New York high school student Rebecca Choi didn't know that Wednesday's nationwide walkout against war was happening until she read about it on a friend's Web log.
"It just sort of came up that there was this walkout going on. She lives in Seattle," said the 16-year-old, who carried a handmade "Books Not Bombs" sign in the rain at Union Square. "I IMed her and asked her about it, and she said, 'Didn't you see the stickers in the subway?' I didn't even know about them until I saw them on my way to Union Square this morning!"
In a lot of ways, Rebecca is typical of today's anti-war protestor: out in the streets because she's plugged in at home. If you measure the health of a democracy by the number of citizens who participate in it, then the Internet has been a much-needed shot in the arm — especially for America's youngest citizens, who traditionally have a tough time making it to the polls on Election Day. But virtual communities are starting to change that, helping the Baby Boomers' kids organize, mobilize and stay informed by the hundreds of thousands.
"We have over 750,000 people on our network in the United States, and basically people go to our Web site, they sign up, and it's that easy," said Eli Pariser, 22, who runs MoveOn.org from the comfort of his bedroom. "They're involved, they're receiving e-mails from us, they're taking action. Our members are patriotic, mainstream Americans. They come from all sorts of walks of life ... and they're basically getting together around this very simple message, which is [that] this war in Iraq doesn't make sense, let's let the inspections work. But beyond that, they don't really have a lot in common."
What makes America's virtual protest community a success is that it plays off of the Internet's eclecticism. Isolated cliques — "smartmobs" if you're gonna be a sociologist about it — are now connecting and communicating with one another based on their opinions about war. There is no hierarchy, no central bureaucracy, just focal points — from blogs and chat rooms to fully funded nonprofit organizations — that tie this network of dissenters together.
Take Scott Ritcher, for example. Ritcher, 27, never intended for his Web site, News 'n' Sh--, to be more than personal a zine of headlines for him and his friends. But thanks to hundreds of links to Web logs and Internet diaries, it has turned into a popular hub among those who seek an alternative to the conservative bent of Matt Drudge's Drudge Report.
"I bought the domain name a little more than a year ago when I was sitting in a cubicle of the Hasbro Toy Corp. My original idea was to have a site that picked one news story a day and put it into normal-person language," Ritcher said from Los Angeles. "But I would have to say that in the past six months, as the world has changed, it's sort of impossible to have a current events Web page and not have my opinions on it. That's where the sh-- comes — headlines updated in real-time on one side, then all of the sh-- I throw along with it."
Sites like Ritcher's are at the crux of the Internet mobilization against war because, despite their lack of credentials, DIY communication is increasingly considered a reliable source by young Americans. According to the latest MTV poll on war and Iraq, less than one-third of the audience polled said it trusted the news media when it comes to getting information about the conflict. It's up to networks of friends — and Internet travelers — to fill them in, sometimes through unconventional means.
Other sites provide reassurance for people frustrated with the seemingly pro-war sentiment found in much of the mainstream media. "The most common e-mail I get is thanking me for making the strip 'because it helps me feel less alone'. Or 'my friends and I were the only people who thought that we felt this way, thanks,' " said David Rees, the Brooklyn cartoonist whose online strip "Get Your War On" has received more than 25 million hits since it first went up in the fall of 2001.
"It's just one of those things where you get so frustrated that nobody is saying these obvious truths that you have to come out and say it yourself just to remind yourself that you're not insane," Rees said. "I'm a naturally lazy person. I don't want to sit around and make these comments, but the mainstream media is just ... so ... I don't know, I just wish the media was more spirited in its skepticism."
"What is impressive about these forums and communities is that they really do give young people a direct involvement with the issues that they may feel unfairly distanced from," said Andy Greenwald, whose book "Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers and the Internet" chronicles the rise of youth culture on the Web. "I find there is something very exciting about seeing kids who feel comfortable about hashing these things out in public. They're in the trenches, battling with each other, testing their opinions off of one another, and that's where real involvement and real change comes from."
As for Rebecca, she was a little disappointed about the turnout at Wednesday's rally, but she can't wait to talk about it online with her friends.
"The more I talk about it means that more people will come out next time," she said with a smile.
If the current growth of the anti-war movement is any indication, that's precisely the case.