My shadow of a doubt over online activism

Photo: Osborne 1 keyboard. Credit: Marcin Wichary via flickr on Creative Commons licence.

It all began...

My entry into the world of computers dates back to the Osborne, a large box computer which looked like a pilot’s brief case. It had a black screen with green text and two programs, a word processor and a text game, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Very addictive, the latter.

A friend’s Aviators Network became my first online experience. The ‘site’ was mainly for pilots, but I got to be part of the ‘network’ too. I actually set one up myself in 1996. Called Black Sisters Network, at its peak it had some 40 members. I was so proud of it.

That was the beginning of my online conversation. Back then, numbers were relatively small, so it felt like a community, especially when compared to today’s giants which are difficult to keep up with. With so many blogs, social networks and online news media it is impossible to have any meaningful connections except with several close-knit people. Unless, that is, you want to spend your entire 24 hours online.

Digital activism: so what?

So what is the impact of this information overload on digital activism? Adam has focused on the threats to digital freedoms and the role of the open source movement in challenging those threats. But how do we measure the effectiveness of activism on cyberspace? As Adam writes,

'a blog is just a blog and there is nothing inherently disruptive or revolutionary about it until someone like Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas decides to use it to highlight sexual harassment of women, workers’ strikes or police brutality.’

I happen to have met Wael so I am familiar with his brilliant work both on and offline. But if I didn’t know him personally, how could I decide on his credibility? Wael is an excellent example because he combines his offline (or real-life) activism with social media. Readers decide for themselves whether or not to take his work seriously.

However, when it comes to technology and some generic activism sites, I think we must be far more discerning about what we are told.

For example, how ‘active’ is a Facebook page in bringing about social or political change? Are we in danger of becoming armchair (pseudo) activists and writers of endless text? How much difference does a Facebook page condemning violence against women actually make? Yes, they maybe informative, but do they help get rid of violence in people’s lives? How many rapists have been convinced by my articles never to rape again?

The point is that we don’t know. My sense is that online activism should be part of a strategy, while most of the work is done on the ground with communities.

Flies on raw meat

Take the NING networks which made it possible for anyone to start up a social network. Thousands of these existed (NING is now requiring paid subscriptions so the networks are already dropping like flies on raw meat) and I have to confess to being part of at least six, none of which I was ever active in. Nor, as far as I could see, was anyone else.

I agree completely with Christian Kreutz, who is highly sceptical about the benefits of such social networks:

-- Most of them are full of features but offer very little on people-to-people exchange.

-- Facebook, Linkedin and the like are great tools for networking and mobilizing, but their flexibility in building real communities is very poor. It is the Facebook way or no way. More importantly, such big platforms have no interest in real exchange and learning – it’s simply not their business concept.

-- Widgets are questionable, as they distribute the content all over the place. An RSS feed is yet another little-relevant information stream.

Almighty internet...or not?

The internet is not always the most effective tool of communication. Think data collection, mapping technologies and SMS activism, all of which received much publicity over the last year. While there are endless reports describing what the technologies are supposed to do, there is little testing and evaluation.

The danger is that, instead of activism or people, it’s the technology that becomes everyone’s focus. Adam describes this as ‘shallow technofetish’. There is also a very real possibility of information and technology fatigue.

Recently, some friends expressed burn-out and stress caused by information overload. I feel this myself. I hardly engage with Facebook, and Twitter has fallen to just an occasional flurry. My ability to read online is fading and even when I do, my interest is limited. Old-fashioned activities like reading a book or listening to the radio suddenly come to mind…

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