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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

activism for activism: the necessary locality of tactical knowledge

yesterday, Richard MacManus from ReadWriteWeb interviewed Mary Joyce about the founding of her new meta-activism project. the idea is, in short, that most activist strategies were based on social and technological (technosocial?) conditions before the advent of mass digital communication. however, these strategies must be radically altered to enable what's being called digital activism. the focus of the meta-activism project, then, is to provide potential digital activists with the knowledge, tools, and tactics necessary to make full use of these novel technologies.

this seems like a rather sensible goal, depending on how it's accomplished. yes, it makes sense that tools for digital activism require new strategies and tactics; to some extent, this is the "more is different" argument about digital/social media. however, it seems that such tactics would also need to be grounded in local contexts. the same digital activism tactics that work with incredible efficacy in, say, Iran may fail entirely in Egypt, or the US, or anywhere else. I feel that a major portion of this project should be focused on situating digital activism in local cultural, political, social, and historical contexts, and on understanding how those contexts interrelated with the success or failure of given efforts.

speaking of success and failure, in the interview, Mary is pretty candid about how effective this digital activism has been, noting that "few cases of digital activism are actual successes." she goes further, noting the difficulty of even assessing success. is a campaign successful if it mobilizes a sufficient number of people (in which cases, what constitutes a sufficient number)? is it successful if it achieves its stated goal? by either criterion, few such campaigns succeed, and it's only a minute portion that achieve success in the latter terms of actually affecting change. this brings up a point I've wondered about often: why do some online social movements succeed, and why do some fail? there have been tons of studies of success stories, but I feel like these need to be complemented with studies of the failures, perhaps focusing on campaigns that succeeded in mobilizing large numbers of people but still failed to achieve their goals (if anyone knows of such work, feel free to point me in the right direction).

another point Mary made caught my attention. she described how, for a digital technology to be highly useful, it needs both scale and "use neutrality" (even she uses scare quotes around that phrase). by scale, she means simply that there must be a critical mass of users (again, what constitutes a "critical mass" is likely a topic for some debate). by "use neutral," she means that the technology "can be easily co opted, that its architecture can facilitate a wide variety of interactions and does not dictate the content of hosted files." she cites YouTube, Blogger, Facebook, and Twitter as use neutral, while she says LastFM and Bloglines are not.

I think I have to disagree with use neutrality, both on a terminological level and on a conceptual level. first, none of the tools she has described are use neutral; each is designed for a specific set of use cases. Twitter is not conducive to long, thoughtful, complex argumentation in a way that blogger would be. Facebook cannot host videos the way that YouTube can. however, I will admit that LastFM has a much more focused, constrained set of use cases than, say, Facebook. furthermore, these tools are anything but neutral. the ontological categories invoked by tools such as Facebook (friends, networks, feeds, etc.) privilege a certain type of configuration between the individual and society, and arguing that these tools have use neutrality distracts from the social, political, and cultural (not to mention philosophical and epistemological) commitments made in their design.

I think the point is not that these tools have "use neutrality," but rather "use plasticity." that is, while a tool such as Facebook or Twitter has a certain intended use, the tool is flexible enough, plastic enough, that it can be adapted to serve a variety of purposes in a variety of contexts. and again, we're back to what I think is the crux of the interesting issue here: how are these various tools repurposed and adapted to local contexts, and how do those processes of repurposing and adaptation change the tool (and, reflexively, the context) in ways that enable a digital activism campaign to succeed (or prevent it from succeeding)? synthesizing across different instances of the interplay between the plasticity of digital/social media seems like it could be a highly advantageous approach for enabling efforts such as the meta-activism project to make a real, significant contribution to understanding digital activism.

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