From Our Book: Debunking the “Great Potential” Myth

Today’s excerpt, by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of Columbia University, challenges the just-around-the-corner optimism of digital activism proponents, who are forever referencing the “great potential” of digital technology to alter politics in the future. Later in the chapter, Nielsen calls upon his own original research on the use of digital technology in US electoral campaign, reframing digital activism more humbly as simply a “practical prosthetic” on pre-digital campaigning practices. The book is available for free download here and for hard copy sale here.

…For 15 years, the “great potential” of digital technologies for activism—in electoral politics, in social movements, in civic life more generally—has been trumpeted by academics, elected officials, and political professionals.

The idea of a technologically driven radical break with the past—an end to politics as usual—took off after Mosaic, the first browser, popularized the Web in 1994 and politicians and activists started to get online in greater numbers. Some saw the upset victory of the populist former wrestler Jesse Ventura in the 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial election as an example of the great potential of new technologies for political activism; his supporters had used a combination of the campaign website and various online discussion forums to organize volunteers and reach voters. Many hailed the massive protests against the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in 1999, the so-called “Battle of Seattle”, as a demonstration of the great potential of these tools for movement activism because of the rise of citizen media sites like Indymedia. Others have praised the explosive growth of MoveOn since its founding in 1998 as an illustration of the great potential digital technologies have for issue activism.

Political consultant, pundit, and pontificator extraordinaire Dick Morris went one step further when he asserted, in his 1999 book,, that the Internet was giving power back to the people.

The big-donor-financed, television-dominated, low-turnout business-as-usual George W. Bush vs. Al Gore slugfest in the 2000 American presidential election seemed to give even the most ardent believers in the “great potential” pause—but soon enough, they were back on track, highlighting the initial success of Howard Dean’s 2004 “people-powered politics,” the subsequent rise of the blog-based netroots, and, in 2008, the success of the Barack Obama campaign.

The notion has its detractors, of course—one could talk about a competing narrative of “great denial,” propagated by those who argue that the Internet has no discernible consequences for activism—but the idea of the “great potential” is still very much alive and well. The examples usually offered to support the great potential hypothesis have three elements in common.

First, they illustrate that the idea of radical change has been with us for at least ten years (like other new information and communication technologies before it, including radio and television, the Web has inspired a lot of technological utopianism about direct democracy).

Second, the examples all contain a kernel of truth in that they do show that Internet tools hold considerable practical promise—and represent kinds of problems that are at least somewhat novel—for various kinds of activism. Ventura did win, Howard Dean did mobilize many activists, Barack Obama did become president, and all three campaigns made innovative use of new technologies.

Third, that very kernel of truth, however, tends to overshadow the equally important fact that the examples are all rare exceptions underlining that the great potential is rarely realized. Most gubernatorial elections are not won by dark-horse challengers—Internet-savvy or not. Most protests against global trade policies do not mobilize tens of thousands—whether they use cell phones and email or not. Most issue campaigns are not as successful as MoveOn, whether they are online or not. Even when they have added an “action center” to their website, most political organizations have not been surrounded by the kinds of activism generated around Howard Dean or Barack Obama. This is obvious within the context of American politics alone and even more so in a comparative perspective. Many countries with at least as high levels of Internet penetration and all-round technological savvy as the United States have yet to witness such spectacular examples of successful digital politics. Clearly, technology alone is not enough.

While remaining cognizant that the practical promise of new technologies is important, the incessant talk of “great potential” can be dangerously misleading if it is taken to describe the present realities of digitally augmented and Internet-assisted activism. We have no systematic evidence to suggest that the Web has given power back to the people. (Nor do I believe that any future technology will.) Those who engage in activism and politics, digital or not, need to face this squarely or they will underestimate the challenges they face—attempts at crowdsourcing that did not produce a crowd, the many instances of flashmobbing” where no mob materialized, and the many attempts at collaborative production where no collaborators were to be found.

Power is not something activists “get.” It is something they build.

Attempts to change the world remain uphill struggles and few take active part in them. The diffusion of ever-higher-bandwidth online access in the wealthiest parts of the world, the spread of networked mobile communications devices, and the explosive growth in the number of Internet applications that might be used for activism have not resulted in resurgent popular involvement in politics, a broader civic renaissance, or the withering away of entrenched interests or other existing powerful groups. This is, in scholar Matthew Hindman’s words, “not the digital democracy we ordered.”

If you find this surprising, it is because you have heard too much about the great potential and about a few exceptional cases and too little about the remaining multitude of political campaigns, social movements, and issue groups engaged in activism.

Take political campaigns as an example—there are about five hundred thousand elected offices in the United States alone. Most of those running for them are not like Howard Dean, let alone Barack Obama—nor are their campaigns. While they use the Internet and their supporters often engage in digital activism, still relatively few individuals volunteer for political campaigns, despite the ever-greater use by more and more people of digital technologies for more and more tasks. In addition, remember that social movements involve only small minorities of their supposed constituencies, that issue campaigns struggle to mobilize support, and that the associational life that many consider to be central to a strong and vibrant civil society has not experienced an overall resurgence in our undoubtedly increasingly “connected age.”

The key value of digital activism is as poorly understood with reference to its “great potential” as it is by those in the throes of the “great denial.” Its significance, instead, lies in the practical promises and problems that accompany digital politics as usual.

Understanding this involves close attention to the concrete use of new tools in slow, piecemeal, and often unsatisfying, unequal, and inconclusive everyday political struggles.

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