What Kind of Digital Activism Knowledge do We Need?

As I’ve started discussing the need to codify digital activism knowledge with friends on colleagues, I sometimes get friendly nods or blank stares, but every so often someone tells me, “hey, I’ve been thinking about that too”. This makes me happy because it means I – we – are collectively onto something and that the digital activism zeitgeist is shifting away from endless anecdote and focus on novelty to a more rigorous – and more useful – analytical methodology.

This is the feeling I got when I read a HuffPo post by my former colleague Sam Graham-Felsen, the tireless lead blogger of the Obama campaign. He is joining The Alliance of Youth Movements – a digital activism juggernaut funded Google, Twitter, Facebook, Howcast, Blue State Digital – as Director of Strategy and Communications. AYM’s scale and organizational capacity outstrip the Meta-Activism Project (MAP) by several orders of magnitude, but we’re tapping into the same zeitgeist. Writes Sam:

Once Movements.org [AYM’s site] is fully launched, we’ll interview activists, tech leaders, and organizing experts, cover the latest developments in digital activism, explore the emergence of new tools, and analyze what’s working and what’s not. For example we’ll be looking at questions of how groups are using Facebook to not simply accumulate fans, but to drive supporters to take concrete, offline actions; how citizen watchdogs use mobile devices to report police corruption, while safeguarding their anonymity; and how is Twitter being used not simply to create an echo chamber with fellow activists, but to reach influential journalists and government officials.

Our hope is that, by learning from youth activists and tech experts across the world, we’ll be able to develop a comprehensive set of case studies and best practices — a sort of collective knowledge base for digital activism.

I am concerned about the longterm usefulness of collecting highly-contextual tactical knowledge, as AYM plans to do. Attending to the latest developments and tool uses will keep digital activists on the same treadmill they are on now: needing to update their understanding of digital activism with ever new tool and case. It will be difficult to create a “comprehensive” body of knowledge if the tactics are always changing. Sam gives examples of strategic use of Facebook and Twitter, but what happens when the next hot tool emerges? We will need new tactics, of course, but w e also need a body of knowledge that does not change. We need strategic knowledge.

Sam believes that combining “powerful technologies with core organizing principles” is a sufficient strategic underpinning for digital activism, while I believe that there are many pre-digital strategies, other than organizing theory, that apply to the digital space. None, however, fully comprehends the newly networked world in which activists now find themselves.

Despite these differences of opinion, I am really deeply and incredibly excited that AYM is focusing the discussion of digital activism on collecting knowledge. Now, if we could only start a dialogue about what that body of knowledge should include….

Tactical knowledge and case study have an important place, but in order for activists to have a durable framework that doesn’t change every time a new social media platform is is launched, we need a new body of strategic knowledge that fully accounts for the new realities of political power in a digitally networked world.

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