Time to Adapt: Analog Theory Meets Digital Activism

Time to fix the map: Analog theories do not fully explain digital activism. (image: Flickr/Alex E. Proimos)

Theory is like a map to a place one has never been. With the right theory, the new location is illuminated. The bank is across from the supermarket and the elementary school beside the park, just as predicted. With the wrong theory, confusion reigns. There is a bank, but it is across from the school, not the supermarket. There is no park. There is a new ice cream store in town, which would have been nice to know about, but the map did not indicate it. Discarding the map entirely seems an overreaction, but one does need to get out a pen, fix the errors, and add the new locations that are missing.

The above metaphor roughly describes the circumstances of analog theories of activism in the age of digital media. They lack the predictive power they once had because activism has changed.  Analog theories can explain some, but not all, of digital activism. (For example, analog theories accurately describe the centralized structures of campaigns initiated by NGOs, but cannot describe the decentralized networked structures of crowd campaigns like Occupy and the Arab Spring) (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013).

Of all analog theories of activism, social movement theory had the greatest descriptive and predictive power in the analog era, so its value in the digital era is the most highly contested.  When scholars began studying digital activism in the mid 1990’s, they immediately began to use social movement theory to describe the new types of activism they were seeing. (Cleaver, 1998; Froehling, 1997; Myers, 1994; Wray, 1998).  Though a number of other frameworks were applied, including rhetoric (Gurak, 1999), critical theory (Langman, 2005), and computer-mediated communication (Russell, 2001), social movement theory never lost its dominant position.

Why was social movement theory so appealing in describing the effect of digital media on contentious politics? First, and more importantly, it accurately described activism in the analog era, the context in which it was developed. It is a rich and well-developed body of theory, with many ready-made concepts, such as collective identity, that can be applied to digital activism.

Analog activism and digital activism also share structural similarities. Both involve claims, claimants, targets, and mobilization. As a result of this perceived ease-of-fit, much of the literature of digitally mediated contentious politics has been an extension of social movement theory (De Jong, Shaw, & Stammers, 2005; Earl & Schussman, 2002; Garrett, 2006; McCaughey & Ayers, 2003; Juris, 2005; Leizerov, 2000; Van de Donk, Loader, Nixon, & Rucht, 2004).

However, other scholars are beginning to describe how social movement theory falls short in its explanations of digital activism. Social movement theory assumes a central social movement organization that plans collective actions and mobilizes the resources necessary to carry them out. Yet the inexpensive coordination afforded by digital media make centralization less necessary and resource requirements lower. As a result, leadership is more fluid and rigidly hierarchical organizations are losing ground to hybrid organizations with more networked structures and networked crowds with fluid structures (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Chadwick, 2007; Dunn, 2012; Karpf, 2012; Tufekci, 2011; Shirky, 2009).

Moreover, much as digital activism is composed of isolated tactics and small campaigns that are not connected to broader social movements.  Social movement can only explain these smaller instances of contention as part of a larger whole.

Because analog social movements were resource-intensive, free-riding was an overarching concern and collective identity was seen as a providing a bulwark of solidarity and commitment (Hunt & Benford, 2007; Olson, 1965). These mechanisms operate differently when digital media is used. Because fewer resources are needed to coordinate, there is no longer the foregone assumption that a non-participant is benefiting from expended resources without earning that benefit through participation. Also, resource mobilization that does occur is more likely to be organized by participants than by a central social movement organization, again changing the calculus of the free-rider (Agarwal, Bennett, Johnson, & Walker, 2013).

The reduced role of central organizations, combined with the greater expectation of self-expression following the rise of social media, has reduced the value and necessity of collective identity frames (Brunsting & Postmes, 2002). More flexible personal action frames that legitimize the self-expression of the individual participant are also proving to be effective mobilizers (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013).

Yet, as Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg note in their forthcoming book, The Logic of Connective Action, these critiques should best be viewed as an adaptation of social movement theory, not a replacement.  Analog theory needs to be adapted and extended, but not discarded.


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