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
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 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
[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
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.
I just wanted to let you know that I enjoy your articles on the subject personally, just because the focus is in a place that seems to fall in most media/people’s blind spot.
Something I think that a lot of people, in and out of media, largely ignore is the fact that if the Anonymous movement is successful it’s going to have an impact on how media is utilized and implimented, as well as distributed.
I know what you mean about more steam creating more noise — that’s kind of like what happened to the GPF. There are so many people on there now that I just don’t know what’s going on anymore.
My name is Mary Joyce and I am a digital activism consultant (www.zapboom.com) and Harvard grad student who loves side projects.
Working with a friend in Morocco, I recently launched a web site, http://www.digiactive.org, which is dedicated to helping activists around the world become better at using digital technologies (internet and cell phones) to increase their impact. Right now we do this by recounting and analyzes the most successful stories of digital activism from around the world.
When I first read your analysis of Anonymous (which I quoted from for DigiActive), I thought “I should talk to this guy.” After reading the post you just wrote, I thought “I REALLY need to talk to this guy.”
You get it (“it” being the ability of the internet to subvert power hierarchies and the world as we know it). Your analysis is spectacular. I could use your brain. Please e-mail me and let’s talk.
you see this guy? this guy here? he gets it
I’ve finally found the News Challenge bloggers! (Granted, I hadn’t looked TOO hard for it…) Interesting post. I agree with you that Facebook groups don’t lead to actual activism, but I will defend its capabilities for group communication — but only for very focused groups. I don’t think Facebook does anything unless it translates into the real world. For example, I recently did an article about a creative writers’ collective here in Seoul that mobilized through Facebook. So I think that’s a good example of social networking leading to effective communication and action in the real world. But I agree that none of those mega-“activist” groups will ever produce any noteworthy real-life action.
You sir, win the internet.