Mobilizing Structures and a Dig at Gladwell

How Could Social Media Affect Mobilizing Structures?

“Mobilizing structures” (established organizations or prior networks that help groups to mobilize) are perhaps the element of social movement analysis most likely to be altered by the presence of social media, since much of social media is about group behavior. I am sure I’ll be writing more about these structures as I move through Doug McAdam‘s book (previous posts here and here), but I thought this quote was a good place to start. McAdam writes:

Movements almost arise through the transformation of an existing collective into a vehicle of collective protest.

This is interesting, because much of grassroots digital activism involves ad-hoc group formation
– a Facebook page or listserv created the moment a threat or opportunity is perceived in order for the activists to first discuss and then mobilize in response to it. McAdam’s statement has three possible implications for digital activism’s ad-hoc groups:

  1. No Change: In most cases ad-hoc groups will fail because full-fledged movements arise from existing collectives.
  2. Scale Change: Social media means that there will be new types of collectives (Facebook groups in additions to NGOs and church congregations), but those collectives still need to be pre-existing in order to be effective.
  3. Model Change: The emergence of the new phenomena of vanishingly simple group formation, made possible by social media, means that the necessity of pre-existing collectives no longer holds true.

I must say that as of now I think the effect of social media is one of scale change – that pre-existing collectives are still necessary. Here I am just thinking anecdotally (the role of the pre-existing “We are All Khaled Said” Facebook group in the Egyptian revolution, for example), though hopefully the results of the Global Digital Activism Data Set will give us more empirical information. So I’ll reserve judgment.

Embedded: Strong and Weak Ties in the Collective

Yet McAdam brings up another element of existing collectives that is worth noting because it comments directly on Malcolm Gladwell’s chief critique of digital activism: offline activism is rooted in strong ties that are effective for mobilization and digital activism is rooted in weak ties that are ineffective. (It also helps that both writers use the American civil rights movement as their main example.)

McAdam comes at this issue using the idea of movement insiders and outsiders. Traditionally people think of movements as mobilizing outsiders (or bystanders) to join. But McAdam thinks this is wrong:

…the traditional formulation that poses the problem as one in which outsiders must be induced to join a movement is almost never approximated in real life. Instead, insiders are threatened with the loss of member benefits for failing to take part.

This formulation does not bode well for digital activism as one cannot be kicked out of Facebook for failing to participate in a digital campaign. Facebook has a much lower bar to membership than being a member of a church congregation or even a neighborhood.

However, it is here that McAdam draws a critical distinction: it all depends on how “embedded” you are in that community, whether your ties are strong or weak. For those who are weakly embedded (weak ties), “the rational option is non-participation,” for those who are deeply embedded (strong ties), the rational option is “participation in the struggle.”

The nuance McAdam is alluding to here – which eluded Gladwell – is that in any existing collective there can be strong and weak ties. It is not that members of church groups all have strong ties and members of social networks all have weak ties. Any community has people that are deeply committed, people that are barely even engaged, and a lot of people somewhere in the middle. (Research task: use surveys to create embeddedness curves for activist Facebook groups).

We know that social media has been used to effectively mobilize revolution (yes, Egypt is still the best example) and we know that social media can be tremendously ineffective at mobilizing even a donation (Evgeny Morozov’s “Saving the Children of Africa” example).

So social media is not the deciding factor – embeddedness is. The question now: what accounts for embeddedness? McAdam probably has a more elegant way of saying it, but I am going to say “inter-personal relationships.” Yes, it is easiest to form relationships with people offline and, in the case of Facebook, which encourages people to link to existing friends, the strongest ties online are probably to people with whom we have strong ties offline.

But it is possible to form strong ties online too. Here I am thinking of the hackers of 4chan’s Anonymous, most of whom do not know each other offline and who don’t even know each other’s real names, but who, through hours of online interaction, develop relationships with one another, and an insider status that can be threatened in the way McAdam describes (“we’re all going to hack the MasterCard site, are you in?”).

It’s time to stop viewing online and offline activism as two separate spheres and start looking for areas of overlap and areas of exception. As digital technology becomes more embedded in our lives, the two sphere are beginning to merge and our analysis of activists needs to reflect the complexity of that interaction.





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