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SLAGO — The Surrey and London Association of Gay Organisations

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1999 SLAGO Conference

Opportunities for local Gay Groups on the Internet

Based on a talk given at the 1999 SLAGO Conference

Copyright © Roger Burg and SLAGO, 1999

When I originally drafted this paper I wrote that probably fewer than 10% of us are “on-line”. In two recent straw polls it was about 50%. But in five years time it will certainly be over 50%, and in twenty years time those of us without it will be as unusual as those of us without telephones today. But even today we can use the Internet to great advantage without much expense, and without expecting yet more work from dwindling volunteers.

There is a hidden advantage too. It takes time. That’s normally a disadvantage! But the Internet appeals to different people, and it can be a good way to get people involved. It’s by no means a young man’s activity. The “silver surfers” warm to it in retirement. It’s more likely to appeal to the under forties. And it’s the under forties who are more likely to do a quick search on the net and stumble on their local gay group. Social groups need an input of younger people, and people who would like to be involved. So it’s a promising medium for gay groups.

This is a bit sexist for a reason. There’s a lot for women out there too, and we can adapt our use of the web to stress this, and actively redress the male/female provision in so much of the gay world.

In an ideal world we’d like to advertise our local volunteer-run groups. We’d like to have a small advertisement in each of the local free newspapers. We’d like to have a big hoarding somewhere, to grab attention like Benetton or Esso Price-watch. But we haven’t been able to afford it. Well now we can. This is the advertising medium of the future, and, to a large extent, of the present. It costs peanuts. We only need to learn to use it.

It’s wonderful for finding things. You can search for almost anything on the web and find it, and that’s how people want to find us.

Now, local authorities and local libraries are supplying web services. The local library often provides the equipment. Many of them promote their own borough facilities and services. In some cases they actually want us to register with them. If someone is looking for local gay groups, or, even more likely, for local gay venues, they are more likely to look on the web than in the back of Gay Times. They may ask a friend to look it up, or they may use the local library or they may use an Internet café, if they pass one on the way to work. And for people who have just come out, they are probably more likely think of the web than they are of Gay Times or the other gay papers, because they, and the friends they are out to, are less likely to know about Gay Times. But they can search for their town’s name and “gay” on the web.

We also have an advantage here. Market research seems to suggest that it’s the gays who are more likely than other sections of the community to have the cash to be using the web already. There are huge numbers of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people on the net in Surrey and London. Let’s speak to them.

There are two major ways we use the internet: e-mail and the world wide web.

E-mail (or electronic mail).

E-mail means electronic mail. It works like this. I type out a letter to you. I send it down the wire that comes out of the back of my computer, down the phone line. And when you next turn on your computer and ask it to receive e-mail, your computer gets the letter down the telephone line in the same way, so you can read it. It often takes less than five minutes.

The Redhill Area Gay Society has reduced its annual costs by about thirty per cent, because the secretary e-mails the newsletter to those who prefer it that way. About three in ten members prefer to get the newsletter two days early, and receive it on their home computers. No journey to the printers, no printer bills, no photocopying, no folding, no stapling, no address labels to be late, no one to stuff the envelopes, no stamps, no journey to the post box, and, no delays in the post. If it’s not published till the 2nd November, they still get it in time for the SLAGO firework party on November 6th – so long as they log on. It’s free to send e-mail, and it costs 4.8 pence (plus VAT) on current BT rates for all the newsletters.

Each of the members can read the newsletter on-screen or print it on paper, as they prefer.

In practice the transmission is even more secure than the post, delays are very rare and almost never longer than postal delivery times.

There are drawbacks. The pages of the newsletter may appear in the wrong order in the e-mail version, for instance 1 with 8, 2, with 7 etc. Pictures and graphics take longer to send. The resolution on the screen is not so sharp, and, in practice, members probably print them out when they receive them, and get poorer quality. The members foot the cost of receiving them. But everyone benefits in cheaper membership fees.

So local groups can start saving costs now, and the savings are set to grow.

A similar trick is to keep the list of future events on computer, and to e-mail out all advance dates a few days before the newsletter. It costs nothing, but it reminds people to send their events before the deadline. It also helps avoid clashes, and even allows debate about reducing or moving events in time to do something about it.

