I attended last Thursday’s afternoon plenary “Civic Media Mobilization,” at the 2011 Knight Civic Media conference, expecting to hear discussion about specific activist technologies and techniques. I was also anticipating some juicy political friction between the Tea Party consultant and the immigrant law community organizer who were speaking at the event. Neither prediction came to pass.

Instead I witnessed a far more situation-based analysis of what incentivizes action that concluded with a simple, summarizing message: The only thing technology can do is amplify a movement; to instigate actual change you need people on the ground.

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Hearing this summary launched dreams of Anonymous dancing through my head, and I almost jumped out of my seat to exclaim O RLY? but as I thought about it, I realized that my gut’s push-back was misdirected. The panel was correct, just not as universally as they tried to imply.

Chris Faulkner, a Republican political consultant, and Yesenia Sanchez, an organizer for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, were organizing rallies, facilitating communities of people with similar values, and swaying political opinions. Both of their efforts required feet on the ground, but this doesn’t represent all movements.

What circumstances make digital tools a sufficient means to an activist’s end?

The Ground

After the session, I spoke with Charlie DeTar, a fellow student at MIT who has done many great projects under the umbrella of civic media. He agreed with the panelists’ conclusion and has for some time. He cited the Green Revolution from 2009 where a bunch of Westerners managed to use up some extra electrons to power green diodes. The real battle took place in Iran — the online movement just helped spread the messages.

Even in success stories with incredible digital representation, the ground movement is often equally great. The 2008 Barack Obama campaign, lauded for its use of social networking and digital tools, was also made up of spectacular grassroots community organizing. For Faulkner, that ground movement is what really separated Obama from Sen. John McCain. He sees online versus on-foot as the difference between creating supporters (those who will vote) and fans (those who will act). McCain had supporters. Obama had fans.

The Cloud

Despite what this panel may have implied, online-centric movements exist in full force. They are easy to overlook when thinking about physical communities because they’re often focused on digital concepts such as services, information flow, or technology products. They could be inspired by the Facebook Terms of Service, for instance, which at times have garnered public outcry, push-back, and even some sort of happy ending.

Another mainstream example can be found in the countless events surrounding WikiLeaks, and even the WikiLeaks themselves. The battles waged online through “hacktivism,” document releases, and online campaigns to spread information put targeted pressure on real-world organizations. This situation resonated beyond cyberspace into the real world because the issues at stake concerned real-world governments, conflicts and organizations.

There are also plenty of niche issues with online movements behind them. I would venture to say that every active online community has a core who are advocating change to their groups in some form or another. For instance, there is a reasonably successful push among web developers to prevent the perpetuation of W3Schools, a programming knowledge base, which many believe teaches poor best practices in the name of simplification. Gamers have similarly passionate pushes, as any StarCraft 2 player would see after one minute of looking at the Blizzard forums.

Several of these examples don’t sound like political movements or revolutions because they aren’t. Nonetheless, they are arguably movements, and unlike their locative counterparts they could have legs that never touch the ground. In fact, some would make no sense whatsoever offline.

Threading the Needle

Clearly there are examples of both extremes, but we don’t live in binaries. A movement’s tension between digital and physical embodiment is reflected by its details. When you’re organizing or analyzing a movement, whether it be digital or physical, you should consider the following:

  • The Goals: Do you want new legislation or the election of a representative? Is it a push for free and open information flow or the change of a digital standard? Movements should be based in the places that they will affect.
  • The Community Audience: Is the community Springfield or is it the disenfranchised member base of the Huffington Post? You need to speak to your audience so they will pay attention and in terms that will inspire them.
  • The Outlet for Change: How will a community member have an impact once they join your cause, and what will they be excited to do? Spread information? Run an application? March? Sit-in? This will likely indicate where your focus should be.

If you look at movements through these lenses it should become clearer why they evolved as they did and why certain actions worked more effectively than others. In the cases where the lines blur, as they did with Anonymous vs. Scientology, and then once again with WikiLeaks, you can see that there were conflicting answers to those three characterizing questions. These are the cases where the most useful lessons can be learned, but for that very reason they are the most difficult to analyze.

Neither digital tools nor grassroots efforts will be a consistently dominant force for change. Both categories of technique play different roles in different circumstances. With that in mind, activists shouldn’t use generalized advice to decide when a technology makes sense; rather, that advice should just be used to fuel brainstorming. If you have a vision for the future, it’s up to you to figure out which messages and mediums will resonate most within your community.


> At MIT Knight Confab, Public Activism Looms Large by Martin Moore

> Knight Announces 2011 News Challenge Winners by Desiree Everts

> The New News Paradigm: Pivot or Perish by Tom Grasty