Review by Jennifer F. Wood, Millersville University of Pennsylvania

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Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age
Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport
Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2011. Pp. 258. Book.

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Cover of Digitally Enabled Social Change

Historically activism has been used to assist individuals, groups, organizations, and communities to secure social change. Technology continues to develop as a complementary tool and the book Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age explores how Web technology is being used to accomplish needed social change. Specifically, four kinds of e-tactics—online petitions, online boycotts, online letter writing, and email campaigns—are studied using samples of host Web sites or linked sites.

Earl and Kimport kick off in Chapter 1, Introduction, with a focus on a continuum of online activism—e-mobilizations, e-movements, and e-tactics. They use a January 2007 march and rally in Washington, D.C., organized by the United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), as a primary example of e-mobilizations. As an example of e-movements, the authors discuss the “strategic voting movement” (Earl & Schussman 2003, 2004; Schussman & Earl 2004)—which is a set of Web sites that emerged during the 2000 presidential election. “The basic premise of all of these sites was that if voters worked together—if voters thought of voting as a collective act—they could realize their conditional preferences” (p. 6). Next, the Web site PetitionOnline—a site that allows petition creators to post their petition online and manages the signatures—was used as a primary example of e-tactics. Overall, the authors explore the Web as a technology to illuminate online and offline actions and movements. This chapter is used to set the stage for outlining affordances—types of action or a characteristic of action that technology enables through its design (p. 10)— as a key factor in the digital enablement of social change.

Chapter 2, Where We Have Been and Where We Are Headed, provides a literature review on (a) the Web and (b) Web activism. A goal of the chapter is to “point out key methodological and theoretical splits among researchers studying Web protest” (p. 21) as a backdrop for the authors’ arguments about “technological affordances” (p. 32) and their leveraged affordances approach—how people leverage technological affordances. Earl and Kimport state: “We are claiming that social impacts of technologies depend on the extent to which people notice and then skillfully (or less skillfully) try to leverage key affordances” (p 33).

These claims are the basis for a population-level study of e-tactics. Specifically, the authors gathered data in 2004 using “content coding of a quasi-random sample of sites that engage in one ore more of four focal online protest forms (petitions, letter-writing campaigns, email campaigns, and boycotts) and that a user could find if not given the Web address…” (p. 17). Thus, Chapter 3, The Look and Feel of E-tactics and Their Web Sites, accomplishes three tasks: (1) examines histories of the protest forms used by social movements; (2) provides further depth about research methods for this study (while referring to the 16-page methodological appendix); and (3) outlines the online environment at the time of protest actions they study—including warehouse and nonwarehouse sites; and e-tactics hosted or linked to the sites. However, it is unclear how social change and activism are being addressed. Technological forces are known to drive social change. Thus, readers would be interested in how e-tactics are being used to bring about and resist change.

The next four chapters focus on two technological affordances—costs and copresence. First, the authors “focus on the cost affordance of the Web and trace how it has been leveraged in e-tactics” (p. 63) by both protest participants and protest organizers. Specifically, Chapter 4, Taking Action on the Cheap: Costs and Participation, begins with a focus on the role of costs in classic social movement theory and research ranging from the psychological dispositions or anomic qualities of social movement participants to the development of resource mobilization or the political process model. Next, the authors discuss the emerging literature on Web activism that suggests that innovative uses of the web can reduce costs including supersizing participation, Theory 2.0 participation, and flash activism. The remainder of the chapter provides the authors’ discussion of what data in the sample of specific e-tactics can show about how innovative online actions look and how they reduce costs for participants; and the potential implications of these changes (p. 66).

In Chapter 5, Making Action on the Cheap: Costs and Organizing, the authors discuss the impacts of low costs on organizers by comparing e-tactics organized by Social Movement Organizations (SMOs) to those organized by non-SMOs. The authors are very clear when they express “[the fact] that there is a cost-reducing affordance of Internet-enabled technologies is not the new element to our story. What is new is tracing out the consequences of this theoretically and empirically by determining which effects are essentially business as usual with a marginal twist (supersizing), pie-in-the-sky optimism that is supported in only a few cases (notice, there is still only one Wikipedia), or seemingly robust effects across a range of Web sites (theory 2.0 changes)” (p. 103).

