Student Protests and Cascades

Students protestin' in Teh Jerz

One of the signs of a progress in a field of study is when you can take events and evaluate them against competing theories of the social universe. In current studies of digital activism, we are theorizing from cases, often without bothering to check the historical record to see whether digital media can be credited with whatever is being attributed to it.

Which brings us to the protests organized this week, on Facebook, by New Jersey high school students protesting budget cuts by Republican Governor Chris Christie. These protests were not localized to a single district, or a small cluster of districts, as you might expect in a non-networked world. They spread all over the state, apparently without any serious coordination. Students saw that their friends were joining this group, signaling discontent with state policies, and assuring individuals that if they went out to protest, they would not be alone, at the mercy of administrators who might punish a handful of walkouts but are helpless to take punitive action against hundreds or thousands of students.

As Shirky would argue: organizing without organizations. The speed with which this Facebook group went from one person’s vanity project to a statewide protest event suggests, again, that we need to refine our theories to account for what appear to be cascade or tipping dynamics. What we shouldn’t do is take the newspaper accounts of these protests and say “look I’ve found digital activism!” It might be, it might not be.

What we would have to do, as responsible social scientists, is kick the tires of the past a bit. When was the last time New Jersey faced serious school budget cuts? I’m asking that as an empirical question. Did students protest? If so did those protests spread across the state? We’d have to try to find the network connections, embedded in online social networks, between students at different schools. If there’s one thing we know about Facebook, is it makes “small worlds” even smaller. Connections between individuals in different social clusters allow ideas to travel faster and to reach audiences that either would not have been possible in the past, or would have taken days or weeks of organizing. And who organizes high school students, exactly? They aren’t exactly on the UAW’s radar.

Facebook here appears to be facilitating precisely the kind of action we most hope to see: demands for justice, transparency, and voice for a group of people who are completely marginalized and without power, typically with zero say in their own learning conditions. But again, if we’r’e going to make the claim, we have to do the harder work of investigation.

Learning from Terrorism Studies: How to Defeat Anecdote

by Mary Joyce

A decade ago, academics began to study a crucially important type of extra-institutional political behavior: terrorism. As always, government response did not wait on rigorous analysis. A week after the September 11th attacks, President Bush announced the cause of terrorism: the fundamental inconsistency of values (“they hate our freedom”), and a policy prescription: global war. Neither reflected the underlying mechanics of terrorism and, as a result, America’s war on terror has been largely ineffective and even counterproductive.

In many ways, digital activism and terrorism represent the two poles of extra-institutional political action: the former eschews violence as ineffective and unethical while the other embraces it as critical to victory. Yet both digital activism and terrorism studies seek to bring analytical rigor to the understanding of contemporary political phenomena.

Like the field of digital activism, the field of terrorism studies is overrun by anecdote. A recent New Yorker article by Nicholas Lemann of the Columbia School of Journalism noted that terrorism:

“takes place constantly, all over the world, in conflict zones and in big cities, in more or less developed countries – one can find an example of just about every anti-terrorist tactic working (or failing to).”

The quote could equally be a reference to the anecdotal rut that digital activism finds itself in, a state of affairs that scholar and activist Patrick Meier has called “anecdotal heaven or data scarcity hell.”

In the field of terrorism studies, the response to inconclusive anecdote was to turn isolated case studies into exhaustive comparable data sets by using a universal coding standard. The political scientist Robert Pape of the University of Chicago built a database of 315 suicide attacks from 1980 to 2003 and was able to conclude that what united these attacks was not ideology but the strategic goal of territorial control. This idea of terrorists as rational actors made its way into the counterinsurgency manual of General David Patraeus, commander of multi-national forces in Iraq.

This method of transforming case studies into comparable data which can yield actionable conclusions for practitioners might also work for digital activism, yet rigor does not mean the end of debate.

