Making a difference by making the web

These days, with all the Prism/Tempura surveillance we’re learning about, one can feel quite powerless.

For many it seems that there are just two responses: to either disengage with the web and go completely offline or to shrug and say “I’ve got nothing to hide.”

While it’s only a very small piece of a larger effort, I’m proud to be working with people who care about a third way.

A Third Way: Teach the Web

We believe in user empowerment that balances free expression online with a respect for user privacy.

We want to help people take control of their digital lives—and foster a user-centric web. We can rebuild the web we lost.

To get there, we need to help people discover the joy of making things on the web. It’s important to show that the web is not a scary place. It is fun and useful to participate online while still controlling your data. This is a valuable lesson and one that should trump flashy apps or simple convenience.

I’d like to share some stories about people who volunteer to teach the web. Be it in their homes, their neighborhood shops, their city squares, or wherever, these are real stories about people who want to empower users of the web.

It’s grassroots, it’s modest, but it’s a start.

Teach your family

Activism starts at home. You begin with the people you care about, the people closest you.

Like the activists who install Firefox for their friends and families, teaching the web at home doesn’t cost anything and is sustainable. You don’t have to worry about big budgets or outreach. Just help the people in your living room.

This is Unnati, a 14 year-old webmaker. Under the mentorship of Gauthamraj, she’s gone from learning about the web to teaching it. At home, she’s taught her mother and father how to make the web. And now this year, bolstered by her new confidence in teaching, she’s organizing a bigger event in her city.

And there’s Brendan, who started a maker club with his kids. Together they try out fun projects each week and use the web to blog about them. The web is a platform that helps the family find new things to make and to share them with the world.

Teach your neighbors

Sometimes to make a difference, you want to go outside your home. Teaching your neighbors is a natural next step. It’s about giving back to your community and helping people near you.

That’s what Meraj did. He visited a shopkeeper on the corner, and taught them how to hack. The shopkeeper made a new website for his store, and his whole family left feeling empowered and joyful about the possibilities of the web.

Recently, the Greek government abruptly shut down the state broadcaster, ERT, as part of its ongoing austerity drive. To help keep the news on air, Nikos, Freddy and Pierros ran workshops to teach webmaking and Open News tools to professional and citizen journalists. Set up in a public square, they taught fellow Greek citizens how to be the makers of their own news.

Teach the teachers

Once you’ve taught your family and your neighbors, the next step is to teach other people how to teach the web. This means helping others develop techniques and tools that they can use to teach their family and neighbors.

This step is harder, but ultimately very powerful. It can increase the impact of grassroots engagement by an order of magnitude.

Lawrence and San James organized their first “train the trainer” event in Kampala, Uganda. They wanted to host a multi-stop webmaking tour to local schools, and in order to teach all those students, they needed more mentors.

Using techniques from our training in Athens, Lawrence and San James successfully mentored 40 new teachers. Lawrence noted, “It didn’t feel like a training but like a collaborative exchange of knowledge and ideas on hacking the web.”

To scale these efforts even more, we launched an online training/collaboration called Teach the Web. With nearly 6,000 participants, and despite all the associated challenges of coordinating and mentoring so many people, it was incredibly rewarding to find so many kindred spirits who care about making the web.

These are stories from the participants in this course. And there are many more.

The Web is made by people

As the first iteration of the #teachtheweb course comes to a close this week, we’re asking ourselves: what next?

There are a several promising opportunities. Several mentors are localizing the course and will run the it again in different languages, including Spanish, French and hopefully others.

We’d also like to repeat the course, rolling in what we learned this time around. Likely, the course will be shorter (3 weeks instead of 9) and perhaps involve more tools than just webmaker ones.

I’d also love to see more resources on how to teach privacy. I whipped up a prototype to teach encryption, using material from the EFF. But there’s a lot more we can do to make these topics approachable, fun and easy to learn.

As we look to what else we can do, how we can promote a third way of online participation, I’m reminded of a story Jeannie told. She was helping a young learner make his first website. After publishing on the web, something clicked for him. He said, “Wow, so if I can make and share something on the web, does that mean that everything on the web is made by people?”

Yes, yes it is. And we can do our part to help more people not be intimated or indifferent about the web, but instead to make things together and celebrate our shared, connected humanity.

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