Mundane internet tools and political mobilization

For some time, I’ve been developing the argument that when we want to understand the role of internet technologies in politics—in particular when it comes to getting people involved in electoral campaigns, in various forms of activism, and in other forms of civic and political activity—we should focus less on the newest and most heavily hyped tool of the moment (Twitter election! Twitter revolution!) and pay more attention to the role of what I call “mundane internet tools” like email, search, and ordinary websites.

New Media & Society has published the article where I make the argument, based on ethnographic research I did during the 2008 U.S. elections, but based on intuitions and interests aroused by previous research in the 2007 U.S. presidential primaries (published by the Journal of Information Technology & Politics here).

The abstract runs as follows:

The internet’s potential for political mobilization has been highlighted for more than a decade, but we know little about what particular kinds of information and communication technologies are most important when it comes to getting people involved in politics and about what this means for the active exercise of engaged citizenship. On the basis of ethnographic research in two congressional campaigns in the USA, I will argue that specific mundane internet tools (like email) are much more deeply integrated into mobilizing practices today than emerging tools (like social networking sites) and specialized tools (like campaign websites). Campaigns’ reliance on mundane internet tools challenges the prevalent idea that sophisticated ‘hypermedia’ turn people into ‘managed citizens’. Instead, I suggest we theorize internet-assisted activism as a process for the coproduction of citizenship and recognize how dependent even well-funded political organizations are on the wider built communications environment and today’s relatively open internet.

The notion of “mundane internet tools” is part of an empirical and relational typology distinguishing between mundane, emerging, and specialized internet tools—these are not properties of the tools themselves, but of patterns of use and degrees of familiarity, which of course change over time, between places, and across social groups. Tools are not causes of social actions, but parts of socio-technical action, things that help us do some things, hinder others, and are integral to how we live, act, and see ourselves—this is also how I hope people will think of the role of social networking sites and other technologies in the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, not as causes, or as irrelevant, but as tools (for protesters, though sometimes also for security forces)—in North Africa, even with a less than open internet, some of those involved in recent events certainly seemed to produce their own role as active citizens partially through the use of everyday tools and technologies.

Stressing the importance of mundane internet tools in processes of political mobilization (really one should include mobile phones in this, something I hope to research more in the future) does not mean that these tools are the most important internet technologies for all political processes (fundraising, PR, etc) let alone all social processes (online banking, open software development), or in all contexts (think ‘digital divide’).

My argument is simply that even in countries like the United States, where I did my research, which has high levels of internet access and use, and plenty of money plus professional expertise in politics, the oft-discussed “mobilizing potential” of the internet is mostly realized in practice where campaign staffers and volunteers trying to get more people to participate “meet them where they are.” People get involved in politics in many ways, amongst them via the various online (and offline!) platforms that are already part and parcel of their everyday life—whereas newfangled emerging tools and specialized platforms owned and operated by campaigns themselves in general seem to play a more modest role. Some politicians—in the U.S. most notably President Obama and Sarah Palin—have managed to leverage their high profile and charisma to generate a large community around themselves and their own profiles.

But most politicians and political campaigns still labor in the shadows of popular indifference (for instance on Twitter and even Facebook), and should not assume that people come to them—if one want them to be involved, one needs to mobilize and organize them, one at a time, on their terms, using their tools. Every elected official trying to capture the so-called “Obama effect” by purchasing this or that technological solution used by his 2008 campaign should have a sign in their office reminding them “you are not Barack Obama.” And they should never think they can become something like what he was in 2008 simply by buying some gadget—hence the suggestion they and the people who work for them—if they are genuinely committed to getting folks involved and building a movement for change—start elsewhere, try to meet people where they are, and go from there.

(cross-posted to Politics in Spires)

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3 responses to “Mundane internet tools and political mobilization

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