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“And the Band Played On” and the Power of the Internet

November 17, 2009

On the advice of a colleague, I recently picked up the book “And the Band Played On.”  Before you ask: no, I haven’t seen the movie.  Honestly, I can’t imagine how any movie could do the book justice.  For those who don’t know, it’s the story of the AIDS epidemic from roughly 1980 to 1987 and written by Randy Shilts, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter.  Given the obvious setbacks (and successes) in the push for gay rights, the book has given me much greater context in which I can put the struggle for full equality.

It would be impossible to really recap the book or the range of thoughts that it inspired.  Frankly, it landed in the middle of a Venn diagram of my personal and professional interests–gay rights, politics/public policy, and public health.  I think one line in the prologue really captures the essence of the book:

In those early years, the federal government viewed AIDS as a budget problem, local public health officials saw it as a political problem, gay leaders considered AIDS a public relations problem, and the news media regarded it as a homosexual problem that wouldn’t interest anybody else.

There were exceptions to all of these generalizations and that is the element of the book that gives a reader hope in such a tragic situation; that despite these obstacles, many stood up.  Others eventually rose to the occasion.  However, what speaks most to Shilts’ intelligence and fairness as a reporter and author is that almost none of the characters are portrayed in a flat or villanous way.  Shilts doesn’t pulls punches, but he gives everyone he describes a very human depth.  Almost every person is made real through both their bravery and shortcomings.

I think that every gay man and woman who didn’t live through this time should read Shilts’ account.  It gives a history and context to the struggles that our community faces that is easy to overlook when you enter the community after it has come so far.

All of that said, a really interesting point came up in my discussion of the book with a colleague.  I had been telling him about my adventures in blogging and he asked a fascinating question: “What if there had been the internet and social networking in 1980?”

It’s fascinating for so many reasons and highlights exactly what online communities can do. Without the internet, the general public is limited in both the community within which it can communicate, and more importantly, it is subject to the filters of the mainstream media; represented solely by the few prominent lobbying and advocacy organizations; and rarely heard by policymakers.

Now blogs and online organizing can drive a news story into the mainstream media.  Look at Philip Spooner from Maine’s No on 1 campaign (or any number of countless examples).  Where the media was squeamish talking about gay men or sex, people with the internet wouldn’t have had to live in ignorance of the epidemic that was exploding in the country’s major cities (and eventually beyond).

When public health departments wouldn’t adequately educate or stopping behaviors that were dangerous to the public health, the internet would have offered Google, WebMD, and online forums to find out more about what puts people at risk.

When an administration claimed that AIDS was its “number one public health priority,” the internet would have allowed facts and reports ignored by the media to be made public.  Policymakers could have had their feet held to the fire and heard from real people more easily.

When lobbying and interest groups failed to represent the broader gay community, people could have organized online on their own. The voice of the community would not have been one consensus determined by those who saw the disease as “bad PR.”

Instead of holding valuable research and science from the public and other researchers in order to be published in prestigious medical journals,  research could have been more quickly peer reviewed and published.  Instead of worrying about careers, researchers could have communicated vital science to the broader scientific community in a timely fashion.

I’m not so naive as to think that the internet would have fixed all of these situations without any drawbacks.  The internet creates a cacophony of voices with a certain number of complete wackjobs.  But more important–and in true democratic nature–the views that resonate with more people rise to the top.

Bottom line: it’s impossible to tell exactly what would have come from this bizarre–and probably idealized–alternate history I’ve imagined.  I can say two things with absolute certainty, though:

  1. The internet and blogosphere would have it would enabled a broader conversation.  People would have been able to organize themselves and demand better of the media, advocacy groups, and local and federal governments.
  2. The struggles we face today for equal rights do not face the limitations that were witnessed in the 1980s.  We can–and more importantly DO–organize and communicate online to increase the impact of our voices.  The DNC will hear from angry donors, the No on 1 campaign received over $1 million dollars from ActBlue, and campaigns can organize volunteers to call and visit from around the nation.  That’s why I write here and hope it resonates beyond the people I could have simply told over the phone.

Update: A few edits were made from the original post for clarity.

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