The history and future of internet-enabled activism

Excerpted from Adbusters, by Micah White.

This is a must read article about political tactics and mobilization for social change. In the first part of the original article, Micah describes the revolutionary wave of 1848, driven by the invention of the barricade, and how that new tactic was defeated. Then, he moves to Seatllle, where our excerpt starts, and details ‘what went right, but also wrong’, in the first wave of internet-enabled activism.

In the second excerpt, he looks at the potential of Wikileaks in showing new tactics.

Part One: what went wrong in the first wave

“Six days before protesters shut down Seattle, Matthew Arnison, an activist and programmer from the Catalyst Collective in Sydney, posted the inaugural message on a website he had helped build. Displaying the utopianism that would become characteristic of a generation of digital activists, he declared, “The web dramatically alters the balance between multinational and activist media. With just a bit of coding and some cheap equipment, we can set up a live automated website that rivals the corporates. Prepare to be swamped by the tide of activist media …” With this digital call to arms, Indymedia was born.

Within days, Indymedia’s on-the-ground reports of the lockdown of Seattle had been accessed over a million times. Even mainstream, corporate media were relying on Indymedia for accurate accounts of the protests. Indymedia’s open-publishing model empowered citizen journalism with an ethos of antiauthoritarianism. For the first time, anyone could write the news, anyone could be an investigative journalist, anyone could challenge corporate control of information. Within two years, Indymedia sites bloomed in 125 cities and on every continent.

The advent of Indymedia signaled the political maturation of the internet. It proved that a handful of maverick programmers could leverage the power of information to reshape the flows of power. And it did not take long for most activists to experience firsthand the profound political potential of the web. At Adbusters, Buy Nothing Day grew exponentially from an event primarily limited to the Pacific Northwest into a global phenomenon celebrated in over 70 countries. In those exciting days, similar stories of memes going viral and protests flaring up abounded.

For years, the most promising model for combining activism with the internet was MoveOn. Founded in 1998 by a Berkeley couple, computer programmer Wes Boyd and marketer Joan Blades, MoveOn was one of the first political organizations to experience the kind of viral growth that would later become synonymous with digital activism. From a simple website that cost $89.50 to set up and an email sent to friends protesting the impeachment of Bill Clinton, MoveOn grew into a powerful organization with millions of members. “We were blown away by the response we got,” Blades remembers. “The first day we had 300 petitioners, then 1,500, then 9,000, then 25,000 by the end of the week. The growth curve was amazing.” MoveOn may have started as an online petition, but they very quickly found their calling in using the web to organize offline actions.

MoveOn pioneered the tactic of turning everyday people into political activists by connecting their members on a local level. With this decentralized, grassroots network in place they pulled off surprising nationwide feats. In 2003, their members held voter registration house parties in which they collectively made 300,000 calls in a single afternoon. That same year, volunteers made personal visits to the office of every US senator to voice opposition to the impending war. Then, with only six days notice, they organized public peace vigils on every continent and in thousands of small towns. “When I first heard about MoveOn,” one member in Marin, California, told her local newspaper, “I had an enormous sense of relief that someone was stepping into the arena and mobilizing people in such a conscious and exciting way. It gave me hope and faith in the internet that I’d never had before.” Logging onto MoveOn’s website was an exhilarating experience: members used an “ActionForum” to sway the direction of the larger organization by posting suggestions and voting up or down on the ideas of others. It felt as if there was a vibrant activist community emerging, a movement of engaged citizens all pushing in the same direction and reinventing democracy in the process.

Tactically speaking, digital activists achieved their early successes through the combination of the logic of marketing with computer programming. Their organizations were built on large databases that meticulously tracked which members were opening their emails, signing petitions, going to house parties or donating money. Then, personalization followed. Instead of sending the same email to every member, digital activists learned to tweak response rates by A/B testing subject lines and messages to determine which email would be most frequently opened. Further data was collected by cross-referencing their members’ information with large commercial voter databases, such as the one provided by Catalist LLC, that yielded full contact information, income levels, ethnicity, magazine subscriptions, voting history and more. It was all done in the name of increasing participation rates.

The emphasis on data collection and metrics skewed organizations toward leadership that privileged technical wizardry over revolutionary passion. Former and current MoveOn employees cofounded behemoth copycat organizations, like Joan Blades’s MomsRising, Eli Pariser’s Avaaz, Ben Brandzel’s GetUp and James Rucker’s Citizen Engagement Laboratory, the umbrella organization behind ColorOfChange, Presente, GetEQUAL and Food Democracy Now!, that choked out the less technically adept competition. These organizations received substantial mainstream praise and huge philanthropic donations, but their “asks” were watered down, their emails read like marketing and their political agendas felt uninspiring and mundane. From the passionate application of cutting-edge technology to organize, agitate and mobilize, digital activism devolved into clicktivism: a rehash of “best practices” borrowed more from advertising than activism.

As activism started to look like advertising, advertising companies started to run activist groups. In 2010, TckTckTck, a purported climate change organization with 17 million members, won We Media’s “Game Changer” award and was nominated for a Webby in the category of “Best Activism Website.” But … TckTckTck was a project of Havas Worldwide, the world’s sixth-largest advertising company, whose clients included corporations directly responsible for climate change. Similarly, as a greater share of online activism moved to commercial social networks like Facebook and Twitter, clicktivism became a game of monetizing traffic spikes rather than a path to organizing offline actions.

