The Problem with the notion of “Digital Activism”

Malcolm Gladwell’s recent, pithy, and much-discussed provocative piece “Small Change” in the New Yorker adds another voice to the growing choir of people basically arguing that new information and communication technologies like social media hold little promise for activism.

The main problem with Gladwell’s argument, as I see it, is that he in his haste to dismiss all notions of radical change ends up accepting the sharp and simplistic dichotomy between (supposedly proper, serious, and dignified) offline activism and (one is to understand, ineffective, frivolous, and slightly silly) digital activism.

This is a simple inversion of the very rhetoric he seems interested in countering, and as technologically determinist as the most deluded cyber-evangelist. Instead of offering a distinction between effective technologically-empowered digital activism and ineffective old-fashioned analogue activism, Gladwell is simply arguing that the optimists got it wrong, digital activism is what is ineffective, analogue activism what works.

But what if the central intellectual problem here is not whether digital or analogue activism is more effective, but the very terms of this debate? I’d suggest that we need to move beyond this distinction between old school analogue activism and “digital activism,” stop labelling things on the basis of the presence or absence of a single set of tools. (Would anyone in their right mind try to reduce the French revolution to an instance of “coffee house” or “print activism”? Both cafes and gazettes were integral to the revolution, but hardly its master traits.)

We need to understand that media and communications technologies and tools are important parts of activism, without sliding into thinking they are the only, or even the most important, parts of activism. This is what I have, perhaps too glibly, called “digital politics as usual” (see my contribution to this book and my forthcoming article on the role of mundane internet tools in political campaigns)–a situation where activism is still first and foremost activism, and needs to be understood as such, but where digital tools begin to supplement and sometimes supplant other tools used for collective action.

I’d suggest simply that we should think of activism as a practice—and then evaluate to what extend individual acts of activism are more or less assisted by a range of different tools and technologies, some digital, some not, and assess what the implications are, not only in terms of effect, but also in terms of democracy, equality, sustainability, etc, and then try to determine what kinds of opportunities specific communications environments afford activists.

Sasha Constanza-Chock put it best in one of the many email exchanges sparked by Gladwell’s article, and I’m sure he won’t mind that I quote his recommendation: “Start from the social movement, then ask ‘how is this movement using ICTs, from old to new, to achieve its goals?’” Amen.


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