Designing Effective Action
Alerts for the Internet
by Phil Agre
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520
Version of 24 April 1999.
This is an updated version of an article from the January 1994 issue of The Network Observer.
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. Having seen many action alerts in my years on the
Internet, I have tried to abstract some guidelines for people who wish to use
them. Even if you do not plan to construct any action alerts yourself, I do
not recommend that you forward anybody else's alerts unless they conform to at
least the spirit of these guidelines. 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.
Although an Internet action alert should always be part of an issue campaign with a coherent strategy and clear goals, I won't discuss the larger strategic questions here. Instead, I will simply divide action alerts into two categories, single messages and structured campaigns. Single alerts are broadcast in the hope that they will propagate to the maximum possible number of sympathetic Internet users. Structured campaigns are typically conducted through mailing lists specially constructed for the purpose, and their intended audience may include either the whole Internet universe or a narrower group of already- mobilized partisans.
Both types of action alerts are obviously modeled on things that have been happening on paper, through telephone trees, and lately via fax machines, for a long time. What computer networks do is make them a lot cheaper. A networked alert can travel far from its origin by being forwarded from friend to friend and list to list, without any additional cost being imposed on the original sender. This phenomenon of chain-forwarding is important, and it behooves the would-be author of an action alert, whether a single message or a whole campaign, to think through its consequences: