Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Etsy Removes Rape Congratulations Cards...

Everyone's favorite online e-tailer for handmade crafts items, Etsy, is finally backing off a shameful policy. If you're in love with the site, be prepared to have your bubble burst.

Just before Christmas, word started spreading that Etsy was selling "Rape Congratulations" cards. What was worse, when horrified customers complained about it, the website refused to remove the cards arguing that "different people may find some content to be offensive, harmful, inaccurate or deceptive" - the inference, of course, being that other, less overly-sensitive, people will NOT find it offensive, therefore it should remain for sale.

As for the details of the card itself...

"Congratulations. You Got Bad Touched."

That's the message printed on cards for sale on Etsy... The description reads "Get creeped on, get raped? Know someone that has? Then this card is for them." The cards currently sell for $2.50 each and are made by a person using the name "youstupidbitch"...

So, what exactly are you getting for your two-and-a-half dollars? An offensive card featuring a drawing of a naked sexual assault victim curled up on the floor of a shower stall "printed on heavy duty white cardstock" complete with "red accents and matching envelope".

You be the judge. Does an image of "a naked sexual assault victim curled up on the floor of a shower stall" cross the line for you?

The good news is that Etsy did finally decide to remove the cards. Too bad all it took was a petition with over 17,000 signatures and negative publicity on CNN.

Etsy's previous policy had "prohibited disparaging or promoting hate against people based on race or religion," but these policies had "never covered gender, people with disabilities, or sexual orientation". Now, to their credit, they do.

But forget, for a moment, questions about what's strictly legal and what's not. Wouldn't common sense dictate that selling "Rape Congratulations" cards is probably a pretty bad idea? Indeed, shouldn't someone at Etsy have stood up and raised the moral imperative involved?

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Value of 'Clicktivism' and Online Political Mobilization...

We've all received them, but how effective are they, really? Mass email action alerts - those spammy emails asking us to essentially copy & paste an already-written statement on some political issue that will be sent to our Congressman - is often criticized as having little to no effect. With scorn, these mass email action alerts are sometimes referred to as "slacktivism" or "clicktivism" because of the minuscule amount of effort that's needed to participate in advocacy campaigns.

However, the effectiveness of clicktivism is certainly debatable. On the one hand, it certainly "dumbs-down" the message enough for policymakers to easily disregard its seriousness. On the other hand, that same dumbing-down process definitely engages more citizens into being politically active who probably would not have been otherwise, and that's a very healthy thing for democracy.

One recent paper by David Karpf from Rutgers University takes up the argument that clicktivism is, indeed, a positive development. In this month's Policy & Internet Journal, he has written an article titled, "Online Political Mobilization from the Advocacy Group's Perspective: Looking Beyond Clicktivism". In it, Karpf argues that 1) mass emails are the functional equivalent of the photocopied and faxed petitions and postcards of "offline" activism, and thus only represent a difference-of-degree; and 2) such low-quality, high-volume actions are only a single tactic in the strategic repertoire of advocacy groups, thus reducing cause for concern about their limited effect in isolation.

Both of these points resonate as true, yet they still fail to make a convincing case that clicktivism is, ultimately, effective.

Another paper by Stuart Shulman of UMass-Amherst takes up the opposing argument. In "The Case Against Mass E-mails: Perverse Incentives and Low Quality Public Participation in U.S. Federal Rulemaking", he argues that it's a fallacy to suggest that online public participation will somehow become a harbinger of a more deliberative and democratic era. After analyzing one mass email campaign directed towards influencing the EPA, he found that only a tiny portion of the public comments sent constituted potentially relevant new information for the EPA to consider. Instead, the vast majority of the public comments were either exact duplicates of a two-sentence form letter, or they were variants of a small number of broad claims about the inadequacy of a proposed rule.

Think of it in these completely anecdotal, unscientific terms. If you were a member of Congress, which would be more likely to influence your decision on a given issue - an individual who comes to your office and makes an intelligent, well-reasoned case with a number of supporting points, or 150 emails sent from anonymous accounts where nearly every single message was copy-and-pasted, word-for-word, and identical?

Interest groups, in this day and age, are going to continue using clicktivism as a major component in their advocacy strategies, and there are clearly legitimate political, economic, and organizational reasons for doing so. But Shulman is right. There is a danger that these gains may come at the expense of a more substantial role for citizens who wish to use digital technology to bring about public engagement in more comprehensive and effective ways.