Just Like Us: Digital Activism # Now

The Last week’s conference Digital Activism # Now, at Kings College London could, be seen as providing a counter narrative to the  conference of 2013, Unlike Us, organised by Amsterdam’s Institute’s of Networked Culture. In contrast, many of last week’s panels suggest the return of the Big We, characterised by Paolo Gerbaudo, (the primary convener of the event) as the “majoritarian turn”. Such a view takes us from a suggestion of cyber seperatism implied in the title Unlike Us agenda to an invitation, that begins with the occupation of mainstream social media platforms to be… well, Just like Us.

UnknownHigh expectations for the event were generated by the fact that the event was principally convened by Paolo Gerbaudo, whose research for the book Tweets and the Streets made important progress on key questions surrounding assumptions that operate in activist cultures of the new social movements, assumptions of horizontalism and ‘leaderlessness’. The book subjects these assumptions to sympathetic but critical scrutiny and the resulting combination of energy and plausibility of the conclusions derive from Gerbaudo’s direct engagement with the activists through extensive ethnographic fieldwork, in which he assembled extracts of 80 interviews drawn from the three of the primary locations in the ‘year of protest’. Beginning with Egyptian uprising moving on to the ‘indignados’ of Spain and on to the Occupy movement in the US, with a detailed account of what he calls the “tortuous interaction between online communication and on-the-ground organising which characterized the emergence of this movement.”.

In the event the only panel in the conference where these expectations were met was on Social Networks and Digital Organising. Unsurprisingly this was the panel in which Gerbaudo himself made a presentation. However his presentation was preceded and complemented by that of Marta G. Franco, a journalist, researcher with the grass roots newspaper Diagonal based in Madrid and participant of 15-M Movement.

On the surface her talk was a summary of the role of various apps and other digital tools for activist organization and mobilization. Of particular importance in her presentation was the continuation of collective action in campaigns against evictions giving emphasis to her argument that this movement distinguishes itself by pragmatic engagement with ordinary struggle of daily life. At the heart of her narrative was broader message that from the outset the brand of Spanish politics the Indignados was above all what she called the ‘Politics of Anyone’Spanish politics the Indignados was above all what she called the ‘Politics of Anyone’. At the time this was reflected in the very heterogeneity of the protest participants who gathered together from all walks of life. This emphasis on normality was something in the Spanish national press coverage of the 2011 uprisings which departed from formulaic reporting of mass protest with its tendency to demonise this degree of civil disobedience as part of a common impulse to legitimize state violence against protestor that appears to threaten the status quo. The fact that this process of demonization was largely absent from a broadly sympathetic media is indicative of a phase shift. Franco portrayed this as part of a movement with a desire to depart from previous sterotypical protest movements as eruptions, towards what Franco portrayed as the very different desire of a new generation of activists to identify and “the generosity of regular people”. What she called the new common sense.

Cyber Separatists From Unlike Us to Just Like Us

IMG_1564Marta G. Franco’s talk set up and framed Paolo Gerbaudo’s presentation in which he developed these themes as what he has characterised elsewhere the ‘majoritarian turn’. Although ultimately somewhat reductive, there is undoubtedly some truth and value line in marking some kind of transition between the two most recent phases of mass global civil disobedience. He contrasts the mass activism of the Occupations and insurrections of 2011 with its predecessor, the anti-globalisation or anti G7 protests of the late 90s and early Noughties and their principal media and communications  arm, Indymedia. He describes how it was not only the voice of the movement but also fundamental to the organisational infrastructure of the movement. This form of words is interesting in that it makes an important connection between modes of communication and evolving forms of governance. The approach of Indymedia exemplified what Gerbaudo refers to as ‘Cyber-Separatism”, with its commitment to the create autonomous infrastructure or ‘islands on the net’ Indymedia exemplified what Gerbaudo refers to as ‘Cyber-Separatism”, with its commitment to the create autonomous infrastructure or ‘islands on the net’ as THE condition of avoiding capture and complicity with communicative capitalism. The intertwining of cultural with technological ‘otherness’ was captured in its title ‘Unlike Us’ organised by Amsterdam’s Institute of Network Cultures in 2013 and suggested the counter with the slogan – Just Like Us- to indicate a phase shift to a profoundly different imaginary of the new digital agitator.