Another trick that the Redhill Group uses is to keep an e-mail copy of future events. When I get an event submitted to me, I enter it on the list, and e-mail it to the secretary. If he gets one submitted separately to him, he sends the new list to me. This was we should never get clashes of dates. Last month we did, but it occurred to me that the person who submitted the clashing date is also on e-mail, so I’ve sent him a copy of the dates so that can avoid clashes too. It’s cheap and easy.

It’s worth considering the changes that the nature of e-mail offers to publishing.

We no longer need to publish monthly.

We no longer need to stick to whole A4 sides. The Secretary can send two urgent lines, or an urgent article. He doesn’t have to wait for material or fiddle with the format till it fills the page.

A mailing used to cost the number of readers times the cost of a stamp, copying, envelope etc. Now the number and frequency of mailings can depend on need, not budget. If something happens today, the secretary can dash off two lines about it. If the November pub evening is always badly attended, but three prospective members want to come, we can put out a quick e-mail, and probably extra members will attend.

If we want to enable people to contribute on public gay issues, e-mail can be handy. For instance, if the local MP has just said something outrageous in the local paper, we can e-mail other members to consult on a response, quickly and easily.

The difficult bit is to be quick, but to find just the right, crisp response. If we e-mail all members who are online, someone might suggest something appropriate. We can consult a few hundred others on e-mail “lists” like uk-motss (members of the same sex) or campaigns, hosted by Digital Diversity. We can come up with a much better response. And instead of putting pen to paper, knowing the letter will arrive when the incident is cold, we can e-mail it to our MP or to the local paper saving the two days which we spent consulting.

The World Wide Web.

Very many gay groups now have a web site. Web pages are just pages that you can conjure up on your computer. It’s just some text that someone has typed in and put onto the storage of their Internet service provider, with an address like "www.cags.org.uk". A gay group will probably state its aims, what they do, and why other gays should join.

But not all groups are able to do this: they don’t have a friendly hacker with time free, or free web space to do it for them.

So we can use several bigger and more famous sites: www.gaytoz.com is a good one. It will allow you to list your group, with contact details, and several areas of general information, plus fifty words to promote your group. You don’t even need to have a web site, but if you do, they will put in a link to it. All you need is the time, and access to a computer linked to the web at the local library.

The Guildford Area Gay Society appears to be taking advantage of Hampshire County Council’s facilities, in their web site. It’s basic, but it has the essential information, and it’s widely available to people in the area, quietly stating a presence to the community and making itself known to those who need it.

These are better than nothing and are dead easy. But you won’t get many people finding that information and you can’t make it very interesting, or represent the group very effectively. You need your own web page. Lots of people can give you a start with your own web page.

It doesn’t take much skill, and costs next to nothing. Lots of people use the web and don’t use their web space, they’re often happy to lend it, and it needn’t cost anything. It’s much better to have your own web page than nothing, even if it’s plain text. You can improve it once you’ve got it, and you can develop it endlessly. But not until you’ve got something to develop.

What should a local gay group’s web page contain?

  • A brief description of the group, what you do and whom you accept as members.
  • Links to other surrounding groups, or those who overlap your area. If your site is good and responds quickly they’ll come back to yours.
    • The site becomes an extension of the community. Go to www.gaytoz.com and search for all the organisations and businesses listed in your area. Link to them and ask them to link back to you. Don’t forget the SLAGO web site at www.slago.org.uk.
  • In particular, the gay businesses. There are lots! Offer to do single pages for friends’ one-man businesses you know. Link to those who already have sites. Offer pages to those who don’t. There’s a whole gay world in our areas which we fail to relate to, so here’s an excellent place to begin, giving them business and getting good will back.
  • Your members probably belong to national special interest groups, like Gay Outdoor Club, the Conservation Group and many more. Link to those that are special to your group. It’s part of your group’s identity.
  • It’s good to link to some of the bigger gay sites. Some are very American but some are British. Some supply news of current events, and some allow you to cut and paste their news displays onto your site. It takes hard work to keep your site up-to-date: this is a way to automate the drudgery. Try www.gay.com, www.homorama.com, and www.rainbowquery.com, amongst many others.
  • We are part of the local community too. If you specially patronise the local theatre, park, football ground, pub or other services, they probably would be pleased to have a link from you, if they are advertised on the web, and it helps place the group in the wider context of the community (for very little work!)
  • It’s good to have your current diary of events displayed (without specifying where the gay bashers can turn up) but this needs to be updated all the time. It’s relatively easy to create pages on big future events when they are being planned. Organisers putting a lot of work into the event will be pleased to help in this. It enables them to provide information of late-breaking attractions and changes without having to post out circulars. And when the event is over, it goes onto the “recent events” page, with the text up-dated and photographs. Preview and review are relatively easy and attractive.
  • The links need to balance up representation of youth items and women’s items. We don’t need to remove information. But links to women’s groups, for instance, might cover a wider geographical area, while mainly men’s groups could include only nearer ones, as a statement of intent which also serves our community more equally.
  • If your group’s aims including acting on gay equality issues, then a page might be devoted to text on current issues. You can be subtle about this, perhaps by presenting a questionnaire rather like the Heterosexual Questionnaire on www.gaamc.org which could be widely adapted, or just publish (with permission) some of the best material on a given topic, much of which arrives in electronic form over the net from the likes of Stonewall. Local papers like controversy on sexual topics, so tell them it’s there and send printouts, if you want coverage.
  • It may help keep your MP on his toes if you link to speeches he’s made on gay issues in the House. You can find them on www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/ etc. You can literally search by name and by date for his words.