Image: New Yorker

Why Digital Activism Matters

On Thursday, President Obama gave a speech to a group of bank executives who collectively make up one of the world’s most powerful economic groups. He was there to scold them for the “failure of responsibility” that precipitated the financial crisis. That day was also Earth Day. Though scarcely recognized, it is meant as a reminder of the unsustainability of much of what constitutes modern life, and the degradation of earth, sea, and air that results. At first glance, these two events might seem unrelated, but they are part of the same nagging voice, telling us in different ways on a daily basis that we need to change the structure of our global society.

The idea that we need to change how the world operates is so daunting that the natural reaction is to deny that it is true. I am not speaking of true denial, of those who say that global warming is a hoax or new financial regulation is unnecessary. I do not think there are many people who believe that anymore. I am talking about denying that the change we need is systemic. I am talking about the desire to believe that we can fix these problems piecemeal, with small reforms here and there, with new oversight bodies, by driving hybrid cars. One reason we cling to these easy answer to answers that maintain the current patterns of our lives is because we do not believe that we can create a truly better world.

Yet to change the world, we need to change one thing: power. Not a transfer of power from one institution to another, or one leader to another, or one party to another, but the dissemination of power among the world’s citizens such that the divide between the most and least powerful is narrowed and no one can act with impunity. This is not a new idea. We have various institutions – such as one man/one vote and equality under the law – that try to enshrine this idea of equality of power, though it has not yet been achieved.

To lessen the power divide in our global society the path is not through the doors of current institutions, which are structured on historic power dynamics. We must instead look at the ground on which those institutions stand and see how the infrastructure beneath them could be made to shift such that the institutions would have no choice but to change. When examining this infrastructure, we should pay close attention to that which is new, which is different, which presents innovative modes of power distribution and creation.

In this day and age, a natural place to look for this new kind of infrastructure is the global digital network that connects ever more of the world’s citizens through the Internet and mobile phones. Here we have an infrastructure that really is new, where anyone on the network can create and publish to a mass audience, where the cost of mass publication approaches zero, where communication is no longer centralized, where people can not only broadcast to their peers on a mass scale, but also coordinate and mobilize interactively, where influence travels among peers through consent, rather than from authority figures through the monopoly of force.

There are many uses of this new infrastructure. Repressive governments are using it to monitor their citizens and businesses are using it to inundate us with increasing levels of advertising. The point is not that this new infrastructure can be used is old ways of course it can. The question is: in what new way can it be used? How can we leverage this low-cost, decentralized, and peer-based infrastructure to challenge the economically-striated, centralized, and hierarchical infrastructure that determines the power dynamic of our modern world?

Digital activism offers the practical means of testing the capacities of this new digital infrastructure to change the global power dynamic. Β Each campaign, each mobilization, each “wiki leak” reveals more of what is possible. The struggle against unequal power is older than history itself. The digital network is just the most recent tool in conquering it. It is also the most powerful such tool we have ever had. Because so much is at stake, it matters that we get digital activism right. It is with the historic importance of digital activism’s role in mind that the Meta-Activism Project carries on its work.

image: Flickr/kevin dooley

Lessons from Neurobiology: Why Speed Matters in Altruism

by Mary Joyce

Probably due to pressure to be more profitable, Wired is fast becoming just another guy culture mag: articles from the current issue include a gadget profile of an electronic lock pick (“who uses it: locksmiths, detectives, military personnel”), a toned abdomen illustrating a new insulin monitor, and tips for geek dads. So I was surprised to find Scott Brown’s thought-provoking article on digital activism and neurobiology.

In “Instant Karma,” Brown writes about how neurobiology influences the likelihood someone will take altruistic action digitally. The example Brown uses is real-time micro-donations which, while certainly still slacktivism, can have real effects: they’re a big part of how Barack Obama made it into the White House.

Brown’s point is that taking altruistic action releases a “congratulatory hit of dopamine” and that when we witness “something awful” we feel an immediate desire to do something altruistic. The problem is that this desire to do good degrades quickly. If you see someone standing by a broken-down car on the side of the road, you may feel the desire to stop and help, but once you whiz by and the person is out of sight, the desire to help passes as well.