By the middle of last year, upwards of 90% of emails sent by clicktivist organizations were ending up unopened, deleted or marked as spam by their members. That was an alarming decline from the days of 2004, when Wired praised MoveOn’s “startlingly high” response rates.

Part 2: Wikileaks and the Future of Activism

“In the closing months of 2010, a network of hackers, journalists, cryptographers and whistleblowers mashed revolutionary fervor with high technology and dealt the United States a terrific, unexpected blow. Days later, in the face of tremendous pressure from the world’s declining superpower, the international whistle-blowing organization tweeted a defiant self-description: “WikiLeaks is the first global samizdat movement. The truth will surface even in the face of total annihilation.”

From a tactical perspective, the importance of WikiLeaks has less to do with the content of the cables than with what it forecasts for the future of activism. Leveraging the symbolic power of the act of leaking, WikiLeaks divided the world into two camps and thrust the censorial regimes that are normally invisible into the spotlight. As Amazon, PayPal, Visa and MasterCard goose-stepped behind the US government to deny access to the leaked cables, the founding mythology of democracy – freedom of speech, government transparency, the necessity of an informed populace – came under attack. And in response, a global internet community rose up in defense of liberty. The passion so long absent in digital activism was revived as anonymous hackers waged denial-of-service wars against the websites of crony capitalists and sycophantic politicians. WikiLeaks, and the volunteer hacktivist army it inspired, signals that the future of activism will involve the internet in creative, still unimagined ways.

At the dawn of 2011 there is again hope that technology can birth the barricades of the 21st century. Perhaps the most exciting direction for activism is the increasing politicization of flashmobs. First capturing the public imagination in 2003, flashmobs are the sudden appearance of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of individuals who carry out a synchronized action that ranges from the absurd to the disobedient. In recent years, flashmobs have been used to organize spontaneous pillow fights, eerie frozen moments, rush-hour parties and macabre zombie walks. Now, they are becoming an outlet for social discontent. In Philadelphia, for example, unruly youth have exploited cell phones to organize flashmob swarms that appear without warning, looting stores and leaving police mystified. Fun, easy to organize, and resistant to both infiltration and preemption because of their friend-to-friend network topology, flashmobs are positioned to be the next popular tactic with revolutionary potential.

So far, the tactical significance of flashmobs has been limited by their local scale. They typically happen in a single city, on a single day and at a single time. If the magic of Seattle was due to the innovative transposition of anti-logging barricades to an urban environment, the power of the second generation of flashmobs will lie in the upgrade of a local happening into a global phenomenon. Imagine activism globalized: synchronized intercontinental crowds that flare up spontaneously at noon – to throw rancid butter at each of the 737 US overseas military bases, to blackspot each of the 32,000 McDonald’s golden arches or to block the entrance of each of the 8,500 Walmart stores. With flashmobs, activists have the potential to swarm capitalism globally, stinging it incessantly until the bloodied beast falls to its knees. Making it happen may take a new breed of techno-visionaries who build an advertising-free social networking app developed exclusively for pulling off ever more sophisticated jams against consumerism.

A similarly promising direction lies with integrating the principles of gaming into activism. Initial steps in this direction have been made by “alternate reality game” designers, such as Jane McGonigal and Elan Lee, whose work re-enchants everyday life by layering a fictional universe atop reality. Think of the 1997 film The Game. One notable example is SFZero, a San Francisco-based game in which players earn points by interacting with the city in impish ways. Missions include “find roof access,” “add a colorful bulb to a public socket” and “steal something from a wild animal.” For culture jammers, the essential big idea is that activism can come alive if the key components of what makes games immersive – heroic narrative, the quest for experience, increasing levels of difficulty, social engagement, adventure, etc. – are applied to sparking a revolution.

The tactical potential is limited only by our imagination. Companies like Twilio, also in San Francisco, allow anyone to build scriptable, automated phone numbers that can receive and make calls, send text messages and pull information from databases to play personalized messages. Combine this with a rousing storyline, clues left in public spaces and a series of missions that take players up the ladder-of-engagement from inexperienced activist to master culture jammer, and there is no limit to the kinds of “games” revolutionaries can play. One example would be a game where participants use their phones to interact with fictional characters and, in order to unravel an anticorporate storyline or solve an anticonsumerist mystery, earn blackspot points by putting up Buy Nothing Day posters, throwing stink bombs, recruiting comrades and organizing flashmobs. When activism is “gamified,” reaching level 50 could start an insurrection.

Just as no one could have predicted the power of the barricades – or the spectacular success of the urban lockdown – there is no way to know which tactic will lead to victory. Some may dedicate themselves to WikiLeaks-style initiatives, others may develop a P2P flashmob application or a culture jammer game, while still others may discover previously unseen leverage points by which to challenge capitalism. What is clear, however, is that we are entering an exciting time of activist innovation – like 1848, 1999 and 2003.

After surveying the near victory of 1848, Mikhail Bakunin wrote that to achieve a global revolution we must first convince the populace “that an invincible force lives in the people, which nothing and no one can withstand, and that if it has not yet liberated the people it is because it is powerful only when it is concentrated and acts simultaneously, everywhere, jointly, in concert, and until now it has not done so.”

Today, we are closer than ever to unleashing our invincible power.”

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