Note: In the interest of open research, we are sharing infographics of our in-process project, the Global Digital Activism Data Set, Version 1.0, (GDADS1). We hope that this transparency will elicit original perspectives and constructive critique.
Above is a bubble graph of the most popular sources in the GDADS, those which which supplied information on seven or more cases. While research on social movements has traditionally relied on coding newspaper accounts and previous academic publication, this type of media was much less useful in our research. New media is not only the medium of digital activism, it also provides the best coverage and analysis of this phenomenon.
Our largest source by far was Global Voices Online, which uses a network of editors and contributors to collect citizen media stories from around the world. (The impressive geographic scope of the GDADS would also likely have been impossible without the content published by GV). GV provided 638 sources to the data set, 33% percent of the total, and their focus on blogging explains why there are so many cases of blog activism in our data set (see case title word cloud above). The next two most popular sources, with about 100 cases each, are MobileActive.org, and DigiActive,org, also new media sources.
It’s not that we forgot about or intentionally ignored more traditional sources like newspapers, books, and academic journal articles. In fact, early on we did a thorough search of the SAGE Journals Online database, reviewing any article with the word “digital” or “activism” in the body text. In directing volunteers to seek cases, we have always encouraged them to use newspapers (most of which are online), and other forms of traditional media as sources.
Why is there so much new media content on digital activism, and relatively little in traditional media, academic publications, and books? I believe that there is a kind of information filter for digital activism phenomena, with cases being lost as publication at each level becomes more and more cost and labor intensive. As the schematic at left shows, of all the digital activism cases that occur, fewer and fewer are written about as the amount of time and money needed to publish in a given medium increases. Only the most socially and politically salient find their way into a book, while many hundreds may be the subject of a blog post.
In the digital age activists self-publish whenever they take action on a public platform like Facebook or Twitter, creating a wealth of primary source material in the public or semi-public domain. While we did refer to these primary sources whenever possible, these tactical publications lack the context and detail to serve as foundational sources for research. A layer of analysis and aggregation of information is needed to evaluate a case.
For this analysis and aggregation the GDADS turns most often to new media sources. For better or worse, most of what is written by new media sources describes what occurred in public – Facebook pages, tweets, street protests – so writing about this phenomenon is more a question of attention and observation than research. The cost of writing about these observations online is vanishingly small, and not dependant on the interests of advertisers or audience. You can publish online whether or not it is profitable, making it more likely that stories with niche audiences will appear.
This is not true for legacy media – television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. These media outlets face high costs in production, broadcast, and human resources (paid journalists). The time of these professionals is limited and the subject must be of interest to a certain number of readers in order to attract subscribers and advertisers. This means lots of stories about the “Twitter Revolution” in Iran and few stories about the Lugazi Sugar protests in Uganda. Because of the professional training and higher standards of form and verification, legacy media reports may be more informative than new media sources, but they are too few to base an international digital activism data set on.
Journal articles and books also meet a high professional standard of rigor and investigate the “back story” and theoretic implications of the digital activism cases, but this process can take months or years and the number of digital activism case studies that appear is very low. The GDADS currently has only forty-six academic journal articles as sources and eleven books.
The time economy of creative production partially explains the case study distribution illustrated in the pyramid. It takes a few hours to write a good blog post about a digital activism case, a few days to write a newspaper article, a year or more to write and publish a journal article and even longer for a book. There are simply less units of output for time devoted to writing a book than to time devoted to writing blog posts.
While some social scientists may question the validity of the data set because of our unorthodox sources, I believe this was the only way to create the GDADS without taking on the mammoth cost of doing original primary source research at a global level. I’d even say that GDADS is blazing a new path by leveraging the affordances of digital media to study digital activism.