Can the Word “Slacktivism” be Reclaimed?

Can the word “slacktivism” be reclaimed? Personally, I’d prefer it to die an inglorious death, be replaced in the short-term with less cynical descriptive terms like “small digital action” or “online tactic” and later by a catchier term (that hasn’t been invented yet).

However, some people, like the folks at Sortable who created the graphic below, are trying to reclaim the term. A slacktivist isn’t an ineffective armchair activist. Slacktivism can “build awareness of an issue overnight.” Slacktivists are more likely to donate $ and volunteer (offline, I assume).

Is slacktivism a term that should be reclaimed or is it too “naïve and condescending… misinformed and misleading”, too toxic to use?

What it Means to Be a 21st-Century Think Tank

Yesterday the Meta-Activism Project launched its most recent product, Civil Resistance 2.0, which is not really “ours” and not really a “product.” It’s a crowdsourced initiative that will eventually be authored by people both inside and outside our organizations and it does not exist in physical space, just in the cloud. This got me thinking about our values here at MAP, and what it means to be a 21st century think tank.

Along with The Global Digital Activism Data Set, Essential Readings in Digital Activism, and Digital Activism Decoded, MAP is coming to define itself by digital production, flexible human resources through porous collaboration, embracing the economics of abundance, and producing information that is free (in more ways than one).

Digital Production: Our products don’t exist in the world of atoms, they exist in the world of bits. Everything we have created – Civil Resistance 2.0, the Global Digital Activism Data Set, the Essential Readings in Digital Activism resources list, and the book Digital Activism Decoded – exist in digital form. In fact, only the last product exists in physical form. We’re creating products, but we create them only in cyberspace. This saves money and allows for a wide audience.

Flexible Human Resources through Porous Collaboration: Civil Resistance 2.0 is crowdsourced. Anyone can edit the list of methods, which exists as a Google Spreadsheet with no editing or privacy restrictions. For the Global Digital Activism Data Set, we collaborated with Christopher Bail of UNC Chapel Hill, who donated his research assistants’ time to help us code a large tranche of our digital activism case studies. In this way we shared the cost of coding without creating any bureaucratic overhead.

This is the kind of easy and porous collaboration championed by Beth Kanter and Allison Fine in their book The Networked Nonprofit. It also relies on the talent of brilliant volunteers through mechanisms described by Clay Shirky in Cognitive Surplus. The motivation is to leverage passion, talent, and financial resources across a range of institutions and individuals to create the best products at the lowest cost. If we had to pay all the experts and PhD’s that contribute to creating our products, our budget would be at least a few hundred thousand dollars. As it is we pay a small fraction of that, mostly for student labor to code data.

Embracing the Economics of Abundance: As our openness statement declares, we are committed to making our research processes and research products open to the public. But it goes beyond openness. We embrace the economics of abundance on the production side by leveraging the spare time of passionate and brilliant people. We embrace the economics of abundance on the distribution side by creating digital products, of which infinite copies can be made for free. These are the kinds of non-market economics principles discussed in Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks.

Information Should be Free… and Free: Open source evangelist Richard Stallman made the distinction that his software was free as in freedom, not as in free beer. We believe that information should be free in both ways: it should be legally unrestricted (everything we produce is under a Creative Commons license) but should also be cost-free to the user. Be believe that the information we are distributing about digital activism is important and as such we want it to be accessible to as many people as possible. (I’d imagine most people in intellectual endeavors are of this opinion.) Free digital products help us achieve these goals.

Our goal at the Meta-Activism Project is to innovate on three levels: as an organization, in our research methods, and in the results of that research. We want to study the new phenomenon of digital activism in a new way, and be a new type of organization while doing it.

5 Reasons Not to Use the Word “Slacktivism”

“The concept of slacktivism is not just naïve and condescending,
it is misinformed and misleading.”

Zeynep Tufekci, Asst. Professor, UNC Chapel Hill

[UPDATED] Slacktivism is a widely used term for acts of supposed activism that are actually lazy and ineffective. Yet in the digital realm this term is problematic, and should be replaced with less derogatory terms like “micro-activism,” “online action” or “digital action”. Here’s why:

1) Digital technology is more likely to activate the politically inactive than to deactivate the political active.

