Maybe you’re better off not holding hands and singing We Shall Overcome

By Francesca Polletta

Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport wade into the debate over the role of the Internet in contemporary social movements with a provocative claim: the Internet is ushering in a new repertoire of protest. In this repertoire, mobilizations are sporadic rather than deep-rooted and enduring. Protests flare up, gather huge numbers to the cause, and then fade away—sometimes to reemerge, other times not. More people participate than in earlier repertoires, and they do so for diverse reasons: because they care passionately about the cause or because they’re mildly concerned; because they believe that protest will be effective or because they just want to express themselves. Targets are diverse and issues are too. There are few clear dividing lines between politics and, variously, leisure, consumption, and popular culture: people may use the same tactics to protest the war in Iraq and the cancellation of their favorite TV show.  And movement organizations are becoming obsolete: protests are often organized by small groups, “lone wolves,” or participants who never even meet each other.

What makes this picture so compelling is not only that it is grounded in extensive and meticulous data on activists’ use of new digital media, but also that it builds on three decades of social movement theory and research. Much of that work is still valuable, the authors say, if (and this is an important if) we recognize that two of what movement scholars have treated as constants are in fact variables. One, we have tended to assume that protest is costly. It is hard to do and hard to organize. And two, we have assumed that people must be co-present in space and time to have the sense of togetherness that drives protest. The Internet has thrown into question both those assumptions. It is not that protest is never costly, nor that protest never benefits from gathering people in one place. Rather, Earl and Kimport argue that insofar as activists are in a position to take advantage of the Internet’s capacity to reduce costs and the need for co-presence, they may simply not need the things that movement scholars have always thought they needed: mobilizing networks, collective identity, abiding passions, and organization. A single organizer can mobilize huge numbers of people who do not know each other, do not meet, and have little in common other than the fact that they have five minutes to sign a petition or send an email in support of a cause that they think (at that moment and perhaps upon not much in the way of reflection) is worthy.

Earl and Kimport’s data is from 2006, and, as they point out, predates the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. So does their argument pass the test of time? How well does it illuminate protest since 2006? Pretty well. We have seen fast, large, and brief mobilizations in places as far flung as Maldova, Iran, and China. Pro-democracy protests in Iran in 2009 generated a world-wide Twitter following–until an avalanche of feeds about Michael Jackson’s death crashed the site.  We have seen mobilizations around a variety of issues outside the purview of traditional movement studies: around Google’s name change in China, Facebook privacy settings in the United States, music downloading restrictions in a number of countries, delays experienced by airline passengers, new bank fees for customers, and so on.  In 2008, fully three quarters of online community members who responded to the Annenberg School’s Digital Futures survey said they used the Internet to participate in “communities related to social causes” (up 30 percent from 2006). Yet only eleven percent called their groups political. The same blurring of leisure activities and political ones appears in Maria Bakardjieva’s[i] 2009 study of Internet use in Calgary. The people she interviewed had no idea what she was talking about when she asked them if they used the Internet for purposes of “civic engagement.” And yet the social groups in which they participated enthusiastically online—groups devoted to things like parenting, pets, and jogging—often engaged in online activism around environmentalism, animal rights, and federal day care funding.

How about the two most recent movements to occupy the international center stage—the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements? The picture here is more complicated. On one hand, much about these movements harkens back to an earlier repertoire of protest. Participation has been costly in terms of time, energy, comfort, and even basic safety. The physical co-presence of large numbers of participants and the physical occupation of public space has been central to both movements. What would the Egyptian Revolution have been without Tahrir Square? And what would the Occupy movement be without the original encampment in Zucotti Park (and in all the other cities in which the movement is now active)? Far from organized by lone wolves, both movements have relied on extensive organizational networks and, in the case of the Occupy movements, a cumbersome system of radically democratic decision making that requires that substantial numbers of people be together in one place at one time. And the movements’ goals of freedom, democracy, and an equitable distribution of wealth seem about as twentieth century as one can get.

On the other hand, new digital media have been vital to both movements. Blog entries and Facebook posts, Twitter feeds and cellphone videos posted to Youtube were used not only to spread information and coordinate logistics but also to build the collective identity that transformed one man’s self-immolation in Tunisia and one small group of sit-inners in Lower Manhattan into international movements.  To make sense of these dynamics, I think we have to push Earl and Kimport’s argument further. On the topic of collective identity, the authors are a little confusing. Sometimes they say that, in the era of the Internet, physical co-presence may not be necessary to forging the collective identity that fuels protest. But sometimes they say that collective identity may not be necessary to protest. Maybe they are right, but I want to propose an alternative. Perhaps digital media may foster a new kind of collective identity—a virtual one—that is in some ways more effectively mobilizing than the kind of collective identity forged in church basements and college dorm lounges by people holding hands and singing We Shall Overcome.

