Framing Digital Activism – On The Value and Limits of a Taxonomy of Mobilization

Joss Hands

The overarching position of Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport’s Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age is a reasonably convincing combination of claims that can be summarized by two central interlocking theses: that there is a new ‘digital repertoire of contention’ (p. 177) which is made possible by leveraging the affordances of the Web. Such a thesis has, in many regards, become a contested one in a lot of recent discourse about the Web and activism and this book offers much needed empirical evidence to inform this debate.

While Earl and Kimport’s research largely precedes the rise of social media, such as the by now ubiquitous Facebook and Twitter, it does offer something clearly valuable – that is a solidly grounded empirical study into how certain individuals and organizations do, in fact leverage the capacities of the World Wide Web to maximize collective action and impact. As well as exploring the Web as a tool that can expand already existing movements and causes the book offers an analysis of practices allowing for a differentiated view of the impact of the web in different domains. Thus they distinguish between a range of categories of web use. ‘E-mobilization’ (p. 7) describes the leveraging of the Web in organizing off line protest. The Web advances such mobilizations, they claim, with a ‘supersize’ effect. That is, traditional modes of organizing still predominate but the Web allows for a scaling up which can create significant advantages in organizational efficiency, and significantly for Earl and Kimport, in cost savings and therefore the lowering of barriers to participation.

However, they see greater potential for shifts in not only the scale of activism but also its shape and character in what they call ‘e-tactics’. They describe e-tactics as being between ‘e-movements’, that is online only movements, and e-mobilization. E-tactics are said to include ‘intermediate coordination’ (P 8) that would include practices such as online petitions, boycotts, letter and email writing campaigns that connect in many cases already existing forms of action with Web affordances and their new capacities and ways of coordinating and influencing the off line world. This produces an effect unlike ‘supersizing’ they define as ‘theory 2.0’ in which more complex shifts emerging from the affordances of the web can be detected. This exploration of e-tactics entails a significant amount of empirical work, which is too detailed to discuss here, but which leads to the claims that many e-tactics offer ‘theory 2.0’ effects indicating novelty in web enabled activism beyond a simple up scaling thanks to low costs.

In the case of online petitions it is argued that while the low cost of participating, in terms of money, in organizing a petition – especially in what Earl and Kimport refer to as ‘warehouse sites’ that specialize in petitions and allow them to be created with a few short steps by anyone, mean greater ease of participation, less risk and thus greater numbers. Yet such affordances, they argue, also shift the structure of organizing. It is no longer necessary for formal leaderships and social movement organizations to underpin a particular campaign and as such much smaller groups, or indeed individuals, are able to mobilize large numbers of people, a well-supported and convincing claim. They develop their argument to include the power law feature of distributed networks (p 147), the tendency for edges to cluster around nodes exponentially over time, thus affording certain nodes, or individuals or groups, a great amount of leverage. Such a theory 2.0 approach, although not fully theorized in this book, would offer a recourse to critics who argue that what we have is a lazy and fruitless ‘clicktivism’. Rather in theory 2.0 its ease may actually offer a tactical advantage in mobilizing at least a large body of opinion to prominence, because it means the ‘free rider dilemma may no longer apply’ (p. 74).  So in fact one outcome is that even more people are willing to participate and move beyond a closed social movement model in which things like shared identity and trust are constraining features of collective action.

However, there are limitations in the book with regard to the very purpose and object of activism. Most of the examples used and empirical material sourced is about the mechanisms of mobilization itself without a strong sense of the political, economic or social context. Indeed there is a limited address to official processes of influence in actually existing representative democracies. This is certainly true of the majority of e-tactics, given their particular form. Likewise the separation of e-mobilization into a distinct category of action, the form that would be more likely applicable to activism outside of official modes of transmission for the democratic will over therefore discounted.  Neither is there address to forms of action understood as ‘hacktivism’ or forms of action aimed at developing technological affordances themselves. This becomes doubly problematic when we consider the use of term ‘mobilization’. The power to be ‘mobile’ is inherent in mobilizing in the strong sense of affecting political change against a dominant regime outside ‘official’ channels. None of ‘e-mobilization’ ‘e-movements’ or ‘e-tactics’ appear to capture the dynamics of the most potent recent events that have swept the world, the Arab Spring, the occupy movements, the student protests around the world are all leveraging mobile technology using ubiquitous Internet connectivity to organize on the fly in real time on the streets. The focus on e-tactics I suspect underplays the significance of the production of space and control in more radical challenges to actually existing regimes, and ignores the traversing of the gap between what Manuel Castells refers to as the ‘space of flows’ and ‘space of places’.  While the notion of a ‘theory 2.0’ is useful to identify the need for a distinct understanding of Web activism, isolating this from underlying political and economic conditions and reducing much of the explanation down to a calculus between cost and affordance is too limited. It excludes a significant number of factors such as shifting patterns of labor, the growth and modes of resistance to neo-liberal governmentally, the role of networks in expanding publics of shared interests and the construction of shared values and mutual support systems alongside new collective spaces of resistance.  Thus when Earl and Kimport argue that, ‘the spaces in which participation and organizing occur are also being decoupled’ (p 182) perhaps the events of the last year would lead to re-thinking such a claim and the links between e-tactics, e-mobilization and ‘theory 2.0’ adapted accordingly.


Filed under Digital Media in Activism, Essay Dialogues

2 responses to “Framing Digital Activism – On The Value and Limits of a Taxonomy of Mobilization

  1. Pingback: Framing Digital Activism – On The Value and Limits of a Taxonomy of Mobilization « Learning Change

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