Point-and-Click Social Change?

This post first appeared on the Mobilizing Ideas blog, which is hosted by the Center for the Study of Social Movement at the University of Notre Dame.

“Technologies don’t inevitably lead to specific social or political changes. Instead, people’s uses of technologies – sometimes mundane, and sometimes widely innovative – lead to (different kinds of) social and political changes…. We should expect the social and technological effects of Web usage to vary because how people use the web in social change efforts varies” (Earl and Kimport 2011: 31-32).

We like to believe in the power of social movements. It is satisfying to think that a relatively small group of people can band together and, quite literally, change the world for the better. However, as Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport point out in their new book the importance of movements and the organizations that animate them are up for grabs in the digital era.

Digitally Enabled Social Change is an important book for many reasons. Among them, the authors bring together and make theoretical sense of disparate (and sometimes downright conflicting) literatures with ease and, more importantly, unite this work under a “leveraging affordances” approach. Simply stated, Earl and Kimport argue that Internet Communication Technology (ICT) is an affordance that individuals and groups can leverage with more or less skill to achieve a goal. The theoretical approach is elegant, utilitarian, and, at the same time, points to a host of new challenges scholars must confront in their efforts to study contemporary movements. Here, I briefly outline three.

  1. We have to change how we think about collective action and participation. When we envision collective action, we rarely think of a business woman shooting an email off between meetings or a father bouncing a baby on his knee while he patiently sends a fax to each member of the House of Representatives. However, we should. While, indeed, collective action still involves public gathering and protest, Earl and Kimport point out that the modern repertoire of contention is markedly differently than the past. The Web and ICT foster innovation, which makes things that scholars have traditionally treated as constant (such as how tactics are related to movements) far more variable. Understood this way, collective action that seems short-lived or that takes place in the privacy on one’s home is relevant to social movement research. Let me use the ongoing Occupy Tallahassee as an example. Like many of the Occupy movements, Occupy Tallahassee is using a website and Facebook to announce and coordinate its activities. One concern for Occupiers has been the solicitation (and receipt) of donations, which generally are requests for toilet paper, food and water. A coordinator posts the request on the group’s website and supporters can fulfill the request. What is interesting here is who is taking up the call – people with small children or who work full time. Folks, in other words, who want to be a part of the movement but cannot Occupy Tallahassee because of other demands. Savvy activists effectively use new technology to circumvent the problem of availability and, more importantly, provide ways for activists of all stripes to get politically involved. While making a lasagna in order to help fuel the challenge against the consolidation of power in the United States may not fit traditional conceptualizations of collective action, it makes perfect sense in the contemporary era. Scholars would be wise to pay attention because clearly activism is not just on the proverbial front lines anymore.
  2. The Web and ICT has uses beyond the instrumental. While some students of social movements were quick to classify new technology as simply another tool available to activists, Earl and Kimport argue that the potential of ICT is much greater. Although much of the book focuses on “supersizing” effects versus “model” changes, the authors point out that ICT can play an important role in other movement processes such as the cultivation and maintenance of collective identity.  Similarly, the web can be used to cultivate specific emotions among movement supporters. I have observed this in my research on the Tea Party Movement in the state of Florida. The ability to control how people interact in an online movement-controlled setting has implications for how leaders manage the emotions of its membership. Leaders can create forums that circumscribe the emotions relevant to a movement.  Social media sites, discussion boards, and email all provide ways for supporters to connect with one another under the watchful eye of movement leadership. Leaders can moderate these discussions and publicly sanction appropriate (and rebuke inappropriate) emotional expression. Moreover, leaders can use Internet Communication Technology (ICT) to deploy emotions that will broaden the movement’s public appeal and, ultimately, strengthen its political position.
  3. ICT makes outcomes as elusive as ever. We need he contemporary era there are a lot of variability. ICT Skill and intent of ICT. Geography (online action can be enough). All affects the ever-elusive outcome variable.

– and undoubtedly will alter how scholars think about the role of ICT and collective behavior.

In the new digital landscape, goals are nebulous and, as a result, the tools available to individuals advocating change infinitely more powerful. However, the book should also be read as a cautionary tale: Ye who has money and some technological wherewithal it well positioned to win the political game.

Beyond the scope of their book, ICT can expand the advantages of what is currently being called the 1%. Economic might to mobilize around can  produce flash activism and keep it that way.

This technological moment, we learn, is rife with pitfall and possibility.

About Double take Sociology

I am a Professor of Sociology, a Research Associate in the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy, and an Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Community Engagement in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. I research (and write about) social movements, mass media and politics. To find links to my research, visit www.DeanaRohlinger.com.
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