by Mary Joyce
Likes many of my peers, I am currently reading “CS by CS” (Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky). The book does an excellent job of clarifying, synthesizing, and highlighting some of the best new thought on digital technology and society in recent years, including ideas from Shirky’s earlier book, Here Comes Everybody.
Shirky has a preternatural gift for distilling complex ideas into elegant metaphors. What Yochai Benkler referred to as “capital-intensive projects toward a production and organizational strategy that could justify the investments” in his 2006 book The Wealth of Networks, Shirky dubs simply “Gutenburg economics”.
Early in Shirky’s book, he addresses the reduction in the quality of published content in the digital age: “the easier it is for the average person to publish, the more average what gets published becomes.” We are seeing the same phenomenon in digital activism. As digital devices proliferate and digital applications become both more powerful and easier to use, more politically-engaged people are able get involved.
However, as the bar is lowered and mobilization attempts become easier, less skilled and less committed people are able to take action. The result is not only more activism, but more “bad” activism: ineffective campaigns that fail in achieving their strategic goal. Common references to slacktivism, nano-activism, and armchair activism highlight this new trend: as it is easier to take part in activism using digital means, those who barely care are taking barely effective or ineffective actions by changing their buddy icon or joining a Facebook group.
Yet Shirky argues that this increase in participation has “compensating values”, despite the reduction in average quality. The first is the increase in experimentation in form, which is certainly true of digital activism. The classic political action of the past hundred years has been the sign-waving protest, and because it is now so common, it has lost much of its bite. However, recent digital campaigns have used new digital tools in new ways. In the recent campaign against alleged polluter Trafigura, activists used the tool SideWiki to post damning evidence on the company’s own web site. After a swimming pool in the US refused to admit Africa-American children, activists used Google Reviews to publicly criticize the club. In both cases, partially due to these digital tactics, the activists succeeded in bringing about a response either from the government or the offending party.
Each co-option of a commercial digital platform for activism is an example of this experimentation. Some new tactics will be ineffective and some will lose effectiveness over time (Facebook activism was once an innovation too…) but the breadth of experimentation now possible means that a few solid tactics are likely to arise.
Shirky’s second point is that increased participation leads to increased diversity of participants. Though initial research indicates that digital activists are likely to be economically privileged, this privileged group is dispersed around the world. In the cases of the Iran and Moldova protests, and the Mumbai terror attacks, people were glued to Twitter as local people reported events as they unfolded, rather than professional reporters. In addition, the rise of mobile phones and the mobile Internet is pushing participation down the socio-economic in meaningful ways, including crisis reporting.
The last two points that Shirky makes about the benefits of increasing ordinary participation are less applicable to the digital activism space, but still worth mentioning. Shirky notes that, exactly because there is no way to filter for quality, and supposedly low-quality content is published, this may change our idea of what quality is. This applies less to digital activism, because the success of a tactic is measured not by personal taste but by whether or not a strategic goal is achieved.
Fourth, Shirky says that the reduction in the scarcity of publication may change the way we equate scarcity with value. Simply because there is a lot of something, doesn’t mean it is worthless. However, the propagation of do-nothing cause-related Facebook groups indicates that the economics of abundance are a little more complicated in digital activism, where a ballooning number of causes must compete for the finite attention and time of politically-engaged people.
Shirky ends on a positive note, and so will I:
…abundance brings a rapid fall in average quality, but over time experimentation pays off, diversity expands, the range of the possible, and the best work becomes better than what went before.