"Slacktivism" implies that small online actions are pointless, but this is not true.

Slacktivism conveys the image of the lazy activist, a politically active person who decides to sign an e-petition rather than attend a street rally. Though it is indeed easier to join a Facebook group or make an online donation than to canvass door-to-door or participate in a sit-in, this choice rarely occurs in the real world. The politically active will be active both online and offline. They have found a new realm for their action. The politically inactive would never have canvassed or participated in a sit-in in the first place.

In a recent paper, “Political activities on the Internet : Slacktivism or political participation by other means?”,Henrik Serup Christensen reviewed the literature on slacktivism and found that “there is no evidence of the substitution thesis” that taking action online will make people less likely to take action online. “In fact,” noted blogger Luke Allnut, Christensen “concludes that the Internet has a positive effect on offline mobilization.”

Small digital options, such as “liking” a Facebook cause or re-tweeting a political slogan, are unlikely to make activists less active. However, they do provide provide a low bar to participation that makes it easier than ever for the politically inactive to take that first step into engagement. Says Tufekci, “Since these so-called ‘slacktivists’ were never activists to begin with, they are not in dereliction of their activist duties.” Everyone needs to start somewhere, and we should not diminish those first tentative steps into 21st-century citizenship.

2) Small acts of digital activism are helpful to online organizers.

According to Amy Sample Ward, Membership Director for the Nonprofit Technology Network, micro-actions, such as liking a Facebook post, show organizers two things: “First, that your supporters are listening and paying attention…. Second, that supporters are standing by to take the action you promote.” These small actions help people self-identify as supporters of a cause who are open to being mobilized for further action.

3) Derogatory terms like slacktivism discourage these first-timers.

However, if journalists identify these small actions as meaningless, the politically inactive may instead be discouraged from taking even a small step into political action. By not engaging they will cut off one easy entry point into political participation and deprive online organizers of a means of identifying new supporters.

4) Change has always happened through a “ladder of engagement.”
Now we have a new first rung.

As the previous points have implied, no one is arguing that liking a post or re-tweeting a slogan will lead directly to massive political change. This is not new to the digital age. Great change has always occurred through a “ladder of engagement” where more and more people are encouraged by organizers or by their peers to take more and more dramatic and disruptive action in pursuit of their goal.

The difference now is that we now have a new digital rung on the ladder of engagement that is easier to grab hold of than most offline alternative. Now it’s easier than ever to take that first step into participation. According to Tufekci, “today’s ‘meaningless click’ is actually a form of symbolic action which may form the basis of tomorrow’s other kind of action.”

5) Slacktivism implies that the action is ineffective, yet we often don’t know the ultimate outcome until long after the action has occurred.

In June of 2010 an innocent young Egyptian man named Khaled Said was brutally beaten to death by police. A few days later a young Google executive named Wael Ghonim started a Facebook group called “We Are All Khaled Said.” Within a few months it had grown to over 400,000 members and was the biggest dissident Facebook page in Egypt.

At the time many would have called membership in the group slacktivism. Why not go out in the streets? Why not protest? All in good time. The group became a community which intensified anti-regime feeling. According to Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “Prior to the murder of Khaled Said, there were blogs and YouTube videos that existed about police torture, but there wasn’t a strong community around them. This case changed that.”

When the Tunisian revolution began in December of 2010, the Khaled Said group became a mobilizing structure in which calls for change could be made and protests could be mobilized. Its founder, Wael Ghonim, became an important rallying figure during the revolution, encouraging protesters to stay in the streets despite regime violence. It was but one of many factors in the fall of Mubarak, but certainly not slacktivism.

Not every Facebook group will become We are All Khaled Said. In fact, most won’t. But it is best to reserve judgement until the final outcome is evident, rather than discourage a new form of political participation, the effects of which we are just beginning to understand.

Why Kony 2012 Brought Out the Cyber-Skeptic in Me

I spend most of my time on this blog defending digital activism, but when I heard about the Kony 2012 video, even before I watched it, I decided toexpress my opinion by posting this picture on my Facebook page:

After posting it I was immediately shocked at my self. The message in the image was exactly the kind of snide digital-doesn’t-matter nay-saying that I constantly criticize on this blog.

