Shakespeare wrote that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but if it were also called a “fragrant blush petalation,” “pink prickler,” or “Valentine’s blossom,” that would certainly cause confusion. When we talk about the effect of digitally networked technologies on contentious politics, we are met with an equally thorny problem: we are in a moment of Babel.

A forthcoming chapter on contingency (strategic use) and hybridity (online-offline duality), by Alix Dunn and Christopher Wilson of The Engine Room, begins:

The academic study of digital media use in political mobilization and advocacy is in the process of defining itself. Spanning a variety of disciplines and theoretical frameworks, analyses of “digital activism”, “new new social movements”, “ICT4HRs” and “cyber movements” constitute an emergent field of study that has yet to assert a common research agenda or mode of analysis.

Updates from a Decade of Babel

Over a decade after the Zapatistas arguable launched modern digital activism as a global phenomenon with their use of the web to promote their cause, followed by the early hacktivist FloodNet solidarity action, we cannot even agree on what we are talking about. (I only use the term “digital activism” here because it is my organization’s focus and it is in regular use, but I acknowledge that it is only one of the several terms jostling to define the field.)

This isn’t a new problem. I first started addressing the battle for definition in 2009, with a post on DigiActive.or when I was first getting interested in the macro-theory of digital activism. The post included several visualizations of the relative popularity of different terms (I used the phrase “mind share” a lot) and I even attempted to define all the terms relative to one another by use of a complicated Venn diagram (see left).

Since then there have been some winners and losers in the name game. Though we’re still only in the quarter-finals of selecting a clear naming convention for this field, I thought an update was in order.

The 1990’s – Less Hip Than Ancient Greeks

So, who are the losers? Any term with the prefix “e-” now seems horribly out-dated, hopelessly linked to the mid-nineties when the public web was in its infancy and a computer was simply an electronic device for doing previously paper-based tasks like sending messages, writing reports, and creating numeric tables. So e-activism and e-advocacy are out.

Interestingly, the same is not true of the even earlier prefix “cyber,” which is actually derived from the Greek kybern?t?s, steersman or pilot, and was used to refer to computers as early as the 1970s, when the Control Data Corporation (CDC) sold the “Cyber” range of supercomputers. Yet the cyber prefixs hangs on. Not only is it in common usage in the terms “cybercrime” and “cyber-attack,” hacktivists themselves use it. The alternately lulzy and politically motivated hacker group LulzSec has defined their mission as “the expression of energy through comically malicious and entertaining cybermaterials.” So while the term cyberactivism is less in vogue, its prefix may still prove to be relevant.

It Helps to Have a Posse

Then there are the terms-with-organizational-constituencies. Info-activism was coined and is promulgated by Tactical Technology Collective. The earliest reference to liberation technology was an article by Frederick Noronha in a 2003 issue of Linux Journal, but the term is currently being promulgated by the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford.

Likewise the term civic media, while broader than the other two, was in the early nineties, when the Civic Media Center opened in Gainesville, Florida, yet the term is now promulgated most visibly by the Center for Civic Media at MIT, founded in 2007 with the word “future” in its title.

Though from a much smaller stage, I guess it’s fair that I take some blame for pushing the term digital activism, first through and now through this project. The earliest usage I found for the term was a 2003 London event sponsored by and and it’s popular internationally among grassroots activists.

When you’re a word, it helps to have a posse, a group of people that you can count on to use you in papers, blog posts, tweets, and events, to define you, to spread you far and wide. While the words above are affiliated with specific organizations, even a term like social media for social change (coined in 2008 by blogger Gradon Tripp), is particularly popular in the Western NGO world as a way for established social change organizations to harness the power of new media to increase their efficacy.

People who come from a traditional organizing background have promoted the term online organizing as a means to digitally enhance the work of engaging citizens to mobilize their peers around issues of mutual concern. The New new social movements and cyber movements that Dunn and Wilson mention come from academia’s attempts to draw social movement theory into a twenty-first century context.

In a way, the fragmentation in terminology merely reflects the fragmentation of these constituencies. The sociologists have their terms and so do the organizers and the social media consultants. As long as these constituencies are able to be understood among themselves, there is little motivation to develop terms that are understood across constituencies. The lack of communication and coordination among the different groups engaged in the study and use of digital technology in a political context is both caused and exacerbated by the lack of common terminology.

One Word to Rule Them All?

This is not to say that improved communication would lead to a single consensus term. These words are not interchangeable. “Social media for social change” refers to a specific type of digital tools while “online organizing” implies both an Internet-based tool set and a specific means of using them. ICT4HR implies the broadest possible tool set (even a landline phone or telegraph would be included), but does specify a type of cause: human rights.

There will not be one word that wins out and comes to define all interaction between humans, technology, and social and political power. The problem is that these terms do not actually have mutually exclusive meanings and the terminology of our field is marked by imprecision. People use words like “digital activism” and “online organizing” interchangeably where there meanings rightly include some areas of overlap and some of mutual exclusivity.

Time for Closure

Wiebe Bijker of the University of Maastricht has an elegant little term for the way in which social groups differ over the definition of a social artifact they share: “interpretive flexibility.” In his 2008 book Technology & Social Power, Graeme Kirkpatrick of the University of Manchester explains:

Writing the social history of an artefact in constructionist terms involves identifying a series of steps or phases in its development. First, it will be possible to identify one or more relevant social groups who participate in defining the artefact, constituting it as a meaningful object and picking out certain of its possibilities. These groups will then be found to differ over its correct interpretation…. During this time the artifact is said to have “interpretive flexibility” its meaning-significance is open to be negotiated and contested by relevant social groups.

I quoted this same passage in 2009, and we have not made much progress towards “rhetorical closure,” the final step in defining the meaning of a new technology. Yes, certain terms like “e-advocacy” and “e-activism” have lost popularity, but others, like “liberation technology,” are on the rise.

In a way, it is defensible that our terminology changes as the phenomena itself does. The “e-advocacy” or the nineties is certainly a different beast than the “social media for social change” of the aughts.

Yet to see a narrowing of terms, a consensus. I fear that this lack of shared language will maintain the tribalism of study and practice and thus retard our understanding of this incredibly important phenomena. The Tower of Babel is a symbol of shared language divided. We have never had that moment. Yet we must work to create a shared vocabulary if we wish to build shared understanding together.

image: suizilla / and the sea

Posted by:Mary

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