As I write this, I am flipping back and forth to my twitter feed, where I am monitoring tweets about the Occupy protests that are happening here in Chicago. I cannot help but think whether the protests would have happened without the help of information and communications technologies (ICTs). I would hypothesize (safely) that Internet technologies such as email and web pages probably helped the movement bring more people out in the streets. More important, they probably fundamentally changed the way the protests happened, allowing activists to transmit tactics, share stories of success and struggles, and support Occupy protests happening elsewhere. ICTs change mobilization and protest quantitatively (bringing out more people) and qualitatively (fundamentally changing the forms of activism and protest). In their important new book, Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age, Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport describe the former as “supersize effects” and the latter as “theory 2.0 effects.” Supersize effects theories argue that ICTs reduce mobilization costs, allowing activists to mobilize more people. Theory 2.0 argues that leveraged correctly, ICTs change how activism is and can be done in fundamental ways.
Earl and Kimport take a sophisticated look at the role of Internet technologies on activism, starting from the idea of “affordances.” Affordance is a term borrowed from the field of Human-Computer Interaction to describe the possible types of actions that are enabled by a particular technology. Earl and Kimport build on the notion of affordances, with what they call a “leveraged affordances” approach. The idea of leveraged affordances reflects the necessity of activists to use ICTs in innovative ways in order to take advantage of their affordances. Activists are skilled and creative users of technologies, not passive button pushers. As the authors explain, creating a petition online is not very challenging. Deploying that online petition in a way that generates buzz and action takes skilled use of technology. ICTs afford new forms of mobilization and tactics to activists. When leveraged effectively, new kinds of movements may emerge.
According to Earl and Kimport, ICTs present activists with two main affordances: cost and copresence. The cost affordance means that ICTs allow activists to organize and mobilize more people with fewer resources. The copresence affordance reflects the ability of activists to coordinate their activities across time and space. Taking advantage of these affordances produces supersize effects. Low costs mean ICTs can generate more protesters or more people to sign a petition. Copresence means ICTs can allow activists to plan protest actions without having to meet. However, creatively leveraging these affordances transforms activism in fundamental ways. In the hands of technologically savvy activists, cost affordances now mean reaching previously unreachable audiences or deploying large-scale outsider tactics online, such as denial of service attacks on target servers. Similarly, leveraging the copresence affordance allows activists to “organize without organizations.” An enterprising PhD student studying the Occupy Wall Street protests should look at ways the shunning of formal organization among activists reflects the ability to “organize without organizations online. Is Occupy Wall Street the first full-fledged movement of the Internet Age, not as much in terms of using ICTs as modeling them in action?
The authors admittedly do not have data on movement or campaign outcomes. If there is a flaw with this book, that is it. I read the chapter on social movement organizations “Protest on the Cheap” with great interest. Their conclusion—that a more nuanced understanding of the role of organizations in social movements is necessary as the cost dimension of activism varies—is compelling. However, I could not help but think that organizations are often necessary mediators, helping potential activists identify legitimate grievances from less legitimate ones. Additionally, without the key variable of outcomes, it is difficult to swallow the authors’ conclusion that organizations matter less when the cost of organizing is low. That may be true as a broad statement. However, once efficacy is added to the equation, e.g., did the movement accomplish one or more of its goals, organizations may once again become important, even when the cost of activism approaches zero. Additionally, it would be interesting to compare how outcomes vary in the presence or absence of formal social movement organizations.
Take the example of Causes.com, a Facebook spinoff that started as an application on the site, which allows people to organize and raise money for various causes. The application and site have shown disappointing outcomes. Despite 25 million active users, very few causes receive very much money. According to a 2009 article in the Washington Post, of 235,000 causes registered on the site, only three had raised more than $100,000, while 88 had raised over $10,000. Most saw much less than that, as many users sign on to causes without committing resources to them. Fundraising is only one of many possible movement outcomes. However, considering mobilization without outcomes, Causes appears to be an overwhelming success. Once outcomes are considered, the prospects for Causes seem much less promising. This story may change as nonprofit and grassroots organizations become more technologically sophisticated.
Ultimately, the problem with a book like this is that the project it analyzes is never finished. New technologies keep popping up. Activists find new affordances in each of them. Protesters use Twitter and mobile text technologies to warn others of police presence. Facebook has become a new organizing tool for low- and high-risk activism—from pages protesting new features on the site itself to the “We are all Khalid Said” pages that sparked mass protest in Egypt this past spring. Occupy protestors take video with inexpensive digital cameras and phones and post it to YouTube as a way of spreading success stories or sparking moral outrage at heavy-handed police tactics. But that’s what makes Digitally Enabled Social Change so important. Earl and Kimport’s leveraged affordances approach provides the theoretical equipment for understanding how ICTs shape activism.