Last week I took a digital-communication-oriented glance at the war on Scientology being led by the nontraditional online group called Anonymous. I'm not exactly writing a part 2, but I want to start a follow-up discussion on a few of the comments made and questions posed by Anonymous about how digital media affects the dynamics of community organization. That being said, if you haven't had the chance to browse the comments of that post it's probably worthwhile.
I have mentioned in the past that I want to see digital media facilitate local impact; to do that well we need to understand some of the nuances of many-to-many digital communication and look at how those nuances might change the way communities can plan, organize, and ultimately act on the issues they find important. This post lists a few traits of online communication and what they might mean for digitally driven movements, including the one being led by Anonymous.
Setting the Stage
I think it's worth making sure we're all on the same page since "digital communication" refers to a whole lot of things. In this post I'm talking about tools like forums, wikis, chat rooms, community systems, and larger scale systems such as Digg or YouTube. Ok, so maybe that didn't narrow it down much, but really any system that facilitates community communication and supports multiple conversations among multiple people can be a potential platform for organization.
So how does community organization using digital systems (I.S. Activism) compare to organization through more traditional means? Here is a far from comprehensive list; hopefully it gives some food for thought.
- Lower barrier to entry - it is a lot easier for an interested party to visit a web site than it is for them to travel to a meeting; since online involvement is less costly, people who have access to the community system are more likely to learn more about an issue and potentially get involved.
- Less commitment - these days digital has tended to mean impersonal. That may not always be the case, but whenever it is people won't have as many external/social pressures to stick around. It also suggests that comments and actions are more genuine.
- More efficient - Well implemented information systems help create knowledge. In this case help comes via lowered individual lookup costs, computer driven collective intelligence, and more minds solving more problems in a naturally coordinated format.
- Less controlled - If the system is democratic (note the "if") then community members, rather than community leaders, ultimately control the conversations and decide what issues are most important. Unfortunately, depending on the level of community openness, this means that it may be easier for malicious contributors to cause problems.
Those bullet points are all well and good, but I want to call out the most important point of all: I.S. activism relies 100% on communication. If the channels of communication are clogged with irrelevant noise, if the overall direction is derailed into uselessness, or if the system itself is compromised in some other way, the movement dies. Basically, if people rely on a system to communicate and organize, then that system had better work well.
Success and Failure
Traits aside, how will these factors come into play in deciding whether or not a tech driven movement ends up being a success or failure? I have thought of a few general pitfalls as well as some reasons why tech driven movements are something that our industry should strive to facilitate within the communities we serve.
[Boon] Worthwhile efforts naturally resonate and grow - Lower barrier to entry and the ability to provide information effectively means that movements surrounding community issues will be able pick up steam much more quickly through digital media. As community members learn more and care more, they will think about the issues and ultimately contribute to the conversation. If the system is worth a darn then the collective conversation will lead to collective action as thoughts turn into plans.
[Pitfall] More steam means more noise - Growth is good, until things get too big. In a traditional movement if an unexpectedly large number of people get involved the worst that would happen is that the extra resources would go unutilized - we don't have enough fliers to pass out; there isn't enough space in the meeting room; etc. In an online setting, having 10 times more people than your system can support means that nobody will be able to keep track of what is being said and therefore nothing will get done. This is where scalability and system quality come into play.
[Boon] Diverse ideas and cross pollination breed strength - Online settings give the concept of "many voices discussing many topics" a fighting chance, so multiple perspectives within the community will advise each community decision. Ideas and input from other communities can also be brought into the mix since the digital medium makes that type of cross posting and content sharing so easy. In the comments of my previous post DevNul also identified this as a way to prevent "group think" and in my opinion he/she has this absolutely right.
[Pitfall] Unclear direction results in stagnancy - Leaderless or weak-led movements could fizzle and amount to nothing without a well defined direction. Imagine how many millions of people join Facebook groups about the issues that they supposedly care about. Now think about how much activism those groups have triggered - hint: practically none. In this case the problem stems from the fact that Facebook is a terrible platform for group communication (yeah I said it.) With other tools the opposite problem might be true; there is so much communication that without a "leading voice" it is more difficult to move the masses in a coherent way.
For members of Anonymous I'm betting most of these things are already unspoken understandings. They have been using Internet tools for a while and their solutions for several digital coordination issues are tacit at this point, often in the form of memes (look up the phrase "tl;dr"). Visit the Enturbulation forums and you can see what they are doing well and what organizational problems they still face. For instance, forum moderators put important threads in more noticeable locations, yet there are plenty of individual missteps, plenty of accusations made between community members, and plenty of ways that the overall process could be made more effective.
I believe Anonymous has established their point well enough that their efforts won't stop in the near future, but keeping a high level of interest is vital for an online movement; genuine interest will always warrant genuine action. This reflects the way digital movements have changed how activism can work: participants are no longer just volunteers, now they define the issues and invent the direction.
To bring this post home I'll end with a final comment: I have a feeling a significant number of people learned about Anonymous' issues and the Enturbulation forums through some type of media. What if local news organizations could provide an outlet for the communities they serve to do what Anonymous did...?
We're not there yet, and it would take more than just setting up some forums, but as Richard Anderson said at the NAA conference last weekend, we are moving towards the business of community hosting. Facilitating, not leading, community organization for impact is exactly the kind of goal that makes that role meaningful.