that your readers are reasonable
people who are willing to act if they are provided with good reasons.
- Make it easy to read. Use a simple, clear layout with lots of
white space. Break up long paragraphs. Use bullets and section headings
to avoid visual monotony. If your organization plans to send out action
alerts regularly, use a distinctive design so that everyone can recognize
your "brand name" instantly. Use only plain ASCII characters, which
are the common denominator among Internet character sets. Just to make
sure, do not use a MIME-compliant mail program to send the message; use
a minimal program such as Berkeley mail. MIME is great, but not everybody
uses it and you don't want your recipients getting distracted from your
message by weird control codes. Format the message in 72 columns or even
fewer; otherwise it is likely to get wrapped around or otherwise mutilated
as people forward it around the net.
- Urge people to inform you of their actions. If you are calling
on people to telephone a legislator's office, for example, you should provide
an e-mail address and invite them to send you a brief message. Explain
that you'll use these messages to count the number of callers your alert
has generated, and that this information will be invaluable when you speak
with the legislator's staffers later on. Only do this, though, if your mail
server is capable of handling 50,000 messages in a short period. You might
want to check this out with your service provider beforehand.
- Don't overdo it. Action alerts might become as unwelcome as
direct-mail advertising. Postpone that day by picking your fights and
including some useful, thought-provoking information in your alert message.
If you're running a sustained campaign, set up your own list. Then send out
a single message that calls for some action and include an advertisement for
your new list. If you must send out multiple alerts on the same issue, make
sure each one is easily distinguishable from the others and provides fresh,
useful information. Above all, don't spam. Post your message only where it
belongs. When in doubt, ask the maintainer of a given mailing list whether
your alert is appropriate. And include a phrase like "post where appropriate"
toward the beginning so that people aren't encouraged to send your alert to
mailing lists where it doesn't belong.
- Do a post-mortem. When the campaign is over, try to derive
some lessons for others to use. Even if you're burned out, take a minute
right away while the experience is still fresh in mind. What problems
did you have? What mistakes did you make? What unexpected connections
did you make? Who did you reach and why? Which mailing lists was your
alert forwarded to, and which of these forwardings actually caused people
to take action? Good guesses are useful too.
- Don't mistake e-mail for organizing. An action alert is not an
organization. If you want to build a lasting political movement, at some
point you'll have to gather people together. The Internet is a useful
tool for organizing, but it's just one tool and one medium among many
that you will need, and you should evaluate it largely in terms of its
contribution to larger organizing goals. Do the people you reach through
Internet alerts move up into more active positions in your movement?
Do you draw them into conferences, talk to them by phone, meet them in
person, become accountable to them to provide specific information and
answer questions? If not, why do you keep reaching out to them?
- Encourage good practices. The Internet is a democratic medium
that provides us all with the time and space to do the right thing. So
let's use the Internet in a positive way and encourage others to do the same.
You can help by passing these guidelines along to others who might benefit
from them (including people who have sent out badly designed alerts), and
refrain from propagating alerts that do not conform to them. Remember,
forwarding a badly designed action alert actually harms the cause that it
is supposed to support. Modeling thoughtful, constructive action on the
Internet, however, provides everyone with a living example of democracy in
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