Author’s Reponse: “Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age”

Note: This post is a response to Book Review: “Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age”

by Jennifer Earl (Professor of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara)

I appreciate the chance that Mary has given us to reply to her critical review of our book, Digitally Enabled Social Change (2011, MIT Press). Given the tone of Mary’s review, I think it is helpful to first step back and notice that there are many things on which Mary and I agree. Indeed, Mary ends her review with a laundry list of things she liked about our book, some of which are quite important themes. For example, she agrees with our arguments about the changing infrastructure of movements—which may seem like a simple point to her but is one that in some ways upends four decades of social movement scholarship. She also agrees with our argument about the likelihood of episodic activism, which again may seem minor to her but would represent a fundamental break in our academic understanding of social movements across two centuries. But, at an even bigger level, and perhaps most importantly, Mary and I both think digital activism is important and that people (activists and scholars alike) should pay more attention to it.

Where Mary and I diverge is in how you forward an agenda about raising the profile of digital activism. That divergence in large part owes to our expected audiences—Katrina and my audience is academic; we are trying to make a case to social movements researchers, who as a group have been exceedingly skeptical of digital activism. It has been an uphill battle to get social movement scholars to consider the possibility that digital activism has different dynamics and that studying those dynamics is important. Mary’s is a technology-rich audience where utopian visions of technology are as common as skepticism. Our primary audience uses email; hers tweets. Our primary audience is obsessed with the quality of research methods, theories of causality, and academic rules of evidence. Hers is obsessed with cutting edge technologies. So, it is understandable that despite common orientations to digital activism overall, we end up with very different means of forwarding that agenda. With this as background, let’s turn to Mary’s main concerns:

Why study online petitions, boycotts, and email and letter-writing campaigns?

Mary takes issue with our empirical focus on these tactics for a variety of reasons (indeed, if you read carefully, this is her biggest beef with our work), and certainly, if you don’t want to read about these kinds of online tools, you might take issue with us too. But, instead of critiquing our book based on the book you wish we had written, let’s discuss the merits of the book that was written. We focus on these tactics for several reasons.

First, as Mary points out, these are online incarnations of offline tactics. Although Mary takes this on its face as a negative, we think it actually gives us a lot of helpful research leverage. From a research methods perspective, it allows us to very precisely isolate the impact of action taking place online versus offline because we know how these specific tactics have worked offline in the past and can use that as a baseline. Also, by limiting the only source of variation to whether the action is taking place online or off, we immediately eliminate a ton of other causal explanations for what we find. For instance, if we had chosen other online protest forms, like the Google bomb that Mary mentions, critical social movement scholars would have been able to assume that the differences between on and offline activism we find owe to the exoticism of the tactic, not to its online elements.

Second, Mary argues that the tactics we study are least likely to showcase novel action. We agree—this is a chief reason we chose them! For an academic audience, choosing the hardest target and then still proving your point is a huge bonus, not a criticism: that we find important differences between online and offline tactics in places where you might expect those differences to not exist or to be minimal is our argument. Indeed, choosing a venue where you are mostly likely to be wrong and then testing your theory is a hallmark of good social science—despite what many people think, social scientists should try to avoid “cooking the books” in their favor through their selection of cases.

Third, we chose these tactics because they seem to be everywhere online. Mary asserts (without data, much as she accuses us of doing) that these tactics are not the most common online forms of action. Perhaps these are not the most common tactics in the complex world of the Obama campaign or in a training session for experienced digital activists, but in the everyday world where my aunt and her friends are looking to participate online, online petitions, boycotts, letter-writing and emailing campaigns are where it is at. And, while this book doesn’t present data on the frequency of these tactics versus other kinds of tactics (you got us there, Mary), I have recently finished a 5-year study of 20 social movement arenas and can tell you that those data conclusively show that the tactics Katrina and I are studying in this book are the most frequent online tactics. You can check out some early results from that study in the December 2010 issue of Mobilization. Later papers from this study will confirm what Mary thinks must be wrong: even in 2010, online petitions, boycotts, and email and letter-writing campaigns are very popular online.