This is why speed matters. Brown gives the example of raising money for Haiti and how millions responded to Wyclef Jean’s tweet for donations soon after the earthquake hit and horrifying images were flashed on our TV screens. Alicia Keyes (apparently pop stars are particularly good digital activists) uses a similar technique. She shows videos of needy children on-stage at her concerts and then flashes a short code for donations. Audience members can send money a second after the altruism-inducing stimuli is presented.

The question of how to turn compassion into action is a complicated one, which bloggers like Ethan Zuckerman are trying to parse. The fact that digital technology allows for stimuli and response to be linked in real time is part of the answer, but just a nugget. What I found most interesting about the article is that it pointed me in the direction of another discipline with something to teach digital activism: the field of neurobiology.

The goal of the Meta-Activism Project is to make the field of digital activism smarter. This means looking beyond individual insights (real-time fundraising) to see the bodies of knowledge these insights derive from (neurobiology) and then finding ways to weave those disciplines into the knowledge-building process of digital activism.

Image Source: Leo Espinosa for Wired

Which of These Things is Just Like the Others? : Universality in Digital Activism

by Mary Joyce

In a few days the Meta-Activism Project will launch a splash page for Digital Activism Decoded – the first book about digital activism – which will be available for free download on this site on June 1st. According to the back cover, the book aims to decode “the underlying mechanics of… digital activism.” I’ve referred to the idea of “underlying mechanics” and “foundational knowledge” before in this blog, and identified its exploration as a goal of the Meta-Activism Project, but I’ve never defended its existence. Why should we believe that digital activism phenomena have a single set of underlying mechanics? How would the existence of these underlying mechanics be useful to the field?

First, a definition – “underlying mechanics” are equivalent to universality – the idea that different phenomena can exhibit fundamental similarities. In the field of network science, explains researcher Duncan Watts, this means that friendship groups, financial markets, and magnets can all exhibit the same networks dynamics even though they are also quite different from each other. In biology this means that plankton, pterodactyls, and bunny rabbits share similarities of cell biology, evolution through natural selection, and carbon-based chemistry even though they are also quite different in appearance and anatomy.

The value of universality, according the Dr. Watts, is that once a phenomenon is identified as embodying certain characteristics, some of its properties “can be understood without knowing anything about detailed structure or governing rules”. These groups of phenomena in which we can get away with ignoring the details are called universality classes. Cell-based, carbon-based, and evolving, are all universality classes. If we know an organism has cells, then we know some fundamental things about how it operates, even if we know nothing else about it. In a world of limited knowledge, this ability to generalize based on a few known characteristics, is incredibly useful.

What about an example from digital activism? Next time a digital protest breaks out, we could look for a few key characteristics – device usage, participation rates, telecommunications infrastructure, political institutions – to identify what class of digital activism that protest is a part of. From that identification we could then make generalizations about the protest – leadership structure, duration, growth, even likely success or failure.

So it would be helpful if different digital activism phenomena shared certain universal characteristics, but wishing does not make it so. We might sincerely wish that jello, blue jeans, and radio jingles shared some similar underlying structure, but it is unlikely that they do.

On what evidence, then, can we say it is likely that universal classes exist within digital activism? Below are examples of characteristics that all instances of digital activism share and that could be used as a basis for creating universality classes.

1. Telecommunications Infrastructure: All digital activism occurs over digital telecommunications networks – either phone networks, Internet networks, or a combination. It would be useful to understand the universal characteristics of telecommunication networks and then link those characteristics to digital activism outcomes.

2. Communication Pathways: Even on the same piece of telecommunication infrastructure – a mobile phone network, for example – different types of communication can take place. I can call a friend, texts a large group, or receive a message from my provider that was sent to every subscriber. It would be useful to understand the universal characteristics of digital communication and then link those characteristics to digital activism outcomes.

3. Devices: There are ever more devices that can be used for digital activism – laptops, desktops, netbooks, tablets, basic mobiles phones, and smart phones – yet it would be useful to understand the universal characteristics of different digital communication devices and then link those characteristics to digital activism outcomes.