I know that reposting the Kony video does matter. As Amy Sample Ward of NTEN has pointed out, even tiny acts of digital activism like re-tweeting, re-posting, or joining a Facebook group are a way of 1) identifying oneself publicly as caring about the issue, which can be useful to online organizers and 2) spreads the message to others within one’s social network.

This kind of activity also falls squarely within the first activist function of digital technology: shaping public opinion. People who were previously unaware of the situation in Northern Uganda now are. They are also aware of what it might be like to be a child living in a war zone, what the International Criminal Court is, what it does, and the importance and possibility of taking action to address a distant and intractable wrong. Also, given the strong positive response (the video has 97% positive feedback on YouTube), it made people not only aware but, on some level, made them care as well.

So it’s not worthless. In many ways it is valuable. Still, it annoyed me. Why? There are rational reasons to dislike the campaign:

1) The organization that produced the film, Invisible Children, is problematic.

  • “Last year, the organization spent $8,676,614. Only 32% went to direct services with much of the rest going to staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production.” (source)
  • “Charity Navigator rates their accountability 2/4 stars because they haven’t had their finances externally audited.” (source)
  • “In their campaigns, such organizations [as Invisible Children] have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders.” (source)

2) The solution proposed in the video won’t work.

  • The video demands the arrest of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, but the situation is more complex. Arresting Kony will not have the dramatic impact the video creators propose.
  • “It is no longer clear that the LRA represents a major threat to stability in the region.” (source)
  • “The LRA is now reduced to about 200 fighters…. Rather than occupying villages, as the LRA did when they were stronger, they now primarily conduct 5-6 person raids on villages to steal food.” (source)
  • “Finding Kony isn’t a simple thing to do. The areas in which he and his forces operate are dense jungle with little infrastructure.” (source)
  • “Russell argues that the only entity that can find and arrest Kony is the Ugandan army. Given that the Ugandan army has been trying, off and on, since 1987 to find Kony, that seems like a troublesome strategy.” (source)
  • “Kony continues to rely on child soldiers. That means that a military assault… would likely result in the death of abducted children.” (source)
  • The big action they propose in the video, blanketing the cities of the world with Kony posters, supports this oversimplification of the problem. It proposes a fun and slightly deviant action, but in pursuit of an ultimate goal that has more symbolic than practical value for Ugandans.

3) The video and campaign are unintentionally racist.

  • It robs Ugandans of agency. (source)
  • Invisible Children has no Africans on its board of directors and collects money for itself rather than for Ugandan organizations. (source)
  • The heroes of the film are white young people and adults from the US and Europe, particularly video narrator and campaigner Jason Russell.
  • The victims are Ugandan children. Ugandan adults appear in the film to validate the work of Invisible Children, not to represent their own work.
  • The video embodies the outdated idea of the “white man’s burden,” that white people improve the countries of the global south by intervening and enforcing their values, that the people who live in these countries cannot improve their countries alone.

These are the rational reasons for disliking the video, though, to be honest, my reaction was visceral and emotional. I think what bugs me the most is my own culture, the fact that the most successful recent attempt to raise awareness about a human rights abuse in Africa starred and was narrated by a handsome white man, came in the form of a high-concept, high-cost video with a booming rock soundtrack, titled to hook the 2012 US presidential race, and happily simplified its cause for the sake of an easy-to-absorb and appealing emotional narrative (protagonist, antagonist, easy solution, your role).

And it worked. Or is so far. If this is the new recipe for engaging Americans in the problems of the rest of the world, this makes me sad. Are we only able to engage with others’ suffering through the glitzy flashing lens of our own popular culture?

A New Tyranny of Structurelessness?

Tonight Personal Democracy Media hosted a flash conference: From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street and Beyond: The Future of Networked Democracy. Memes were disseminated. One was the definition of an election as a “planned insurrection,” a phrase coin by the deathcore band Molotov Solution and improved upon by Clay Shirky. Another was “the tyranny of structurelessness.” Are we headed for a networked era that is no more democratic than the hierarchical and centralized one that preceded it?

The idea of a “tyranny of structurelessness” comes from a tract of the same title (PDF), originally a talk given by American feminist Jo Freeman in 1970. Then, in true meme fashion, the piece was written and re-written, published and re-published over the years. Had she written it in 2011, it would have been a blog post.

