by Mary Joyce
Imagine you want to win a race. You begin training every day, change your diet, and greatly reduce your time. You’re in the best shape of your life. However, on the day on the race, you finish two seconds late and lose the race. Instead of being the guy in the middle leaping over the finish line, you’re the guy in the white shirt who almost made it. Was this a success or a failure?
In digital activism, this kind of situation occurs all the time. Activists are successful in completing the tactics they have laid out for themselves (getting thousands of people in the street, developing a coherent message, building a flexible organization) but they fail in their ultimate goal (overthrowing a dictatorial government, throwing out the results of a rigged election). The 2009 post-election mobilization in Iran is a perfect example: successful mobilization, failure in goal of overturning election results.
Currently the value of a digital activism is in the eye of the beholder. The optimists say that the mobilization made it a success. The pessimists and skeptics say that the mobilization was a failure because they did not achieve their ultimate goal.
But both sides can be right if we look at this empirically as tactical success vs. strategic success. A strategy is a plan that includes a series of actions taken to achieve a goal. Each action is a tactic. So if your goal is to win a race, your tactics would be to train, to go on a special diet, to measure your times to track your progress. Likewise, if your goal is to overturn an election result, you may decide that taking to the street, to show the government that you do not accept the result, is a good tactic. Maybe you are wrong.
Often, when a digital tactic succeeds, the technology worked, but the strategy was somehow flawed. We need to know how and when the technology works so that best practices can be replicated. We need to pay attention to tactical successes. But we also need to remember that tactical success + strategic failure is not good enough. Digital technology provides that means for activists to record, process, reveal, co-create, request, and aggregate in a way never before possible. But technology doesn’t solve the strategic questions of target, audience, message, opportunity structure, alliance-building, isolation of opponents… the list goes on.
A failure of strategy of is not a failure of technology. It just reveals technology’s limits.