Digitally Enabled Social Change

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* Book: Digitally Enabled Social Change. Activism in the Internet Age. Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport. MIT Press, 2011



"Much attention has been paid in recent years to the emergence of "Internet activism," but scholars and pundits disagree about whether online political activity is different in kind from more traditional forms of activism. Does the global reach and blazing speed of the Internet affect the essential character or dynamics of online political protest? In Digitally Enabled Social Change, Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport examine key characteristics of Web activism and investigate their impacts on organizing and participation.

Earl and Kimport argue that the Web offers two key affordances relevant to activism: sharply reduced costs for creating, organizing, and participating in protest; and the decreased need for activists to be physically together in order to act together. A rally can be organized and demonstrators recruited entirely online, without the cost of printing and mailing; an activist can create an online petition in minutes and gather e-signatures from coast to coast using only her laptop. Drawing on evidence from samples of online petitions, boycotts, and letter-writing and e-mailing campaigns, Earl and Kimport show that the more these affordances are leveraged, the more transformative the changes to organizing and participating in protest; the less these affordances are leveraged, the more superficial the changes. The rally organizers, for example, can save money on communication and coordination, but the project of staging the rally remains essentially the same. Tools that allow a single activist to create and circulate a petition entirely online, however, enable more radical changes in the process. The transformative nature of these changes, Earl and Kimport suggest, demonstrate the need to revisit long-standing theoretical assumptions about social movements."


"As we have shown, flash activism… is not about a steady and long stream of contention. Instead, it is about the effectiveness of overwhelming, rapid, but short-lived contention….

On the participant’s side, there has never before been an opportunity to be a five-minute activist who navigates between participating in an e-tactic, checking Facebook, and doing job-related work on a computer. There have only been opportunities to spend hours or more coming together with people and put oneself in harm’s way…

We expect that the ease of participation,, then, could produce quick rushes of participation when a call for participation is made. Further, these rushes of participation don’t require high relative participation rates…. Given that this is true, it is possible to have both flash-style activism and varying levels of activity by any given potential participant. If potential participants have time one day and not the next, mobilizations can go forward as long as some people have some time each day….

…[S]ince the central tools needed to create e-tactics are usually software routines and databases, not the knowledge inside long-term activists’ minds, e-tactic organizing is easy to shut off and restart later, unlike traditional organizing…. Instead of SMOs [Social Movement Organizations], flash drives might hold the organizing blueprints (through archived Web pages and software) that allow online protest actions to be remounted in the future…. [S]tarting a second petition is no harder years after a first one than it would be the next day…. [W]hy not just shut off a movement and turn it back on later? Why not organize around something that is short term? Why not organize whenever the time seems right and not organize when it doesn’t seem so? Without social movement activists to support, there can be real on and off switches that perhaps have fewer repercussions to a campaign’s ability to mobilize."

About the Authors

Jennifer Earl is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Katrina Kimport is a Research Sociologist with ANSIRH, part of the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco.

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