Tactics, causes, and theory: Who gets to define what counts as “activism”?

by Carla Ilten

Recently, I gave a presentation at Theorizing the Web 14 in New York. It was entitled: “Activism 2.0: The Politics and Business of Platforms Built for Social Change.” When the presentation got sorted into a panel called “(Ref)user: Movements of Resistance,” I knew I would have to do some good justification work. The audience would expect stories of grassroots uprising, of feminist resistance and of e-bandits (as my co-panelists offered); hopefully heroic, but certainly not for the dark side of the force! The cases I presented, Sparked and Kiva, two platforms that organize micro-volunteering and micro-lending, fall short of heroic, high-stakes activism. No, worse: what they organize in an extremely efficient, online-only way, rubs “social change” the wrong way for some of us. Yet, as I argued, the two platforms exhibit what newer social movement theory on online activism (Earl/Kimport 2011) would consider the most cutting-edge “internet-enabled” organization of participation – low cost, high outcome mobilization! Not least, the people who engage in these micro-actions feel that they are making a difference of some sort. I tried to highlight this finding – I will call it a contradiction for want of a more nuanced analysis at this point – as the starting point of a research journey. Not completely successfully, as the following exchange occurred on twitter after my talk:

twitter_convo_carla_ttw

As a political and interested human being, of course I have (strong!) preferences with regard to causes and visions – I make normative judgments about what activism I find legitimate and desirable. As a sociologist, though, I can and must analytically distinguish between activism and causes, or between movement tactics and movement goals. What is more, when the people whose activities I observe use those terms to describe what they’re doing, then I have to take them seriously, all the while making my own, possibly counter- analysis. That is indeed what I presented in my talk: a project that started out looking for activism online, found something that looked similar but different, and concluded that it was not the wrong case, but… a case of what? This is where things get interesting.

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