The Challenges of Online-Assisted Organizing

‘Social Movements 2.0’, an article by Brendan Smith, Tim Costello, and Jeremy Brecher from Global Labor Strategies in the last issue of The Nation, presents a good, skeptical, and practically grounded take on the challenges facing online-assisted activism today.

They rightly point out that organizing 2.0 isn’t fundamentally different from organizing 1.0 in terms of the logics at play–social movements have always been about networking, the articulation of shared points of identification, and the definition of shared goals. What is different is that more and more social relations have technical components. The web is becoming a mundane technology, and just as we don’t distinguish between mail- and telephone-organizing, we shouldn’t distinguish between offline- and online organizing per se, but see off- and online pratices as modules that need to work together.

They also point to the fact that increasingly internet-assisted organizing is dependent on tools that are under a mixture of state and commercial control, control exercised mainly from the commanding heights of the post-industrial world, i.e., the U.S. and the European Union. That’s not a problem if a movement is engaged in non-transgressive action or is organizing against a technologically inept and resource-poor authoritarian regime. But if it is up against the powers that be in the Western world, the promise of online tools may be compromised (the article offers examples), and just as many movements in the past found it necessary to found their own papers and develop their own networks for the dissemination of mail, some movements will need to think about their potential dependence on Facebook and other corporate platforms.

I like and respect the work of Clay Shirky, the main source for many of the five advantages of new media that they point out in the article. They basically are that various internet elements afford (1) group formation, (2) scale and amplification, (3) interactivity, (4) the destruction of hierarchies, and (5) low-cost organizing through cheap tools.

I will only add here, as I have argued before, that it is crucial to keep in mind that all five affordances are double-edged, in that they carry their own associated costs. Even if the barriers to entry are coming down, we have to recognize that they whole economics of communications seems to be changing, and that that involves new challenges as well as promises.

So what are the liabilities that come with the five affordances? (1) larger groups generates more internal communications, which requires processing or can generate problems and friction, and lower barriers to group-formation encourage fragmentation, why build a rainbow-coalition when we can apparently each have our own group with little overhead? (2) amplification generates more communication, which again face the limitations of the attention economy, (3) interactivity, and the expectation of interactivity, generates further transaction costs, (4) hierarchies and old heritage institutions, even within movements themselves, are unlikely to walk quietly into the night, and will fight back, generating new problems, and (5) cheap tools means that no one feels obliged to chose and stick to one platform, generating a curious form of fragmentation peculiar to cheap communications platforms, where people use multiple platforms at once without coordinating effectively.

This discussion is not about being a techno-utopian or a techno-pessimist, but about techno-realism, carefully considering the variable practical implications for organizing of our increasingly technically augmented social life.

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