One of the signs of a progress in a field of study is when you can take events and evaluate them against competing theories of the social universe. In current studies of digital activism, we are theorizing from cases, often without bothering to check the historical record to see whether digital media can be credited with whatever is being attributed to it.
Which brings us to the protests organized this week, on Facebook, by New Jersey high school students protesting budget cuts by Republican Governor Chris Christie. These protests were not localized to a single district, or a small cluster of districts, as you might expect in a non-networked world. They spread all over the state, apparently without any serious coordination. Students saw that their friends were joining this group, signaling discontent with state policies, and assuring individuals that if they went out to protest, they would not be alone, at the mercy of administrators who might punish a handful of walkouts but are helpless to take punitive action against hundreds or thousands of students.
As Shirky would argue: organizing without organizations. The speed with which this Facebook group went from one person’s vanity project to a statewide protest event suggests, again, that we need to refine our theories to account for what appear to be cascade or tipping dynamics. What we shouldn’t do is take the newspaper accounts of these protests and say “look I’ve found digital activism!” It might be, it might not be.
What we would have to do, as responsible social scientists, is kick the tires of the past a bit. When was the last time New Jersey faced serious school budget cuts? I’m asking that as an empirical question. Did students protest? If so did those protests spread across the state? We’d have to try to find the network connections, embedded in online social networks, between students at different schools. If there’s one thing we know about Facebook, is it makes “small worlds” even smaller. Connections between individuals in different social clusters allow ideas to travel faster and to reach audiences that either would not have been possible in the past, or would have taken days or weeks of organizing. And who organizes high school students, exactly? They aren’t exactly on the UAW’s radar.
Facebook here appears to be facilitating precisely the kind of action we most hope to see: demands for justice, transparency, and voice for a group of people who are completely marginalized and without power, typically with zero say in their own learning conditions. But again, if we’r’e going to make the claim, we have to do the harder work of investigation.