In the piece, Freeman criticizes feminists’ refusal to create formalized structures to achieve their goals out of a misguided belief that all structures oppress. Freeman flips this idea on its head. First of all, structurelessness is impossible: “Any group of people… coming together for any length of time, for any purpose, will inevitably structure itself in some fashion.” Second, structurelessness can also be oppressive: “the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others.”

In a way, structureless power is even more dangerous than structured power because there is no official and public system of allocating power. Power still exists and is exercised, but informally and in the shadows, where it is more difficult to define, monitor, and challenge: “structurelessness becomes a way of masking power.”

How does this power masking work in practice? Freeman explains that much of it comes does to decision-making: “The rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is curtailed by those who know the rules.” Though she does not use the term, Freeman is talking about the proverbial smoke-filled room, where important decisions are made informally by those with access and understanding of the informal process at play. It is far better for the group if “rules of decision-making [are] open and available to every-one, and this can only happen if they are formalized.”

The people who make the real decisions in an unstructured group are the elites, which Freeman eloquently defines as: “a small group of people who have power over a larger group of which they are part… often without their knowledge or consent.” Individuals are not elites. You are only an elite through membership in a group. “When informal elites are combined with a myth of ‘structurelessness’, there can be no attempt to put limits on the use of power,” she warns. The problem, in a nutshell, is this: “Their power was not given to them; it cannot be taken away.”

The feminists’ misunderstanding was this: structurelessness defeats not the concentration of power, but the accountability of power: “If the movement continues deliberately not to select who shall exercise power,” Freeman clarifies, “it does not thereby abolish power. All it does is abdicate the right to demand that those who do exercise power and influence be responsible for it.”

Freeman also points out that unstructured groups, those unable to reliably make decisions in a manner that has legitimacy for all member, are unable to plan and execute actions in furtherance of their goal. Here she could very easily be talking about Occupy Wall Street:

“The more unstructured a movement is, the less control it has over the directions in which it develops and the political actions in which it engages. This does not mean that its ideas do not spread. Given a certain amount of interest by the media and the appropriateness of social conditions,the ideas will still be diffused widely. But diffusion of ideas does not mean they are implemented; it only means they are talked about.”

To what extent do these warning apply the today’s networked movements like #OWS and the Arab Spring? Are networked movements structureless? Using Freeman’s definition of structureless as groups with informal decision-making processes, then the answer is “yes.” But the question itself reveals the true complexity of the issue. To ask if networked movements are structureless is a contradiction in terms because networks are structures.

Yet political networks did not exist in 1970 as they do now. The focus of Freeman’s critique is the kitchen table “rap groups” of the early women’s movement, where friends would meet locally to discuss their lives and raise each other’s consciousness about the need for female liberation. According to Freeman, these groups found it difficult to move beyond consciousness-raising (much like Occupy Wall Street?), because they lacked structure and were isolated from one another. While the former problem of lack of direction is clearly still with us, the problem of isolation is not. Geographically-distributed self-sustaining cells would be an organizer’s dream today.

Today’s leaderless decision-making processes are different than those in 1970. Because of the read-write web there is much more equality of voice and the group can be endlessly expanded to counter the power of elites within a group. Though social media does facilitate preferential attachment (see Zeynep Tufecki’s work on this), that attachment is fluid. Many participants can blog or tweet, not just a de facto spokesperson and, if a group feels that one of their members is exercising undue influence they can use social media to challenge that person’s authority and bring popular opinion to their side.

In the 1970’s, the size and demographics of feminist rap groups were determined by those living in a given neighborhood. Elites had to be challenged within a group of fixed membership, which could be difficult, especially if people were challenging their friends and neighbors. The networked groups of today are much larger and group members may not know each other offline. Even though Wael Ghonim was an inspirational figure to many Egyptians, activists were quick to challenge his status through the Twitter meme “I unfollowed Ghonim because…” when he made statements against the interests of the movement.

In a 2010 paper entitled “Public as Politician? The improvised hierarchies of participatory influence of the April 6th Youth Movement Facebook Group” (PDF),Alix Dunn of The Engine Room described a different example of the fluidity of decision-making status, this time on the Facebook group page of the April 6th Youth Movement. When the page’s main organizers were offline attending a protest others stepped into their place in moderating the page and facilitating discussion. The task was more durable than the person fulfilling it, an age-old principle of democracy under the rule of law.

