A New Type of Documentary for a New Type of Documentation

I have been lucky enough to spend this week at the Sundance Film Festival. One of my favorite films so far has been “The Green Wave,” a documentary about the the 2009 post-election uprising in Iran. It was wonderful and deeply affecting and, even as someone who watched events closely at the time and read subsequent analysis, Ilearned much I had not realized,particularly about the scope and brutalityof the goverment response.

What I want to write about here, however, is the way in the film was created, which represents a new mode of documentary creation appropriate to the digital age. The film’s creator, Ali Samadi Ahadi, and his collaborators, were living in Germany when the elections occurred and he felt that, even afterwards, it would be too dangerous either to go to Iran to shoot footage or to ask a local to shoot on his behalf.

Instead, he decided to create his documentary froma mix digital content created by Iranians who lived through the protests and documented their experiences, some through grainy cell phone video and some through beautifully-written and heart-rending blog posts, translated into English and illustrated in dark yet striking animation, like the image at left. We hear from aMousavi campaign worker, a young manwho istaken into custody and tortured with dozens of others, of a woman whose cousin isa Basiji militiaman recounting his crimes and guilt.

These firsthand accounts are inter-cut with the kind of talking-head interviews one expects in a documentary, but it is the digital content that strikes the heart. I did not at any moment feel that the documentary lacked for footage or insight. More that telling the story himself, Samadi Ahadi, was a vehicle for letting the people of Iran tell their own story in their own wordsand images. It is a new and appropriate role for a documentary film-maker, recognizingthe increased capacity of ordinary people to document their own lives in the digital age.

SXSW Panel Option: Ending the Lazy Discourse of Digital Activism

We’ve submitted a panel to SXSW, which is now in public voting stages. If the topic below sounds like one that you’d like to hear, please consider voting for it on the Panel Picker. Of course, if you know anyone else who might benefit from the topic, feel free to pass it along to them.


We’ve been asking the same questions about digital activism for years now: Does digital technology give activists or repressive governments an advantage? Are these technologies actually changing the dynamics of political or social power or is it just hype? We’ve got cyber-utopians and cyber-pessimists, but are both overstating their cases? We’ve dissected siloed cases of digital activism to death – the Iranian Revolution, the No Mas FARC Facebook page – but have we developed any long-lasting frameworks? But it doesn’t seem like we’re getting any closer to the answers. What do we really know about digital activism anyway?? The reason we aren’t closer to answering these questions is that we’re stuck in lazy discourse and un-winnable ping-pong debates based on sets of contradictory narratives and messy comparisons across different contexts. We lack a standard for analysis, leaving us in a free-for-all where legitimacy is based mostly on the boldness of claims and the catchiness of neologisms. The goal of this panel is to move the discussion of digital activism in a direction that supports development of foundational knowledge… and eventually a bonified field of discourse and study. We’ll spend some time constructively dissecting the current problems in how digital activism is discussed and debated and get right to the meat of what we really SHOULD be talking about in order to identify concrete ways to move the field forward.

Questions Answered

  1. How can we characterize the current discourse on digital activism?
  2. Why is this current method of discourse inadequate?
  3. How can we increase rigor and analysis in the field?
  4. How can we turn the current discussion into a more productive one, and make progress towards developing frameworks and the foundation for a long-term field of study?
  5. What can we glean from the current debates on issues like slactivism, or the cyber-utopian/cyber-pessimist divide that is more constructive, useful and progressive?

Interview at the Carnegie Council

This is an interview I did with Julia Kennedy at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in mid-July.  A podcast of the interview is available here.

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JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: How has digital activism really changed over its time in use? I remember the Howard Dean campaign and hearing “digital activism” first bandied around. How has it really morphed over the time you’ve been looking at it?

MARY JOYCE: You can define it in terms of the evolution of tools being used. It started off with the first version of the Internet in the 1970s when it was actually a research tool that was owned by the U.S. government, and some scientists would discuss political matters through the kind of pre-email system that they had on that network. Then probably most people became aware of it in the early part of this century when you had the beginning of social media, and you had things like Meetup and blogs. Before that you had websites.

Another way to look at its evolution is as an internationalization. The penetration of digital technology, particularly cell phones, has increased around the world, and so has the amount of digital activism.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: And where are you seeing it? A lot of people, especially looking at your background, think of political campaigns. But how else is digital activism being employed?

MARY JOYCE: Anywhere people see injustice occurring. Usually this has to do with some kind of imbalance of power that doesn’t have an institutional remedy. Activism, at least as I think of it, is outside of institutions and you could even argue is a political campaign activism.

You see all kinds of “targets” in the language of advocacy. If businesses are taking actions that are perceived as being unfair, either to workers or to the consumer, they could become the target of a digital activism campaign, or even just other citizens. For example, in a public health campaign like condom use, you know then the target is other citizens.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Does the employment of digital tools differ depending on the target, as you put it? Do you have to modify what you’re using if you’re targeting another citizen versus the government versus a corporation?

MARY JOYCE: Ideally, you want to choose a tool that has both the access of the activist and the attention of the target. For example, in many countries, everyone watches the nightly news. But in many countries, either because it is controlled by conservative political or business interests, the news won’t cover certain things, particularly human rights issues. You have the attention of your target, but the activist does not have access to that.