Look at www.gaamc.org if you want to see a really impressive site that does a lot of this extremely well.

Photographs are a big part of most web designers’ egos, and can be a thorough nuisance to the visitor because they take so long to download. There are several techniques to reduce the number of colours and the size of the image. (Lewisham’s site is a good example.) If possible, have a few postage stamp sized images labelled as the Barbeque, Garden Party etc., and allow the visitor to click on any of them to see the full-sized version. This is more interactive, and satisfying to the viewer.

Text is cheap and quick to download. Often forgotten is the white space, that expensive but essential element of printed media, which is the fastest and cheapest medium on the Internet. To see really bad use of white space look at almost any web page. To see really good use of it, buy an expensive up-market magazine. To learn how to use it, print out your page, take a thick marker, and start by outlining the biggest plain rectangle, and shading it in. Ask yourself what it is telling you about the content of the page. Does it emphasise the main title? Is it narrower to link two paragraphs? Does it define the shape of an address? Continue with the next biggest rectangle until there’s no white space left. Then re-design the page with what you’ve learned. You really have to do this, colouring in, marker and all, and do it a few times before you get the point. Imagining or just looking doesn’t work.

A major attraction of the web is that it is interactive. Text and white space are fast enough to keep the user interacting, glimpsing at other pages and popping back to the index. Pictures, sound and animation are a techie’s dream. But they don’t hold the visitor.

Pictures can convey all sorts of information to the visitor, the age-range, sex balance, numbers, whether people look happy, whether they are really relating to each other or showing off Halloween costume to the camera. Their content should be appraised very carefully.

Pictures are a tragically easy way of outing your most vulnerable members. But one advantage of the poor resolution of the computer screen is that group shots can show 50 people happily picnicking, or 5000 at Pride, but make it impossible to identify any of them. Nevertheless we must consult our members and friends before outing them.

If you want your group’s site to be found you will have to advertise the web site’s address or URL. This should go on your Gay Times listing, newsletter etc. It should be linked to from all the sites you’ve linked to. But most important is to get it listed in as many search engines as possible. This is a complicated subject and well beyond my abilities. It is NOT enough to throw in some meta tags. You may be able to get experienced help on this, but, to do it yourself, look up www.searchenginewatch.com.

Experience suggests that you will likely get new contacts attending, and actually joining the group, as soon as you’ve gone onto the web. This really is worth the effort! It’s not a substitute for personal contact, nor for being a strong, supportive and active group when people find you, but it’s an important first step.

In short, setting up and maintaining a web site, and using e-mail for your group, will cost more work, both on the site, and in publishing the newsletter in two forms. But the work saved on the newsletter, and the advantages of involving different people, new enthusiasts on the web, counterbalance this.

Preliminary publication of the group’s diary can produce a better and more balanced diary for considerably less work. E-mail releases us from the restrictions which the paper imposes. Material doesn’t have to be cut, generated or made to fit A4.

The web site gives a much better representation of the group than sending a couple of past newsletters. It’s very cheap. And it links your group into its local community and makes the group more accessible, and possibly more active in the outside world.

This material is far from complete. I’d appreciate feedback and reactions by e-mail.

Roger Burg

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