As Gerbaudo put it in his essay in the March 2014 edition of Occupy Times “At the height of the anti-globalist summit protests, Indymedia became the veritable voice of the anti-globalisation movement and it also constituted a fundamental organizational infrastructure for protestors, with editorial nodes often doubling as political collectives. Besides Indymedia, alternative service providers (ISPs) such as Riseup, Aktivist, Inventati, and Autistici catered for the internal communication needs of the movement. Islands in a rebel archipeligo outside of the control of State and capital.”

In contrast Gerbaudo asserts that contemporary digital activists are occupying the cyber mainstream of the major corporate social networking sites. Historically he sites mass mobilizing power of the Kullena Khaled Said Facebook page that called thousands onto the streets as a watershed moment in “occupying of the digital mainstream”. Despite the obvious critiques particularly of the post Prism moment demonstrating and the recentl changes in the Facebook algorithm in ways that limit the reach of activist pages. He continues to assert the value replacing refusal and exodus with tactics of occupation and engagement. It marks for Gerbaudo a return to an earlier logic of mass media in place of a discredited homeopathic micro-logic of post-modern cultural politics.

Future Threads- Mobilising the Phantom Public and Capturing the Innovations of the Clicktivists

The conference suggested some questions or probes.For example; could the concept of the “majoritarian” be connected to the need to rediscover solidarity in a period when the potency of the 20th century labour movement has not yet been replaced with any weapon of equivalent effectiveness? We see from the activism around evictions that at crisis points human solidarity retains traction but they also have an archaic flavour associated with increasingly outmoded forms of labour power. Media theorist Felix Stalder has attempted to re-engage the concept in a way that resonates more effectively with more liquid conditions, in his recent publication “Digital Solidarity”.

The phase shift, observed by Gerbaudo, suggest a BIG WE is being sought as a substitute for tribal affinity groups by harnessing that most mysterious and volatile entity of mediatised democracy; “the public”, or as Walter Lipman called  it, the “phantom public”.

The very potency of this phantom is founded on the fact that it cannot be reduced to a single identifiable group or actor. Sociologist Noortje Maares in her short essay “How Not to Kill the Magic of the Public” described a process whereby “when something starts circulating in public media, this brings along the possibility, and indeed the threat, of an open-ended set of actors stepping in to support this entity, and to make it strong. this is what endows publics with a dangerous kind of agency.”

Clicktivism or Long tail Activism

Potential for future possibilities to conjure and harness this force can be found in a despised branch of cyber activism that certainly cannot be classed as cyber seperatism. I am referring to the controversial forms of web based mass activism known disparagingly as clicktivism, slacktivism or interpassivity, encompassing groups such as 38Degrees and Change.org and largest of all Avaaz. All of them seek to leverage millions of micro-contributions into an effect far larger than the sum of its parts. Though usually dismissed mainstream commentators and hard core activists alike, I would argue, that the forms of engagement and mobilisation they are developed by successful Entrepreneurs understand the dynamics of how to build constituencies within the attention economy could be the key to crystalising the majoritarian turn in activism.

Chris Anderson described the forces at work in his article The Long Tail in 2004, the disruptive advertising and retailing models turning key business nostrums on their head. Put simply Amazon showed the way, no longer would blockbusters subsidise small small niche titles, the opposite would be the case as the net allowed for millions of purchases of special interest titles that no high-street store could conceivably stock. As is well known this model replicated across the net ad infinitum. As venture capitalist Kevin Laws puts it: “The biggest money is in the smallest sales.”