4. Applications: The most common lens for analyzing digital activism today is the applications. How do we use Facebook for activism? Blogs? Twitter? But what would be really useful would be to understand the universal characteristics of different digitally networked applications and then link those characteristics to digital activism outcomes.

The identification of universality classes within the mass of seemingly-unique digital activism phenomena provides an opportunity to understand the field as a whole.

The Problem with Digital Activism Debate

I’d like to call attention to the disturbing mistreatment of two of the most important intellectuals in the field of digital activism: Clay Shirky and Evgeny Morozov. I know Evgeny better than I know Clay, but both seem like nice guys who are honestly trying to quantify the effects of the Internet on political power and activism around the world. So why are they constantly being put into the ring and asked to fight each other? I refer not only to their recent debate on Edge.org, but also to the multiple round bout in Prospect magazine a few months ago.

Scholar/activist Patrick Meier has already called for an end to the violence, bemoaning the preponderance of “anecdotal ping-pong” and “rapid-fire debate” over rigorous analysis of comparable claims. Even Clay Shirky seems to be a bit tired of the entertaining yet inconclusive debate between optimists and pessimists in the field. He begins the Edge.org debate by saying, “Evgeny, I think this may be a frustrating hour.”

Though I have heard neither Clay nor Evgeny express this publicly, I also would not be surprised if they are a little bit annoyed by how this optimist/pessimist debate pidgeon-holes them as intellectuals and thus also paints their ideas with the damning brush of bias. Instead of agreeing to these public cage matches, I wish Evgeny and Clay would both focus on an area they agree on:

“We are currently facing a huge intellectual void with the regards to the Internet’s impact on global politics…. We do need a new theory to guide us through all of this, for old theories are no good. ”
-Evgeny Morozov

“Yes, I agree with that.”
-Clay Shirky

Since both agree that there is little foundational knowledge in the field of digital activism, I wish they would join the effort for rigorous analysis and provable claims. While it might be less entertaining than an unwinnable battle of wits, it would be of more value to digital activists. Both Clay and Evgeny have great rhetorical and intellectual gifts, and to use them for Crossfire-style political theater is a disservice to the field they both claim to have an interest in building.

Learning from Network Science: The Engineers and Physicists of Digital Activism

by Mary Joyce

“Before engineers could build airplanes, physicists first had to understand the principals of flight.”

The above quote is from a 2003 book entitled Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, by Duncan Watts, who currently works as principal research scientist at Yahoo!. Though this book may at first appear to be one of a great number of similar popular texts on networks, like Malcolm Galdwell’s The Tipping Point, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked, Nicholas A. Christakis’ Connected, and Steven H. Strogatz’s Sync, I like Watt’s text because it explains how the field of network science developed, an interesting story to someone like myself interested in aiding the development of a field.

Watt’s quote above is used to explain the need for seemingly abstract forms of study in order to provide useful information to practitioners. There has been similar criticisms of the seeming abstractness of the Meta-Activism Project, which seeks to problematize the way we development knowledge about digital technology’s effect on activism with the goal of improving our methods of developing that knowledge. The field is too young to get “meta,” say some, while others doubt the value of this project for activists “on the ground.” Yet, at least if the now-established field of network science can serve as a model, this is not something to shy away from. Says Watts, “the methods we use are often abstract…. It is a necessary cost, unavoidable in fact, if we truly desire to make progress.”

Though Watt’s airplane quote assumes that understanding of principles precedes practice, in digital activism it is the opposite: everyone’s an engineer and there are few “physicists” engaged in studying underlying mechanics. To make a better analogy, the field of digital activism today is like the very early days of experimentation in flight when engineers were building flying machines that mimicked birds, complete with flapping wings. (Birds were, after all, the contemporary best practice in successful flight.) Some planes flew a few feet, some flew hundreds, but there was a lot of guess and check, trial and error, and it would have been easy for a skeptic in the late nineteenth century to conclude that manned flight was a practice of dubious value, not unlike the current skeptics of digital activism. Then, as now, success was limited by lack of understanding of the fundamental mechanics of new technology.

