Digital Change-making: New Sources of Power and Hybrid Realities

By Jennifer Earl

I began researching digital protest during the 2000 Presidential Election by studying the strategic voting movement with Alan Schussman. Despite the invention and popularity of new platforms (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) and the expansion of mobile computing, most of what my collaborators and I have learned over the last decade and half reinforces the odd and unexpected findings that motivated Alan and I to push on sixteen years ago. Thus, instead of remarking on something that has changed in the last five years, as I was invited to do, I want to reinforce and amplify two shifts that have become ever more apparent over the last five years but have be applicable all along: (1) the importance of recognizing that flash activism is built on a different model of influence and power than traditional activism, and (2) the importance of recognizing the hybridity between online and offline life.


Flash Activism: It’s a New (Additional) Source of Influence

Five years ago, Katrina Kimport and I were honored by having our book, Digitally Enabled Social Change, be the focus of the inaugural Dialogue on Mobilizing Ideas and even more deeply honored by the thoughtfulness of the commentators who discussed our work and the shifts that were occurring as Internet and social media use became a more pervasive part of protest and social movements. I recall feeling that it was appropriate that this dialogue would take place as part of the launch of a new blog, which was challenging the status quo of scholarly communications: academics were going to write for one another about immediately important topics in short, non-peer reviewed form.

I see important parallels between digital change efforts and Mobilizing Ideas (MI). MI has demonstrated the value of academic writing and conversation that is immediate and timely. It did not replace Mobilization, Research in Conflicts, Social Movements, and Change, or Social Movement Studies—scholars didn’t decide to not publish in those venues because they could publish on the blog. Rather, it offered additional space for thinking and conversation. Not only did it not displace traditional publication venues, it allowed us to get to know and hear the voices of some young scholars earlier and more fully than if we had to wait for them to extensively publish in peer reviewed journals.

Just as MI added capacity into the scholarly world and has contributed to our community by developing another way to drive conversations and thinking, so too does digital protest represent a new model of power and influence. One of arguments that is central to my work on digital protest, but I have been less pointedly clear about than I could be, is that flash activism, such as signing online petitions or engaging in other ephemeral protest engagements, represents a new model of influence and power. Its power is analogous to the power of a flash flood, not the influence of persistent erosion. It is the massive and destabilizing mobilization of so many that happens so quickly that is the lever of power for flash activism, not its persistence. Flash activism represents a new kind of weapon in the quiver for change: it can be a productive and effective end unto itself, even though this disrupts our prior collective assumption that only sustained pressure can ever create change.

To be sure, sustained pressure has an important place in creating change. But, my collaborators and my work suggests that sustained pressure is not the only way to make change. Moreover, recognizing that sustained challenge is no longer the only model of power in town offers so many new opportunities: it allows activists to consider when quick and massive mobilizations can be effective; it allows new people and concerns to flow into activism; it allows campaigns to have an immediacy and timeliness that is hard to achieve in other formats; and it is something that many people who will never attend an offline protest—no matter how much other activists or scholars wish they would—will do.


Hybridity in Other Organizing Processes

Nearly three weeks have passed since the 2016 Presidential Election. During that time, protesters have soldiered on at Standing Rock, people who have never been politically active before have tried to find ways to become active, kids who felt removed from politics have made internal commitments to vote in 2020, and many millions of us have mourned, worried, and thought deeply about resistance.

All of this has happened online and offline. Photos and accounts from Standing Rock have flowed through social media, driving traditional media coverage and potentially additional support for the Protectors. Facebook groups such as Pantsuit Nation have simultaneously spread information about organizing to the already active and connected and emboldened people who have never been politically active before. Kids have gone online to learn, share, and figure out how to participate in a world that badly needs their leadership. Some have removed Facebook accounts to protest fake news, some have taken a Facebook hiatus because they are too raw, and some have shared and mobilized on Facebook and elsewhere.

While I do argue that flash activism represents a new model of power, and that specific tactics like online petitions can take advantage of that new source of power precisely because uniquely digital affordances can be leveraged, I do not want to suggest that this is the only way that change-making is affected by the use of digital tools. Rather, well-known social movement processes such as awareness raising, framing, micro-mobilization, the development and maintenance of collective identity, and repression, all are happening in a world in which the digital is embedded in the physical and the two have become increasingly inseparable. So, as much as we need to understand the new model of power represented by flash activism, we need to also work to understand how the use of digital technologies is affecting how we engage in more traditional forms of activism and engagement. Let me put it more bluntly: researchers studying contemporary activism should no longer assume that the digital is separate from their case, representing a specialty concern in the literature. Instead, we must seek to understand how digital technologies are implicated in processes key to traditional activism.

To me, these two claims seem obvious: (1) online flash activism represents a new and distinct source of power and influence, and (2) digital technology use more broadly is deeply embedded in virtually all of the processes we study about traditional activism. But, after sixteen years of working on this subject, I am well aware that both of these claims are revolutionary to some, heretical to others, and challenging to us all. Indeed, acknowledging either of these collectively would leave indelible marks on how we study change-making in the twentieth first century. What we must to do to understand “digital protest” has not changed much since I started studying it sixteen years ago, but the urgency of doing so and the unavoidable losses associated with not taking the digital—in both ways—seriously, has grown markedly.


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