Home Slacktivism 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.

The early chapters of Watt’s book reveal other developmental similarities between the field of network science and digital activism. He addresses how the existence of current knowledge about phenomena is used to argue against the need for further inquiry into underlying mechanics, not dissimilar to how the existence of case study analysis and tool-based best practices is used to argue against the need to study digital activism at a more fundamental (and abstract) level of networks and power:

“Each field… has its own version of [a theory of networks]…. So why is there anything fundamental left to figure out?”

He acknowledges that understanding a phenomena in a “more universal fashion” is an “extraordinarily difficult task” and “requires different kinds of specialized knowledge that are usually segregated according to academic specialty and even discipline,” leading to a need for interdisciplinarity:

“If it is to succeed, therefore, the new [science of networks] must bring together from all the disciplines the relevant ideas and the people who understand them.”

“Any deep understanding… can only come through a genuine marriage of ideas and data that have lain dispersed across the intellectual spectrum, each a piece of the puzzle with its own fascinating history and insights, but none the key to the puzzle itself.”

…and the need to bridge differences of terminology and methodology:

“The language in the various disciplines are very different, and we… often have difficulty understanding each other. Our approaches are different too, so each of us has to learn not only how the others speak but also how they think.”

All these hold true for the field of digital activism as well which, as Columbia University doctoral candidate Rasmus Kleis Nielsen has noted, “criss-cross[es] communications studies, political science, sociology, and law, and often lives a precarious life at the very margins of each”.

In an upcoming post I will expand on how the tenets of network science, which Watts lays out in his book, could assist in the analysis of digital activism’s underlying mechanics. Yet, true to form, I decided to start with the bothersome “meta” level: looking not only at what knowledge we have but how we develop it.

Image source: archival footage on YouTube

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