Engineers – our grassroots activists, political campaign staffers, and online community managers at nonprofits – do indeed have invaluable experience on how digital activism works in the real world. Yet this does not mean that only people who have direct experience of a digital activism campaign can contribute valuable knowledge to the field. Just as engineers benefited from the discoveries of physicists about the underlying mechanics of aerodynamics – lift, drag, thrust – so digital activists can benefit from the work of scholars and other thought leaders whose research and analysis can describe the underlying mechanics of digital activism.

What these scholars and thought leaders can contribute is an understanding of – and an ability to rigorously analyze – digital activism in the aggregate. What digital activists can contribute is an understanding of how individual campaigns worked. In an ideal world, the detail inherent in the practical experience of activists is not lost when these practices are studied in the aggregate. As a result, new understanding that results from aggregate analysis is useful to the daily practice of activists. This is the interplay between activists and scholars that we should aim for.

Continue reading

Apples to Apples: A Framework for Comparing Digital Activism Case Studies

Why More Information is Less

The more information we gain about digital activism, the less we seem to know. We have an ever-increasing volume of case studies from the Philippines to Spain and from Moldova and Ukraine and Iran. Every day blogs offer cogent advice how to use YouTube, Facebook, or the latest geo-location application for activism and advocacy. Yet the argument about digital activism’s value grows more heated instead of more tempered. The gulf widens between the optimists, who think that digital technology offers potential for transforming global power dynamics, and pessimists, who think the technology is equally likely to empower dictators or fundamentalists.

We know more and more about digital activism, yet this information isn’t additive. The totality is not greater than the sum of its parts. It is not creating a unified body of knowledge or consensus about the nature of digital activism.

Apple to Apples: the Need for Comparability

How can more information about digital activism not lead to understanding of digital activism? Because this information is not comparable. Which case study is more telling of the value of digital technology for activism: an optimistic one like Spain’s pre-election mobilization or a pessimistic one like Iran’s post-election mobilization? Should an organization with limited time resources use a blog, a Facebook group, or an active Twitter account? Without a common framework, comparing Iran’s case to Spain’s or a blog to Twitter is like comparing apples to oranges: whoever is making the comparison can do so according to their own tastes and biases.

The goal of comparability is to determine which tactics are most effective in a given context. Yet, without a common frame of reference it is impossible to compare relative value. This means more argument, more debate, and less of the consensus-based knowledge that can build a field.

Creating Comparability: a Framework for Digital Tactics

In order to compare digital activism cases we need to break campaigns down into their component digital tactics and then compare those tactics on equal terms. Such a framework would need to accurately quantify all the technical aspects of each case and also weigh the non-technical contextual factors that have weighed on the success of activism campaigns since time immemorial: the centralization or decentralization of government power, the freedom of the mainstream media, the existence of autonomous civil society organizations. Since my experience is in the technical context, the framework below focuses on the digital side of digital activism. I’ll look to activism experts like the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and others in building out a framework for non-technical factors.

Here is the framework I propose for creating comparability of digital activism cases. In order to compare seemingly diverse tactics I have based my analysis on a common unit of which they all share: transmission of information. The factors below then describe how different digital activism tactics transmit information in different ways. I’ll present the factors, explain them, and then give some visual examples of how they can be applied.

Framework for Comparing Digital Activism Cases
1) Vector: To what extent is information being created or consumed?
2) Frequency: How often is information being created/consumed?
3) Participation: How many people are taking part as creators or consumers ?
4) Duration: For how long did this activity last?

Vector: Though in the broadcast era most people were mere recipients of information, in the digital era, we the “former audience” can now act as both consumer and creator of information. Information can either have an incoming vector (direction): create (send) or consume (receive). Because most digital applications (email, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) allow the user to both consume and create, any digital activism tactic will fall somewhere on a continuum of between 100% consumption and 100% creation. Though there are different methods for measuring the create/consumer balance, I would quantify it by create/consume balance among participants. For example, the Obama campaign used its email list mostly to send information to supporters, but rarely expected a reply, so the participant pool was approximately 99% consumers and 1% creators. (The visual examples below will clarify this.)

