E-mail rebel

Rating: NNNNNThe man who has been described as the hub of Canada's social justice information system has a public relations.

Rating: NNNNN

The man who has been described as the hub of Canada’s social justice information system has a public relations problem. There are two of him. “I sometimes think the Virtual Bob Olsen is about a thousand times bigger in people’s minds than the real Bob Olsen,” says Olsen.

The real Bob Olsen stands up at community meetings and says, “Hi, I’m Bob Olsen, and I send e-mail.” And if you follow things like homelessness, the megacity, Y2K preparation, globalization or anti-poverty issues, you’ve probably received an e-mail or 4,382 or so, from Bob Olsen.

The Virtual Bob Olsen must run a slick office full of wee Greenpeace campaigners who bring him fair- trade coffee. He must be an expert on everything. People send him resumes and grant applications. They think he’s an institution.

The real Bob Olsen has 4,000 messages in his in-box and sends god knows how many forwards a day that are read by politicians, activists, academics and plain old folks all over the world.

The Virtual Bob Olsen must be some kind of computer hacker.

The real Bob Olsen was a truck driver, has fought depression, could be your grandpa, never married or had kids (“It’s a tragedy. Oh, well, these things happen.”) and didn’t even want a computer, but someone owed him money. Which was lucky for the rest of us.

“He acts as a filter for masses of information,” says city councillor Jack Layton. “The irony is that hebecomesthe source of masses of information.”

Olsen trips over rolled-up demo banners and drums in his Cityhome apartment that are lying in wait for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and its allies’ march on the legislature today (Thursday, June 15).

His rickety computer (the aforementioned hub of Canada’s information) sits propped up by phone books in a corner as Olsen grumbles — “always something to do” — about his latest project, getting a video about the demos in Seattle out to the wide world. Ah, Seattle. Globalization. All that nasty stuff. The memories.

It’s just like Olsen’s e-mail debut during the fight against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment.

The MAI went down in flames in October 1998, and much of the credit was heaped on the heads of people like Olsen for mobilizing citizens globally by the simple, democratizing use of mass e-mails that kept thousands updated (and angry) about the MAI machinations.

“I don’t know if he realizes it,” says Anna Dashtgard, who was the Council of Canadians’ trade campaigner during the MAI struggle and is currently the program coordinator at the Centre for Social Justice, “but he inspired a lot of people to think how to use e-mail more strategically.”

Everyone knows Bob. His old service provider certainly knew his name in 1998 when it kicked him off for the sheer volume of e-mails he sent, accusing him of spamming. (Apparently, his definition of “ask” — as in “Did these people ask for e-mail?” — was too loose.)

Celebrity status

But Olsen is modest about his pseudo-celebrity status.

So modest in fact (“I don’t do anything. I just fill in time. I don’t have a job or anything. But people do send me e-mails asking me to forward them”) that you almost don’t believe him.

Witness the e-mail that Olsen sent off post-interview.

“You asked what I consider my greatest accomplishment. That assumes that I’m trying to accomplish something or that I have an activist objective. I do not.”

But contrary to his claims that he just passes on information, according to his colleagues Olsen not only wields 12 to 14 hours a day of e-mail as his weapon, but he’s also the in-person originator and organizer of countless campaigns and events.

And he’s very… persistent.

“It’s in the nature of things,” says OCAP’s John Clarke dryly, “that when Bob decides he has an idea whose time has come, he organizes a military-style campaign to have it adopted.”

“He’s, um, pretty single-minded,” agrees Howard Tessler of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations, who’s butted heads with Olsen over direct action versus reformist organizing tactics in regard to tenant issues. (Who’s on which side? Hint: Olsen is the one with the drums in his apartment.)

Even Layton, the chair of the city’s homeless advisory committee, admits to a mild feeling of panic whenever Olsen approaches him at a meeting.

Pot boiling

“I know he’s going to have something important and urgent to say, but I’m only able to follow it through about a third of the time,” he laughs.

City officials with whom Olsen has fought, both online and off, didn’t return NOW’s calls.

No worries.

They’ll probably get an e-mail tomorrow.

“It takes a lot of energy to get a pot boiling,” says Olsen. “My thing is to keep the pot boiling.”


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