Geeks of the World, Unite!

And write!

The Internet used to be a kind of reservation where geeks like me could freely engage in debate over who was sexier: Picard or Kirk. Then the World Wide Web glitzed it up, and business moneyed it up, and when the dust cleared, big business, governments worldwide, lawyers and ordinary citizens were locked in a death tussle for control of the Net. This year alone has seen unprecedented attempts to regulate it. States (including California) passed anti-spam laws, anti-tax laws and anti-porn laws. Congress has considered bills on everything from pornography to copyright law-and passed a fair number of them, many in a last-minute rush earlier this month. Europe is doing battle with the U.S. over how to control the domain-name system. And activist groups all over the political spectrum-from far-Right fundie wackos to those Leftist demons, the ACLU-are carving out their pounds of flesh. The geek preserve is no more.

Caught flat-footed by the initial rush to politicize the Net, Netizens are slowly waking up to the fact that they have to get involved. Political bodies-from the hallowed halls of Congress all the way down to county government and your local library board-have come under intense pressure from interest groups looking to impose their agendas on the cheerful, free-wheeling anarchy of life online, and in response, a number of Netizens have formed grassroots activist groups to deal with everything from threats to free speech to junk e-mail. But they're still feeling their way in the strange new land of political activism, and they need all the help they can get.

So consider this your call to arms. I've been sitting (aghast) in front of my computer for the past couple of weeks, staring open-mouthed at the assortment of boneheaded measures Congress has been in such an almighty rush to pass before the November elections, and I have reached the point where I'm ready to icepick the next rep who starts lecturing me about moral values. It's time for all of us-yeah, I mean you, bub, the one hiding behind the ficus plant-to take action.

The easiest way to make your opinions known, of course, is to write to your representative. Fortunately, in between moralistic speechifying, Congress has made it much easier for the wired generation to stay in touch with them. An increasing number of representatives have acquired e-mail addresses, and an increasing number of people are taking advantage of that fact. One OC congressional staffer said that after the release of the Starr Report online, their e-mail messages doubled, from about 50 per day to 100 per day. Compare that to the 1,500 letters and 200 phone calls the office receives every month, and it's evident that e-mail is quickly becoming crucial for people who want to contact their reps.

But how does it rank on the prestige list? Conventional wisdom says-and both OC congressional staffers I spoke to confirmed this-that the weight of constituents' opinions is proportional to the amount of effort put into them. In other words, it doesn't take much work to pick up the phone and call your congressperson. It does take a lot of effort to sit down with a box of scented stationery and dash off an exquisitely penned diatribe, and your representative is certainly going to pay a lot more attention to the latter.

E-mail falls somewhere in the middle. It's easier to type in a brief message and click the "send" button than to hunt down an envelope and a stamp, but it still indicates that more thought has gone into it. That said, here are a few tips for making sure your e-mail gets the maximum results.

1. Be polite. A message bearing the header "YO, SCUM-SUCKING VERMIN!" will not particularly endear you to your congressman. Make your position clear, but do it with a minimum of swear words and insults.

2. Brevity is not the soul of wit. Remember, your message will be judged partly on the effort you took to write it. A one-sentence e-mail will not be nearly as impressive as two or three well-reasoned paragraphs.

3. Don't cc your e-mail to all 435 representatives. If you want to send the message to more than one legislator, send each individually. One congressional staffer confirmed that an e-mail to a single congressman carries more weight than one sent to several dozen.

4. Don't use a form letter. Many organizations offer prewritten letters you can stamp your own name on and send along. Congressional aides can spot these a league away. Use your own words-even if you agree with every single word in the form letter.

Listed below are the e-mail addresses of Orange County congress members and senators. Another great resource is the Congress.Org site (congress.org), which provides a form for a message to either be sent via e-mail or printed out for snail mail. From time to time in this space, I'll be alerting you to legislation I think requires action on your part. I encourage you to do this even if you flatly disagree with me (and, judging from the e-mail in my inbox, a fair number of you do). You have a responsibility to try to make the Internet what you think it should be-as opposed to what various one-note activist groups that couldn't recognize a mouse if it ran up to them and squeaked want.

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