Frequency: In addition to the direction of a piece of information, the frequency with which the content is created is also important. Any digital activism tactic will thus fall somewhere on a continuum between frequent communication and infrequent communication. For example, the most popular Twitter feeds exhibit frequent content creation, with several tweets sent in a single day.

Participation: How many people are participating in the digital campaign? That is the question which this factor seeks to answer, with answers ranging along a continuum from broad to narrow. Though we usually equate broad participation with campaign effectiveness, internal decision-making using a wiki or Skype is most effective with only a few participants.

Duration: The final factor in measuring a digital activism tactic is duration: how long is the tactic used? The continuum here is short to long, on a scale to be developed according to common tactical durations in a representative pool of cases. In many cases of successful digital mobilization (the Spain case, for example) information transmission has high participation and frequency but short duration – only a day or two.

As an aside, though these are the key factors I was able to develop, this list is open to amendment. There are other digital factors, like tactical diversity, that could also have a bearing on the effectiveness of a digital activism tactic.

image: Flickr/shoothead

Examples: Applying the Framework

From a practical perspective, this framework can be used by researchers to code case studies in order to create comparable data sets from currently incomparable qualitative case studies. Digital activism campaigns can be broken into component tactics (spreading info by SMS, posting video to YouTube, writing blog posts) and then each tactic could be scored 1 to 5 according to its place on the continuum for each of the four factors.

However, the benefits of using this type of framework to compare seemingly disparate digital tactics in equal terms can perhaps best be understood visually. In the graphics below I have plotted tactics as dots along an x/y axis of frequency and vector. Participation is measure by the diameter of the dot (big dot = more participation). Though ideally I think duration should be shown through animation as Gapminder does, for the graphics below I have marked duration by color from hot red (short duration) to cool blue (long duration).

Tools Analysis: Email Lists

Though there are more uses of this framework, I have given examples for two types of analysis: of a particular tools across multiple cases and of a single case which included multiple tool types.

The diagram to the left is of the first type, showing how a single tool (in this case, email) can be used differently in different campaigns. It is all too common to talk about “Facebook activism” or “Twitter activism,” where in reality there are many tactics that derive from a single tool, each with different implications about efficacy. One of the benefits of this framework is that it is possible to map and compare multiple uses for the same tool, allowing us to parse the complexities of a given tool’s value for digital activism.

The diagram at left shows three examples of how to use an email list. The Obama campaign (1) had a large, high-frequency, and long-duration list when the average user was a receiver. The MAP Strategy Group listserv (2) has had a much shorter duration, is much smaller and is more interactive, but nearly meets the daily frequency of the Obama list. The final example, another small listserv I started, called DigiActive Big Ideas (3), is almost totally inactive because its messages are so infrequent.

Case Analysis: Obama New Media

This framework can also be used to map the different digital tactics used in a single campaign case study. I’m using the Obama campaign again because I am most familiar with that case (I worked for the New Media department). This diagram does not present all the digital tactics used by the campaign and also does not apply any value to this particular constellation of tactics. Though a variety of tactics was useful (and feasible) for the Obama campaign, it might be both unfeasible and unnecessary for others.

In looking at the diagram, one can see that content that was produced by the campaign and broadcast to supporters is on the right side of the diagram, since the average participant was a consumer. Email occupies the upper-left corner with its high participation (millions of supporters on the list) , high frequency (daily), and long duration (since the early days of the campaign). Below that is the short-duration orange dot the represents the Neighbor to Neighbor online tool that was introduced later in the campaign to allow supporters to access lists of voters call lists. In this case, participants were exclusively consuming information since only the campaign had access to voter phone number databases. Below that is the small blue dot of video, some of which was embedded in emails and some of which was posted directly to YouTube. The blue color indicates that this was also a long duration tactic and the large size indicates that there were multiple participants, though the participants were almost exclusively consuming (viewing) the videos rather than creating response videos. Also, because video production is a more labor-intensive process, video were produced less frequently than email. Continue reading

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