I spend a fair amount of time "talking" to other vegans. In the non-virtual world, at least in my immediate circle of friends, family and acquaintances, I don't get to indulge in this at all. I've met a few vegans, sure, but could I pick up the phone to call one up to head out for a soy latté to maybe bounce a couple of blog post ideas around, or to bemoan an upcoming staff lunch at the local gourmet burger joint? Not so much. I can sometimes bend my sweetie's ear, but although he's a decent sounding board when it comes to things having to do with group dynamics or trying to hone in on a point about which I want to write, his eyes glaze over noticeably after what he calls "too much AR talk".
But I do get to communicate with other vegans on Facebook, on Twitter, in various discussion forums, by email and even by Skype. I do this daily. Sometimes we discuss educational projects in which we're involved, while sometimes we discuss news stories about animal rights issues. More often than not, we end up talking about simple details of our lives and of our respective interactions with the non-vegans around us. Vegan parents find themselves weighed down with more than the average parent's share of unwanted advice from family, friends and strangers alike and commiserate with each other. Holidays like like this past Thanksgiving invariably lead to an exchange of stories concerning family dinners. Basically, a lot of the communication that goes on is just the same sort of gabbing in which anyone would indulge, except that it generally -- or at least very often -- involves discussing veganism or animal use.
24/7 Advocacy: A Moral Imperative?
Recently, I've noticed some folks on social networking sites expressing a fair amount of indignation and irritation with some of their fellow vegans. Take Twitter, for instance: A couple of "tweeters" who'd been following me started up about what a complete waste of time it is for vegan activists to "follow" and communicate with other vegans on Twitter, and that these activists' time would be better spent offline engaging in face-to-face advocacy by talking to non-vegans. Some of the tweets I've seen along these lines have been overtly reproachful.
There is an assumption being made that vegans talking to each other online about animal rights issues and regular old life stuff don't, in fact, engage at all in offline activism. Of course, there's absolutely no evidence to back up this claim. It's a false dichotomy, ignoring the fact that it's possible to engage in both activities--or to (gasp!) do other things altogether having nothing whatsoever to do with animal rights. Some of us actually spend some of our free time volunteering for causes that even have nothing directly to do with animal rights. Heck, some of us even spend much of our free time doing things like knitting or napping.
Yeah, that's right -- napping.
And the thing is that even if we do engage in other activities, that still wouldn't preclude initiating or participating in face-to-face advocacy at some other point during the day or over the course of a week. And ultimately, is it really another advocate's business in the first place if I spend a few minutes or even a few hours a day on the internet rather than doing 'X'?
Where and When and Who's Watching, Anyway?
A few months ago, Dan Cudahy wrote a great little essay called "On Advocacy Media Preferences" in which he examined the question of whether one forum of advocacy, online or otherwise, is more effective. His conclusion?
Of books, magazine articles, scholarly journals, blogs, forums, emails, street stalls, leaflets, event tables, speeches, presentations, casual discussion, and whatever other forms of communication might be effective, it seems to me that what is communicated and how it is communicated is far more important than where or through what media a message is communicated.I agree with him wholeheartedly on this. One point he makes which I'd like to explore further, however, concerns what he describes as the need to target a non-vegan audience. Some advocates have too narrow an interpretation of how we can educate and the truth is that there are many ways to engage non-vegans directly, as well as many ways to engage them indirectly.
According to a blurb on Wikipedia about lurking, I'm not so sure that vegans talking to each other online aren't, in fact, doing a fair amount of indirect outreach. Lurking on the internet happens when someone registers for a discussion forum, for instance, where members exchange information with each other, but this individual -- known as a "lurker" -- doesn't jump in and ask or answer questions, but instead spends a lot of time just reading and soaking in whatever information is offered up. Research shows that "lurkers make up over 90% of online groups". So when vegans are indulging in the purported waste of time known as talking to each other about veganism (aka preaching to the choir), this means that there's a really good chance that many others are reading the anecdotes being shared and the tips being traded.
I follow around 260 "people" on Twitter, for instance. There is no way that I do -- or could -- tweet back and forth with all 260 every single day. Most of those Twitter accounts belong to real folks (mostly vegan) who spend their time gabbing with others. They end up in my Twitter time-line and I read what they have to say; if I think that I have something interesting with which to chime in, I will. Otherwise, I just lurk and learn, particularly about how other vegans handle being vegan in what is an overwhelmingly non-vegan world. I assume that for each person following me on Twitter that there are probably many who don't jump in to discussions I try to start up, but who read the exchanges that ensue.
Those Pesky Forums
Before Facebook and Twitter, there were -- and there still are! -- online discussion forums. While some of them have been set up as communities to facilitate vegans' exchanging information and supporting each other, some of them are more inclusive and lead to debate between vegans and non-vegans, welfarists and abolitionists, and so on. Many advocates avoid engaging in online debating in such venues because it can seem pointless to rehash the same arguments over and over again. It can be exhausting. Yet, what I wrote above concerning lurkers applies just as much to old school public forums as it does to sites like Facebook and Twitter. As sociologist Roger Yates wrote in his short piece "Vegan Education on Public Forums":
it is important to remember that many people seem to read these exchanges without actually taking part in them. It is for them that contributing to public internet debates is important.And he's right. Furthermore, a lot of these public discussion forums (particularly the ones targeting vegans or people interested in learning about veganism) provide a venue for vegans to support and encourage each other or to engage in earnest dialogue when and where differences may occur and this takes me back to the beginning of this post.
That vegans gab together isn't a lost opportunity for advocacy; others are watching, weighing our words and learning from them. Vegans gabbing together provides something more, though, and it would be unfortunate to ignore or to downplay that when vegans talk to each other online -- when we offer each other tips on the day-to-day aspects of living in a non-vegan world -- we're also helping each other to be happier vegans and helping each other to stay vegan. We're helping to build some sense of community for ourselves so some of us can feel a little less isolated or lost. In the end, it makes us better agents and advocates and that, surely, is no "waste of time".
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