Social psychological research on identity has shown that, while in some circumstances, being able to see other members of your group strengthens your sense of collective identity, and makes you more likely to cooperate with them, in other circumstances, visibility does not have that effect (see, e.g. the 2007 paper by Martin Lea and colleagues in the European Journal of Social Psychology[ii]). To the contrary, when it comes to cooperating with people whose identity is not visually obvious, for example, their nationality or their political allegiance, you are more likely to feel a common bond if you do not see them. Why? Because people have multiple identities. The less anonymous the people with whom you are interacting, the more likely you are to be distracted by other things about them than the one identity you share. You’re more likely to notice the things that make them not like you.

So a collective identify forged online may be mobilizing precisely insofar is it is virtual, and therefore partial and even ambiguous. Perhaps what Phillip Howard and colleagues call the “freedom meme” that spread from Tunisia throughout the region by way of Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube was so effective in part because telling stories of success and difficulty online made them seem more alike than different (see Howard et. Al’s “Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring?” at http://pitpi.org/). In the case of the Occupy movements, consider not the small number of people camped out, but the much larger number of people supporting them, who come to the protest site for a rally, or make a donation online, or send a petition supporting activists’ right to remain on the site. These people share a sense of collective identity with the protesters, one they have gained from blog entries, Facebook posts, Youtube videos, online newspaper stories, and television reports. Would that sense of collective identity be stronger if potential supporters spent substantial time interacting with the protesters in the Occupy site? Perhaps a middle-aged administrative assistant or a building trades union member would appreciate the radicalism of many young occupiers, would enjoy the long conversations about veganism, anarchism, and legalizing marijuana, would find compelling the long meetings and the endless drumming. But perhaps not. Digital media may make possible an imagined community that is in some ways closer to what supporters want it to be than what it really is. The virtual character of the community makes it easier to project your aspirations onto it.

Interestingly, the virtual character of the community may also make it easier to project anxieties onto it. I say this because I think it speaks to whether e-tactics are effective, something Earl and Kimport don’t talk much about (aside from suggesting that the fleeting nature of Internet fueled mobilizations may make them more effective against specific policies than in winning more structural reforms). They do repeatedly refer to the “impressive numbers” racked up by e-petitions and email campaigns. But what do those numbers mean? Does a music company executive get an e-petition signed by 20,000 people calling for free music downloading and think, “We’re in trouble now”–or does she think, “That’s a tiny fraction of the 20 million people who watched American Idol last night. Why should I care?”

I suspect that targets often do not know what to make of the numbers of e-petition signatures or Facebook group members or Twitter feeds. And that uncertainty can serve activists well. One source of ambiguity has to do with what signing the petition means. Maybe people signed it because it was easy to do so, but if the petition is ignored, will they take more drastic action? Will a significant portion of the 5,000 bank customers who signed an e-petition against new ATM fees now pick up and move their accounts to another bank? Another source of uncertainty lies in just whom those 3,000 represent. Are they the sum total of discontent or the tip of the iceberg? Finally, is 3,000 an impressive number to reporters who may or may not choose to make it a story? To be sure, what the numbers mean will likely become clearer as e-tactics become institutionalized, returning some advantage to the targets of protest.

Contra Earl and Kimport, then, I’m suggesting that collective identity continues to be important to a new digital repertoire of contention, but a very different kind of collective identity, whose virtual character is a strength rather than a liability.


[i] Bakardjieva, M. 2009. “Subactivism: Lifeworld and Politics in the Age of the Internet.” The Information Society 25:91.

[ii] Lea, M. 2007. “Visibility and Anonymity Effects on Attraction and Group Cohesiveness.” European Journal of Social Psychology 37:761.

5 Comments

Filed under Digital Media in Activism, Essay Dialogues

5 responses to “Maybe you’re better off not holding hands and singing We Shall Overcome

  1. Pingback: mobilizing ideas « orgtheory.net

  2. An interesting take on collective identity in online space has been put forth by a team from MIT working on the image board 4chan. The site eschews explicit identity of any specific individual (it is, in fact, most likely the birthplace of what is now known as “Anonymous”) and encourages a fostering of collective identity surrounding norms and etiquette of the site.

    While for most of the history of the site, members didn’t engage in on-the-ground social movement activity, they were the originators of some of the coordinated DDoS attacks and pranks surrounding certain individuals. The paper’s worth a look: http://projects.csail.mit.edu/chanthropology/

  3. Pingback: Berkeley Journal of Sociology: Understanding Occupy | Occupy | Decolonize | Liberate

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  5. Pingback: Essays, speeches,lectures and analysis about Occupy Wall Street Movement | siadjnu

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