Unaccountable decision-makers can still arise in networked movements, but it is less likely that their authority will go unchallenged. Stability of power requires the stability of factors. It requires that those without power cannot easily challenge the elite member or defect from the group. In a nation state, these two actions are difficult: publicly challenging an autocratic leader or going into exile. On the Internet, they are easy.

While large and informal networks of peers may be difficult to wrangle into effective action (another critique of Freeman’s that is still true today), that very lack of control makes it less likely that unaccountable elites will arise. Where they do, they will soon find that they have been abandoned by their followers.

There is not only preferential attachment, but also “preferential detachment.” The Internet faciltiates not only group formation but group defection. One can unfollow, and unfriend. Even in an informal networked group members can “vote with their feet” and easily form a new group that better suits their needs. Imagine if this were possible in the nation state: “Take your country, Mr. President, we’re off to form a new one.”

Scooping the New York Times on Global Movements

I wasn’t planning on posting this slide-show presentation about the recent surge of mass movements around the world, since I prepared it for a consulting gig in Mexico, not for the Meta-Activism Project. But when I saw that the New York Times covered the exact same story on the front page… two weeks later, I felt the irrepressible childish urge to yell “I saw it first!”


We reach the same conclusions – failure of traditional political actors to respond to popular discontent with entire systems of governance – but neither I nor the Times journalist, Nicolas Kulish, know where it is going. It could mark a transformation in the definition of democracy and a recognition that annual voting is an insufficient implementation of democratic principles, or it could fizzle out. It will certainly be interesting to watch.


The Marriage of Scaled Hybridity and Uncle Sam

Note: The authors’ views expressed in this article do not reflect the views of the United States Agency for International Development or the United States Government

In my last post I discussed how the U.S. Government (USG) is funding civil society organizations (CSOs) abroad to help build their capacity to use new media in the pursuit of increased democracy and governance. Essentially, this initiative is based on the assumption that increased ability to engage in new media equals increased effectiveness in democracy promotion. However, without empirical evidence to test this assumption, it leaves new media development interventions open to criticism and failure. In this post I’ll outline why research focused on this small niche of USG funded organizations is important for more than just Washington bureaucrats.

Within the fields of both civil society and digital activism, one of the most debated topics is whether increased engagement in new media is in having a positive or negative influence on actors working towards increased democracy. On one hand, they represent invaluable tools for organizing and disseminating information – on the other they’re a window for repression and detached realities of progress. In short, it’s yet to be determined whether the ICT revolution is one of liberation technology or repression technology. A main reason this debate continues is the lack of research, particularly research along methodological lines of hybridity (a problem succinctly outlined in this post by Mary Joyce). Hybridity in this case refers to the identification of objects of analysis in which online and offline activity interact. This is a way to measure not only the digital footprint of activism, but also their real world implications. A key challenge of hybridity analysis is finding ways to scale research beyond qualitative case studies in a practical, cost-effective manner while still maintaining the richness of data required to measure offline activities.

With this challenge in mind, the small sub-set of CSOs receiving USG funding to support their democracy efforts in new media represent a unique sample from which to draw data from the broader spectrum of digital activists. Foremost, an organization receiving USG funds is generally bound to complete regular systematic monitoring of inputs, outputs, and outcomes coupled with at least one evaluation of population level impacts. A common yet disparaging theme of development project reporting is characterized by field staff writing lengthy reports only to be read once and then stuffed in a drawer never to see daylight again. The limited shelf life of these reports is understandable, they represent data specific to one project working in one country within a relatively narrow focus. A method for aggregating these individual reports and making them useful for cross-country comparison was exemplified by the Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a surge of billions of dollars to combat HIV/AIDS around the world initiated by President Bush and carried on by President Obama. PEPFAR instituted a rigorous format of reporting along standardized indicators as a requirement for any organization receiving its funds. The aggregate data from thousands of organizations across dozens of countries comes together in an annual report. This report allows PEPFAR to show demonstrable evidence of success to congress (thus ensuring continued funding), guides more effective programing, and adds a trove of data to the field of HIV/AIDS research.