What however has been less celebrated (from any point of the political spectrum) is how the Longtail method of leveraging micro contributions into something larger than the sum of its parts was also transformed political activism not from radical circles but from the left leaning majoritarian centre.

Unknown-2It began in 1998 with the launch of MoveOn.org. This project was founded by two successful silicon valley entrepreneurs, Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, who after selling their software company, Berkeley Systems for a close to $14 million, went on to found the web based campaigning and advocacy network MoveOn.org. MoveOn developed the techniques later adopted and adapted by numerous imitators that represent a key development in nature of how to do political activism and enact democracy through the Internet. 

This professionalisation or (as some would claim) corporatization of activism has spawned numerous imitators including 38Degrees and Change.org and most significantly, the MoveOn spin off Avaaz, which means “voice” in a number of languages, founded in 2007. Avaaz began with the ambition of taking the philosophy and web savvy formulas pioneered by MoveOn to develop an international constituency to address global issues.  At the time of writing Avaaz is about to pass the threshold of 35 million members, making it the world’s largest activist network, giving it a global reach and scale that has taken the concept of web-based activism to the next level. However the decision to situate Avaaz on the international stage is not only a question of scale, it also follows extends an important aspect of neo-pragmatist logic which is that appealing to a global constituency aspires to short circuit the power games that bedevil national politics.


The key characteristic of all of these groups is the low threshold of commitment required for membership. This policy was present at the outset at 1998 with MoveOn where to be a “member” requires no subscription, in fact nothing other than a single action, which could be as little as signing an on-line petition or joining a forum discussion. It is this ease of entry that is in part responsible for enabling these organizations to accumulate such vast memberships. Their critics, many of whom see activism in terms of traditional models of solidarity, point to this fact as being their greatest weakness. But could it be their understanding of how the web enables the aggregation of millions of small contributions into large effects that represents innovation that could be taken and built on or occupied. In an interview with BBC’s ‘Hardtalk’ just a year after it was founded, Avaaz’s co-founder and director Ricken Patel described his core demographic as “the Mum with not a lot of time to spare [who] appreciates a service where she can use the small amount of money or time that she has to give…”   When challenged on the blandness of his corporate image Patel is unapologetic and made what I would argue is the core claim of the neo-pragmatists of the web, In order to bring about radical change in the world you don’t need to be controversial. You can stand squarely with the vast majority of people and still have a revolutionary agenda for change”. This statement captures the essence of the majoritarian turn as seen through the lens of American Pragmatism. As Clay Shirkey put it in a book aptly named for the majoritarian era, Here Comes Everybody: ‘Communication tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.’

At the beginning of 2013 Avaaz extended their experimental approach to democracy through an enhanced enactment of their annual consultation process, a large-scale experiment in democratic consultation. It combined a detailed polling exercise involving millions of its members, in 14 languages and in excess of a hundred countries, combined with intense online discussions covering numerous issues. The poll and accompanying on-line discussions covered questions of detail involving the identification of which specific campaigns to support. But it also looked at meta questions relating to the governance of Avaaz. For example it looked at how the permanent staff should respond to the results of the poll itself, asking whether it should be seen as a guide or a binding mandate. A large majority came out in favour of using the data as a guide rather than a binding mandate. The fact that the organization is entirely financed by contributions from members leads Avaaz to claim that its members are the bosses and it has compared the role of Patel and his staff as that of informed civil servants briefing the president or prime minister. Perhaps someone should send them a DVD of Yes Minister if they want to know who the real boss is in this kind of arrangement as many questions remain as to how campaigns are selected and promoted is part of the key issue of governance and the balance between how nudges from the Avaaz staff in one direction or another is tricky and can all to easily lead to charges of bias. These are just some of the many questions that make these organisations objects of suspicion that should not however prevent us from learning from them. After all if the disruptive technologies of the Internet have transformed all sectors from commerce to education and journalism why should activism and the radical avant garde of media politics be the exception? And above all why should we let the devil have all the best tunes.