Fourth, Mary objects to the lack of focus on social media and related social media tactics, arguing that the tactics we study are stale in digital terms. But, as I just mentioned, later work of mine shows that these are not stale—they are quite popular even today. And, my more recent data collection shows that the social media tactics Mary thinks are so prevalent still make up a very small share of the overall online protest universe. While social media maybe the shiniest thing out today, it’s not the only or the most empirically frequent form of online protest. Moreover, while we are looking at data from 2004, we don’t believe that the theoretical principals we are trying to illustrate with that data are much different in 2011 from 2004. Indeed, my current work is testing precisely that hypothesis. I also think there is another audience issue at work here: academics understand that writing a well-researched book and getting it through the academic publishing process takes a few years. Mary’s audience is now, new, next. But just because something took place yesterday, doesn’t mean it’s not instructive about today and tomorrow.

Finally, Mary suggests our tactics are not representative of the online universe. Here I could not strenuously disagree more and hope that readers will judge this for themselves. The methods that Katrina and I use are unique in that they actually give us a better chance of charting a representative population of online petitions, boycotts, and email and letter-writing campaigns. Check out the methods and decide for yourself. As for whether they are representative of the most common forms online, see my response above—new work shows, yes, they are. While Mary’s anecdotes about the popularity of other forms are interesting, they aren’t accurate in painting a larger view. Some of Mary’s examples certainly have gotten a lot of news coverage—but they are outliers in both their public notoriety and their novelty.

Are you claiming that some kinds of online protest are “better” than others?

No. I think this is a place where Mary misreads us. For whatever part of that Katrina and I are responsible for as authors, let me set the record straight. In a nutshell, we argue that theoretical processes that have been developed over the past 50 years to explain activism are only good guides for the theoretical processes driving some kinds of online activism today, and those theoretical expectations don’t lead us in the right direction for other kinds of online activism. Try this analogy: 50 years of research has shown that engines are based on combustion. We are saying that for some kinds of online protest, the engine is all electric (proverbially speaking). We are not claiming that an electric engine is better; we are saying it operates differently from a classic combustion engine. More precisely, we are saying that when people take advantage of and leverage two unique features of Internet-enabled technologies—low costs and coordinated action without co-presence—the theoretical explanations for participation and organizing change. When they don’t leverage these unique features, the engine stays the same. We are not claiming one is better, just that they are different. For Mary, those theoretical differences might not matter much. For social movement scholars, they are critically important.

Why didn’t you study which online protests were effective?

From her review, it appears Mary wanted a book that empirically examined which kinds of online protest are more or less effective. We don’t advertise such a book, nor did we write one. I think for a variety of methodological reasons, it will be a long time before someone writes the book that Mary wants in this regard, or at least writes one that, from a research methods point of view, I would also want to read. It turns out that the study of offline protest faces the same problem: it turns out to be very difficult to prove, from a social scientific perspective, which offline actions or movements are effective. I gave a paper on this very topic in Berlin this summer and would be happy to share it with people who email me.

Other Quibbles

Mary had other quibbles with the book. She thought we should have mathematically tested whether organizers’ time exactly conformed to a power law. We didn’t see that as necessary because even something that looks close to a power law—which we do show—is a very radical departure from what would be anticipated by social movement scholars. If it is off by a hair, it doesn’t really matter to the arc of our argument because it’s still in the ballpark. She wishes we didn’t use the terminology of e-tactics, preferring digital protest. I am hoping much of both of our audiences can get past such semantic differences in style.

So, where does this leave us?

As I said in the opening, Mary and I actually have pretty similar agendas: we both think people should pay more attention to digital activism. In my case, I want social movement scholars to dig more deeply into our theoretical approaches so we can figure out when and how protesting online differs—at a theoretical process level—from protesting offline. I also want Internet scholars to have to seriously engage with the literatures that have been developed around relevant offline areas of social life instead of engaging in drive-by theorizing that doesn’t connect with different areas’ rich research traditions. I think Katrina and my book gets scholars off to a good start on both of these endeavors. I hope readers will judge for themselves and I am confident that most will enjoy the book much more than Mary did.

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