Home Slacktivism From Our Book: Why the Term “Digital Activism?”

NOTE: On June 1st we’ll be posting a free downloadable copy of our new book, Digital Activism Decoded and on June 30th the paper version will go on sale at Amazon.com. For the next two months we’ll be posting brief excerpts from all the chapters in the book. To learn more, visit our book page.

Today’s excerpt, by Mary Joyce, is from the Preface and explains why we choose to use the term “digital activism” and how it relates to other related terms.

….Just as the mechanics of digital activism are clouded, so is the terminology. In fact, the phrase “digital activism” is not even the consensus term for the use of digital technology in campaigning.

If the term “digital activism” is contested, why do we use it in this book? Because the speed, reliability, scale, and low cost of the digital network are what enable the great scope and reach of contemporary activism. This phenomenon is what we focus on. We want a term to refer to this set of digitally networked campaigning activities—or practices—that is both exhaustive and exclusive. Exhaustive in that it encompasses all social and political campaigning practices that use digital network infrastructure; exclusive in that it excludes practices that are not examples of this type of practice.

Some terms fail to meet the criterion for exhaustiveness because they preclude relevant practices. For example, “cyber-activism,” “online organizing,” and “online activism” are not exhaustive because they refer only to activism on the Internet, excluding the use of mobile phones and other offline digital devices in activism— distributing digital content on thumb drives, for instance. Likewise, the phrase “social media for social change,” which refers to the use of social applications like Facebook and Flickr for activism, is not exhaustive because it precludes other relevant activist applications like mobile SMS and email.

Other terms are exhaustive in that they encompass all relevant practices, but fail to be exclusive because they include irrelevant practices. “E-activism” and “e-advocacy” are earlier terms for digital campaigning practices that are derived from the word “email,” in which the “e” refers to “electronic.” At the advent of the Internet, the “e” preface was useful in differentiating mail sent by an electronic device, the computer, from mail sent by post, or a bound paper book from an e-book. However, the range of technologies that are electronic is far broader than those that are digital. Activists have used Dictaphones, electronic megaphones, and VHS tape recorders, but these technologies are not digital because they do not encode and transmit information as the digits 1 and 0, as is the case with a digital device. They do not make use of the low-cost scalability of the global digital network. While non-digital technologies certainly have value for activism, they will not be the subject of this book.

So far, the terminology of digital activism has referred to particular types of infrastructure, both hardware and software. Cyberactivism refers to the Internet; social media for social change refers to social software applications; e-activism refers to electronic devices. The last term that fails the exhaustive and exclusive test is different in that it refers to content, not infrastructure.

“Info-activism,” a term coined by the international training group Tactical Technology Collective, refers to the use of “information and communications technology to enhance advocacy work.” However, as project leader Dirk Slater commented in a recent online dialogue hosted by the organization New Tactics in Human Rights: “I’d define info-activism as the strategic and deliberate use of information within a campaign. It’s not necessarily digital or Internet-based, in fact it often isn’t one of those two things at all.” While some info-activism uses digital technology, it need not. Effective info-activism could use printed flyers, stencils, or word-of-mouth. The scope of practices encompassed by info-activism is broader than those encompassed by digital activism, so the term is exhaustive but not exclusive.

In this book, we are not arguing for the preeminence of the term “digital activism” over other terms. If someone is exclusively interested in the use of the Internet for activism, he or she can and should use a term like “cyber-activism” or “online advocacy.” However, we are arguing that—because it is exhaustive and exclusive—” digital activism” is the best term to discuss all instances of social and political campaigning practice that use digital network infrastructure.

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