This blog is meant to begin some discussion around why more people don’t use the Z groups, and as a component of that problem, why so many clubs or activist organizations don’t even use online forums.
Many people seem to underestimate the potential of Z groups. I believe this based on 1) what I have heard from people directly and 2) the discrepancy between the number of people who agree with the general ideals of Znet or parecon, who therefore have an interest in organizing, and the number of people who find Z groups useful for organizing based on these ideas.
I think the reason Z groups are underestimated is that activist groups rarely make conscious decisions about their modes of organization, and have unexamined biases against online communication.
At the simplest level, Z groups have advantages in communication in comparison to meeting in person, using the telephone, or emailing. Basically the same advantages as any online forum, but as far as I can tell, online forums in general are underused.
Online forums have advantages over
-meeting in person. How many people have the ability to instantly meet the people they want to be in the group with whenever/wherever they want? Let’s take organizing a school club as an example. If you limit yourself to meeting in person, you will try to find a time that as many people can show up as possible, I would suppose. But students are available at particularly odd times. Some work at different times, some take classes at different times. Furthermore, the inconvenience of the meeting place will be different for different students. Some have cars and live a few minutes from the school or proposed meeting place, while some don’t have a car, and don’t live in the same city.
-telephone. Obviously telephones usually only involve two people at a time. If you want to be a real group, you want everyone to be more or less equally informed about what everyone is saying, and telephones don’t help very much with that.
-email. With email you can reach many people without worrying about locations or time conflicts, it quickly becomes difficult to follow the thread of discussion if it becomes more than someone sending short messages.
Yet it is often the case that groups revolve around weekly or bi-weekly hour long sessions, in which it is somewhat kosher to send out a group email on occasion, and fine to phone someone as long as you are friends -(and friendship usually requires some additional connection).
When asked about this they often say that online communication is:
1) not as likely to lead to friendship and understanding when you can’t see people’s faces, etc. But having an online forum doesn’t take away your ability to meet people in person, in fact it might make it more likely that people will bother to come out.
2) fake like face book. But face book is not designed the way a forum is so the comparison is not fair.
3) just too easy, and will attract people who don’t really want to do anything but make comments. I think this entails a rather insidious concept for those interested in equality, the concept of the ‘hard core activist’. I won’t say too much about this because I think it deserves its own discussion. Suffice to say, I think behind the idea of the ‘hard core activist’ is a little bit of elitism going on, and often has little to do with trying to gain political changes.
4) unattractive to people and won’t help organize. This one is particularly absurd. Of course if nobody ever promotes an online forum it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy that nobody wants to use it.
If I have laid out the pros and cons at all fairly, it seems that many groups have not properly considered the pros and cons of online forums/ z groups. That activist groups make should not be surprising. It is difficult to know for sure what works and what doesn’t when it comes to organizing. Many do not have time to be professional organizers, and there are so many factors that go into the success or failure of organizing that it is sometimes difficult to think about them. Decisions about whether or not to find an online forum often get lost among more immediate concerns. Nevertheless, it is best to use as much information as one has, even if the information is imprecise.
Whatever the benefits to meeting in person, activist groups should not weigh the ideal possibilities of meeting in person against online communication, but the reality against online communication. It may be difficult but groups committed to face to face interaction should ask themselves if face to face interaction is really what they think it is. Is meeting every two weeks for an hour really conducive to in depth discussion? Is it even conducive to discussion? If a typical member of the group only has 3 minutes to communicate their ideas to the group, is that consistent with the reasons why the group is committed in-person-meetings? Do the practical realities of that organizational method lead to large scale exclusion?