The Limits of Internet Organizing

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

Some of the best organizers I know hardly have time to check their e-mail; they don’t spend any of their days on Twitter; and they certainly don’t count on Facebook to turn people out for events.

These notions may come as a surprise to those who have been bludgeoned with the idea that the Internet is the future of social change and is revolutionizing the way organizing is done. But they are true, and there are plenty of reasons why the great bulk of serious organizing still happens off-line.

I will state up front the conclusion that almost all articles of this sort come to: the Internet is a tool. It is potentially a rather useful tool, but it is not more than that, and it is no substitute for person-to-person organizing.

This conclusion is the correct one. Still, it never seems to quell the high-tech evangelists or to sink in with the public at large.

Partially, I think this is a product of the widespread failure, outside of social movement circles, to understand what organizing really is. You can raise money on-line, you can widely disseminate information, and you can get people to sign a petition. But it’s very difficult and rare to be able to use the Internet to build the types of deep relationships that move people to make serious commitments to and sacrifices for social movements. In fact, on-line platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are in many ways designed to do the opposite—to minimize commitment and sacrifice in favor of speed and convenience.

For those trying to build movements in countries with repressive governments, such as Iran, relationships based on personal trust are all the more important. That’s why it’s hardly surprising that many knowledgeable analysts have concluded that the high-tech hype around last year’s “Twitter Revolution” in that country was dramaticallyoverblown.

On this general theme, Malcolm Gladwell has a new article in the New Yorker about “Why the revolution will not be Tweeted.” I think Gladwell is one of the most readable writers in the business; his books and articles are consistently vivid, fun, and interesting (if debatable in terms of their final arguments). He’s not a social movement guy, and I don’t really trust him as a political thinker. But in this instance I think he gets the fundamental ideas right.

First, he convincingly contends that the Internet promotes lots of “weak ties” rather than a smaller number of strong ones.

“Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” [Jennifer] Aaker and [Andy] Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents. A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, “We wouldn’t necessarily gauge someone’s value to the advocacy movement based on what they’ve given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It’s not something you can measure by looking at a ledger.” In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.

Gladwell also does a good job of pointing out that the type of networking the Internet favors does not serve social movements well in terms of fostering discipline and coherent strategy:

Boycotts and sit-ins and nonviolent confrontations—which were the weapons of choice for the civil-rights movement—are high-risk strategies. They leave little room for conflict and error. The moment even one protester deviates from the script and responds to provocation, the moral legitimacy of the entire protest is compromised. Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail. But networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure. And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed in Birmingham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide.

Of course, there was plenty of messy internal debate in the Civil Rights movement. Nevertheless, I appreciate Gladwell’s conclusion that Internet organizing, at least in its most commonly heralded forms, “makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.” Web defenders will argue that this is oversimplified, but I think Gladwell makes the general case well.

Moreover, he’s certainly not the only one to make the case. A quick search will get you dozens of sources criticizing “slacktivism,” which, as Wikipedia describes it, is “a pejorative term that describes ‘feel-good’ measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction. The acts also tend to require little personal effort from the slacktivist.” Along similar lines, Adbusters’ Micah White recently wrote a commentary for theGuardian arguing that “Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism” by accepting the logic of corporate marketing.

White’s piece is short on convincing examples, and I’d say he’s less accurate than Paul Loeb of Soul of a Citizen fame, who recently contributed a more tempered entry into this debate entitled, “The Seductions of Clicking: How the Internet Can Make It Harder to Act.” There, Loeb argues that “far too many of [Obama’s] supporters have come to believe they can act exclusively through these online technologies, to the exclusion of face-to-face politics.”

Loeb is probably too conscientious about being balanced, leading him to the tame position that “[W]e’d do well to remember that our new technologies work best when we combine them with more traditional mechanisms of engagement.” Yet he’s right in arguing that this is not a matter of abandoning new technological innovations. It’s about understanding that “if we want to realize their potential, we’re going to have to sooner or later step away from our screens.”

Mark Engler can be reached via his website, Democracy Uprising.