A similar standardized reporting system initiated for CSOs receiving USG funding for new media promotion would have similar benefits, assisting in the discovery of conditions that allow the combination of new media and democracy promotion to flourish and where it’s destined to be fruitless or too risky an endeavor. A mandatory reporting system would also go a long way in solving one of the problems of scaled hybridity analysis, in that the collection of rich offline data falls not on the researcher traveling to each organization, but on trained staff within the CSO who are responsible for submitting reports on a regular basis.

A drawback to this method is that like all research, the usefulness of the data collected is dependent on the validity of the indicators and the quality of the measurements. In the field of digital activism, both of these areas have remained elusive from shared consensus. One possible starting point is the U.S Institute for Peace (USIP) report Blogs and Bullets , which outlines five levels of analysis for finding a comparable scale of measurement in regards to impact across organizations and countries. With considerable fleshing out it could serve as a useful framework to build standardized indicators that accurately capture hybridity.

Another distinct hurdle is that unlike success in battling HIV/AIDS, organizations working in democracy promotion may be wary to share a comprehensive record of their achievements, or even make public their acceptance of USG funds. Anonymity and limited public release of certain data are possible solutions, but caution would have to take precedence.

One more factor to consider is that standardized reporting across a sector is expensive for a development agency. It takes training, time and collaboration that require additional staff and funds from project budgets already stretched thin. PEPFAR can do it because it’s one of the largest development initiatives ever undertaken. USG funding to support democracy activists abroad in the use of new media is a relatively miniscule sliver of foreign aid, but as I wrote in my last post it has the potential to grow exponentially. But if this prediction proves true, it’s going to be critically important to have data that can answer the simple question: Is it a good idea? Developing a standardized hybridity analysis is beneficial not only for the USG, but also any international donor supporting democracy through new media. The results of such an analysis would help answer whether foreign funded democracy initiatives through new media support is a good idea, but also shed new light on the continuing cyber optimist – cyber pessimist debate.


In forthcoming posts I will continue to explore methods of evaluating the effectiveness of digital media used by civil society actors.


Britain Seeks to ID Rioters as Iran IDed Protesters

Always nice to see when democracies learn a digital trick from autocracies.

Exhibit A:, a site of unknown ownership which aims to crowdsource the identification of British rioters and pass along the info to police.


Exhibit B:, a site set up in 2009 by The Information Center of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps which aimed to crowdsource the identification of pro-democracy demonstrators.

If there was ever an argument for the ethical neutrality of digital tools, I guess this is it. The meaning of a tool is defined by the use and affordances can serve to protect civil society (giving Zavilia the benefit of the doubt here) or target it.

How Do You Study a Moving Object?

This morning I was reading Digitize This Book!for my side project on digital epistemology when I came across this 2001 quote from a book byPeter Lunenfeld,a professor in theDesign|Media Artsdepartment atUCLA.

A critical theory of technological media will always be in inherent conflict with the practice of creating these very media. For if theory demands from its objects a certain stability, theory is itself free to break the tethers of its objects…. The pressures of the market and the innovations of the laboratory combine to make stability impossible within the practice of digital media, however. [emphasis added]

To “pressures of the market” and “innovation of the laboratory,” Lunenfeld could also add “political contention” as a force preventing stability in the practice of digital media. For example, at one time, digital activists really did have the upper hand on the political uses of digital technology, but repressive regimes are becoming savvier to these uses and such activities as organizing online – previously safer than organizing in the street – now also entail dangers of surveillance, interception, and persecution. The practice of digital media – this case the practice of the political use of digital media – is constantly changing, never stable.

This instability is one of the of the reason I find the study of digital activism so fascinating, the practice of digital activism is constantly evolving, constantly incorporating new tools, creating and refining tactics, reacting to opponents. Yet it is also a real problem for scholars: how do you study a moving object? Once we feel we understand something about digital activism – either because practices correspond to an existing theory or because we make up a new theory to explain those practices – those practices subsequently change, upsetting the theoretical apple cart. How is is possible to make truthful statements under these circumstances? Lunenfeld has an answer: the digital dialectic.

The digital dialectic offers a way to talk about computer media that is open to the sophisticated methodologies of theory without ignoring the nuts a bolts or, better yet, the bits and byte of their production. To repeat, the digital dialectic… grounds the insights of theory in the constraints of practice.[emphasis added]

By digital dialectic Lunenfeld means that digital theory and digital practice interrogate one another such that theory frames our understanding of practice and practice informs theory in a kind of feedback loop.