Second, the authors examine protest without copresence. “We analyze the way that the asynchronous structure of action on the Web affects participation in and the organization of protest online” (p. 120). Social movements are often characterized by the inclusion of physical marches and rallies. However in Chapter 6, Being Together versus Working Together: Copresence in Participation, the authors examine the copresence of individuals through collective action such as signing a common petition online, massive letter-writing and email campaigns, and using other Internet-enabled technologies to collaborate with copresence for social change in meaningful and potentially transformative ways (p. 126). The decision to report or not to report participation is a viable issue.

The authors continue by examining the collective action of organizers because “if properly leveraged, Web tools also dispense with the need for physical togetherness among protest organizers” (p. 147). Specifically in Chapter 7, From Power in Numbers to Power Laws: Copresence in Organizing, Earl and Kimport discuss how people can organize without coming together physically and at the same time question “whether organizing even needs to be collective at all” (p. 147).

Overall, these four chapters make a contribution to research. At the same time, the expectations from the book title suggests a hint of Action Research (AR)—a set of collaborative ways of conducting social research that simultaneously satisfies rigorous scientific requirements and promotes democratic social change (Greenwood & Levin, 2007, p. 1). Therefore, it would be more effective to articulate how e-tactics and the two affordances (at both levels) effect organizers who believe that there work is for the purpose of nurturing a more active and engaged citizenry by attracting and organizing them for participation in social change.

Chapter 8, A New Digital Repertoire of Contention, begins with a recap of the arguments presented throughout the book. Next, digital repertoire of contention is compared to traditional and modern repertories of contention. A useful definition here is “repertoire of contention”: “the set of tactics available for use at a given historical moment as well as the characteristics that those tactics fundamentally share” (Tilly, 1977). Earl and Kimport clearly articulate that organizers and activists must learn how to perform protest, and they therefore choose tactics from a culturally and historically specific set (p. 179). At the same time, they begin to provide suggestions about what does a new digital repertoire of contention offer (a) social movement studies and (b) Internet studies.

The conclusion, Chapter 9, offers a discussion about the e-tactics study as a whole and things that have happened since the initial data collection; contributions to scholarship on technology and protest; and the development and use of other technologies such as Facebook. There is a lot more to be studied as technological forces continue to drive social change. Overall, the authors’ summarize best: “As anecdotal accounts of e-tactics abound—of reading about a boycott on your favorite blog, signing a petition for a cause that you believe in, the Web as “changing everything,” or e-tactics simply not mattering as much as face-to-face action—social scientists can bring empirical precision to these stories and contextualize what they mean in a changing social world” (p. 197). Thus, explicating more clearly what the e-tactics mean in a changing social world may strengthen this book. At the same time, it can spur more action research.

 

References

Earl, J. & Kimport, K. (2011). Digitally enabled social change: Activism in the internet age. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press.

Earl, J. & Schussman, A. (2003). The new site of activism: On-line organizations, movement entrepreneurs, and the changing location of social movement decision-making. Research in Social Movements, Conflict and Change, 24, 155-187.

Earl, J. & Schussman, A. (2004). Cease and desist: Repression, strategic voting, and the 2000 presidential election. Mobilization, 9, 181-202

Greenwood, D. & Levin, M. (2007). Introduction to action research: Social research for social change Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.

Tilly, C. (1977). Getting it together in Burgundy, 1675-1975. Theory and Society, 4, 479-504.

 

Biography

Jennifer F. Wood (Ph.D., Bowling Green State University) is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Theatre at Millersville University of Pennsylvania

 

© 2014 Jennifer F. Wood, used by permission


Technoculture Volume 4 (2014)