Home Slacktivism Which of These Things is Just Like the Others? : Universality in...

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.

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