Digital Activism: A Look Back

Sometimes, the best way to move forward is to pause and take a look back. With the global debates about digital activism still raging, this post will highlight some of the scholarly works from the past few years that provide insights into the evolution of thought on digital activism. Studying these observations against the current backdrop will provide useful perspectives on the catalysts behind the change in tone of the dialogue surrounding this topic – moving from discussion and leaning more towards debate.


Internet was commercialized in the late 90's, and the Dotcom Boom had the world's attention right after

Dotcom Boom

As Trebor Scholz points out in Digital Activism Decoded, after the commercialization of the internet in the late 90’s, digital activism existed, but was not widely publicized. With the arrival of the dotcom hype, few others made headlines, possibly drawing attention away and allowing the discussion of the topic to be observations, instead of arguments. To put it simply, while hackers and activists were still active and embracing new tools, the audience was witnessing a different game at another arena.

Howard Rheingold in his book, The Virtual Community, speaks of grassroots activist David Hughes’ travels to towns, meetings with locals and how his pioneering efforts revealed the world of computers and internet to several townsfolk. As early as 1988, when interviewed by Rheingold, Hughes spoke of his online activism, bringing an online forum to let local vendors express their concerns [See here]. Such stories of new domains conquered and online pioneers are not new today, but the numbers have certainly grown. Although Hughes’ efforts might have been met with skepticism by some, they had no distinct individual forum on which to debate the subject’s legitimacy. While letting a pioneering trend take root was a blessing, the current environment is distinctly different. There are many aspiring to be someone like David Hughes and an equal number of critics. It is a healthy debate, for sure, but one that has only recently evolved into a fierce one.

Protests and internet broadcast channels

With the protests against the WTO in 1999, came the arrival of activist-run Internet broadcast channel, Indymedia. Started with the goal of challenging mainstream media stories, this was a great precursor to the fiery brand of citizen journalism we witness today. Oppressive government regimes and crackdowns on Internet and journalistic freedom were prevalent in the late 90’s and early 2000 as well, as outlined by Scholz [See here]. But, the amplifying power of retweets, likes, blog posts and other outlets used by the tech-savvy 21st century activists, and, more importantly, their supporters, have brought the field of digital activism into focus, for better or for worse.

Old thoughts, new changes

In his book, Who Is My Neighbor? : Social Affinity In A Modern World James A. Vela-McConnell says that the lack of a “human face” makes an e-mail more likely to be ignored and makes virtual activism less likely to be a substitute for actual activism, acknowledging its virtue as a supplement instead. This observation in his 1999 book, is one that is in line with what cyber-optimists and cyber-pessimists (in varying degrees), still acknowledge. While there was not much “noise” (read: lively debate) around this notion expressed then, it has become a full-blown verbal hurling match with no specific targets in the digital activism idea space today. What has changed, perhaps, is the nature of virtual activism, which Vela-McConnell stated as lacking critical exposure by being invisible to the media and public. In twelve short years, we are at the age of 24-hour news channels broadcasting Twitter feeds to support (or create) news stories.


Online activism complements offline action

Another instance of online activism is alluded to by Meredith Minkler in Community Organizing andCommunity Building for Health. A Public Electronic Network of Santa Monica, California is referred to as case of organizing online, pointing to local online networks addressing health concerns as the precursors to this breed of activism. Another early digital activism campaign was the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).

Progress and more

Digital activism has shown tremendous progress, evolving from a local neighborhood network to spread messages of health or a conscious citizen spreading the word about technology to the age of social media and almost-everyone-has-a-voice-and-an-opinion. While I will continue to focus on more scholarly opinions and the evolution of thought on digital activism in future posts, the key takeaway from this discussion is the simultaneous transformation of the nature of discussion of the subject. The digital activism world, if considered as a sphere in itself, has become more public now – everyone has an opinion and everyone wants to share it, while few want to listen and still fewer want to make amends and consider moving forward. Despite its relevance being established, constructive thought is being muddled by whispers of the dangers of slacktivism and over-hyping the dictator-toppling potential of a particular medium.

The Shirky-Morozov era (yes, I generalize) is one of lively debate, thoughtful writers and, above all, concerned thinkers. Ten years from now, I hope to reminisce about the progress of digital activism thought instead of regretting the muddle of crowded debates that the decade past had been.


9 thoughts on “Digital Activism: A Look Back

  1. I think you’re right that ’99 WTO protests, and the anti-globalization movement in general, were watershed moments in digital activism’s development. A need for international coordination was met by creative, tech-savvy, and experimental activists.

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