In digital activism, the more common problem is that activists have access to social media. As long as you have an Internet connection all of it is free, but the target is not watching. If you have a great Facebook or blog campaign but your target isn’t paying attention to social media, then it is not going to work.

Unfortunately, activists often make choices based on what they are familiar with rather than from the perspective of the target. A lot of young people are on Facebook and have some kind of issue they care about. They then join a Facebook group, but that is not strategically very effective based upon the goal.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: This gets to something that you’ve been talking a lot about in Digital Activism Decoded and other things I’ve read where you’ve appeared, which is this idea of tool versus strategy. Why is it so important to have a strategy rather than trying to use every single tool that’s out there?

MARY JOYCE: There is a finite amount of time and resources for anyone, even a corporation or a government. You can’t use everything, but, more importantly, you can’t succeed without strategy.

When we started seeing digital technology, and even now in the way it is portrayed in the media, there was this idea of the magic bullet of a particular tool—Dean and Meetup; Iran and Twitter. Of course, those are contradicted, but that’s the narrative in the public consciousness. Tools are actually not even secondary but are tertiary in considering a strategy for a campaign.

When I do trainings, I talk about audience, action, message, and media. So choosing the media is actually the last choice. But this is, for various reasons, not well known.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Why do you think that people haven’t gotten that overall strategy?

MARY JOYCE: We receive a lot of education, particularly in developed economies, about products. Twitter is a product, the iPhone is a product. People are not as educated about noninstitutional change-making.

We see social change through the lens that has been given to us, so we tend to focus on these tool-based and consumer-based perspectives. We haven’t been given strategies, and often we don’t even know that we lack them. Read more…

Video – NYC Book Launch

Video of the Digital Activism Decoded book launch and discussion last week, featuring authors Brannon Cullum, Dave Karpf, Mary Joyce, and Dan Schultz. Thanks to Not An Alternative for hosting the event and making the video.

Video – “Digital Activism Decoded” in DC

Video of last week’s panel discussion at the New America Foundation

“Decoding Digital Activism” DC Panel (Video)

Video of last week’s panel discussion Decoding Digital Activism at the New America Foundation

NYC Book Event on Tuesday

Last night’s panel at the New America Foundation in Washington went really well. The panel was an excellent mix of perspectives from the executive and legislative arms of the federal government with on-the-ground experience Skyped in from Kenya. The video of the event is available online if you missed the original.

Next week there will be another book event, this time in New York hosted by Not an Alternative at the wonderful Change You Want to See Gallery in Brooklyn. The New York event will be more informal and will also feature more of the book’s contributors: Mary Joyce, Brannon Cullum, Sem DeVillart, Brian Waniewski, Dan Schultz, and Dave Karpf.

Event: Decoding Digital Activism – Jam Session
Time: 7:30pm
Date: Tuesday, July 20
Location: Change You Want to See Gallery, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Directions: 84 Havemeyer St. (Map / Subway: L to Bedford, J to Marcy, G to Metropolitan)

Motivating Question: We know more and more about digital activism with each new example of digital “people power”, yet we understand very little about the fundamentals of this phenomenon. We have been asking the same questions about digital activism’s effect on political power around the world, yet we remained locked in the same un-winnable debates between optimists and pessimists, each armed with their own anecdotes. How can we as activists, practitioners, and citizens move the discourse of digital activism forward?

The book, Digital Activism Decoded, is available for sale in hard copy through Amazon and for free PDF download at www.meta-activism.org/book

"Digital Activism Decoded" in DC next week

Now that Digital Activism Decoded is officially on sale, we are proud to announce our first book-related event, which will occur next Thursday the 15th at 5:30pm at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC.

The event will critique the current stalemate in digital activism discourse and discuss ways to move the field forward. From the event’s official blurb:

We have been asking the same questions about digital activism for several years now, but do not seem any closer to the answers: Does digital technology give activists or repressive governments the advantage? What are the implications of the changing tools and technologies that underpin it? If cyber-utopians and cyber-pessimists are both overstating their cases, where does the truth lie? What don’t we know about digital activism? … At this event we will dissect the current problems in the way digital activism is discussed and debated and suggest ways to frame the issue for policy makers and move the field forward.

The event will feature two of the book’s authors as well as staff members from the Senate and Department of State:

Featured Speakers
Mary Joyce
Author and Editor, “Digital Activism Decoded”

Robin Lerner
Counsel, Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Katharine Kendrick

Internet Freedom, Department of State

Tom Glaisyer
Author, “Digital Activism Decoded”
Knight Media Policy Fellow

You can read the full announcement here , were you can also RSVP. Hope to see you there!

Digital Activism Decoded book now on sale at Amazon

We’re happy to announce that our book, Digital Activism Decoded: The New Mechanics of Change, is available on Amazon.com. We’ve been giving you chapter excerpts for two months, and we hope you’ve enjoyed them.

Now it’s time to enjoy the full content!

Thanks to DoGood Headquarters

We’d like to thank the organization DoGood Headquarters for their help promoting Digital Activism Decoded pro-bono on their browser network. They created some great original promotional designs for the campaign, including the image at left and the banner on our home page.

DoGood in an Ottawa-based company that has created a browser plug-in that replaces the ads you usually see when you surf the net with ads for causes and green initiatives. DoGood donates 50% of the profit from those clicks to charitable foundations and green movements. Learn more about their browser app and organization here: http://dogoodhq.com

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