I like the idea of a digital dialectic because it stresses that both theory and practice must co-exist in order to understand digital phenomena, but I don’t think it resolves the problem of the instability of practice. Even a process of constant interrogation can fail at pinning down the truth. Practically speaking, I think our best bets are to constantly collect and analyze new data about practices of digital activism: start the tape early, never stop it, and continually analyze new results. This is an appealing methodology for the Global Digital Activism Data Set, although it is an expensive and exhausting one.

Second, I think we need to be honest about the short shelf life of digital activism knowledge. We need to be explicit about the time at which data was collected and not make statements about the present with old data. How old is old? I’d say data about digital activism practice is valid for about a year, definitely outdated in five, though I’d be interested in other opinions on that figure. The constant change of digital activism make it an equally fascinating and maddening subject for study, but with a little humility and a rigorous requirement for the most recent data, we may yet be able to understand it.



Foreign Assistance for Digital Activism: The Research Problem

By Travis Mayo, Program Analyst at USAID Bureau for Global Health

Note: The authors’ views expressed in this article do not reflect the views of the United States Agency for International Development or the United States Government

Like a large ship, government agencies rarely change course quickly. However, when a new path is set there is a heck of a lot of momentum moving behind it. When Secretary of State Hilary Clinton delivered a speech on internet freedom in January 2010, it was a public trumpet call for initiatives already taking place that provide US government funds to support organizations using new technologies for democracy and human rights. Both the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development have started populating their democracy and governance portfolios with projects that focus on assisting civil society organizations build their capacity in the utilization and promotion of ICT and new media (it’s taken for granted that any civil society organization receiving said strengthening is working towards goals that improve democracy or governance in their country e.g. accountability, transparency, advocacy, etc.). The underlying assumption fueling these projects is the same that pervades through Secretary Clinton’s speech: increased access to new technologies will empower people, allow for greater freedom of expression and access to information, and thus enable safer, happier, more democratic societies.

The Problem

In general, the field of international development has a less than stellar reputation for monitoring and evaluation (M&E). To combat the problem, the field is witnessing increasing calls for stronger accountability and a reallocation of funds to proven development initiatives that are both effective and efficient. Development sectors like health have it comparatively easy when it comes to M&E, indicators are widely accepted and measurement comes down to funding, access and accuracy. Measuring democracy and governance on the other hand is much more difficult, even the definition of key terms such as accountability, transparency, and freedom are far from universal. Zero in on projects aiming to strengthen civil society’s utilization of ICT and new media, and the problem of M&E is compounded. A civil society group could be three teenagers in garage who monitor blogs, or it could be a multi-million dollar advocacy group with an office in the capital and several hundred field staff throughout the country. The type of new activities taking place as a direct result of increased ICT/new media utilization could be direct or indirect, internal or external, online or offline, or a combination of all the above. Altogether, this means developing an M&E plan for just one project in a single country is tricky, and measuring the aggregate effect of these projects across all countries and organizations is a significant problem.

The need for data that can measure the effect increased new media and ICT usage is having on the ability for civil society organizations to advance their goals should be clear. International donors don’t give their money to support malaria prevention methods that are based on an assumption, nor should millions be poured into the strengthening of civil society’s new media and ICT capacity without really knowing what you can expect in return.

Foreign Assistance by Sector - Source:

Democracy and Governance Funding by Sector - Source:


Working towards a Solution

Supporting civil society organizations ability to engage in digital activism is a new, and in terms of funding, relatively miniscule sector of foreign assistance. However, as internet and mobile phone penetration rates continue to rise and the innovative capabilities of new media are unraveled, the potential for increased funding is like a lit match over a barrel of gasoline. Moving forward, there is a distinct gap in available information to guide policy making. Research that can successfully develop indicators capable of measuring the ethereal combination of digital activism with on-the-ground results, as well as cogently comparing the resulting data across both countries and organizations, is sure to be a highly sought after commodity. At the very least, it would be nice to transition the theory from sensible assumption to proven method.

In my forthcoming posts I plan to explore methods of evaluating the effectiveness of digital media used by civil society actors.

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