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The DNA of Contemporary Revolutions (Digitally Networked Action, That Is)

July 12, 2012

Visualization of meme diffusion related to the Arab Spring and the 2011 uprisings from the #Egypt hashtag, which shows strong connectivity and many users linked to one another to form a dense cluster. Credit: Indiana University

“Connective Action” is a term being used to describe the uses of social media in contemporary protest movements. Drawing examples from the Arab Uprisings, Put People First (PPF) in England, 15M in Spain, and the Occupy movement in the U.S., a recent article entitled “The Logic of Connected Action” by W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg in the journal Information, Communication and Society seeks to explore the DNA of connective action.

DNA, here is an acronym that in their work stands for “Digitally Networked Action” and is what they argue differentiates connective action social movements from collective action social movements.

Connective and collective action refer to two different logics that organize protest movements. The term “connective action” resonates with the more classic term “collective action,” with which it has many parallels and similarities, but with which it diverges in important ways, according to these authors.  In connective action:

  • Social actors sustain and even building strength over time, using a mix of online media and offline activities that included (among others) face-to-face organizing, occupations of city centers, marches and demonstrations.
  • Participants communicate a collective identity of being leaderless, signaling that labor unions, political parties, and organized radical movement groups should stay at the margins.
  • Many participants are previously unaffiliated with political movements, and even among those that are affiliation tends to be five years or less.

Whether connective or collective, successful movements must display what Charles Tilly (2004, 2006) termed WUNC: Worthiness, Unity, Numbers and Commitment or they will not achieve their goals.

Here’s the abstract:

From the Arab Spring and los indignados in Spain, to Occupy Wall Street (and beyond), large-scale, sustained protests are using digital media in ways that go beyond sending and receiving messages. Some of these action formations contain relatively small roles for formal brick and mortar organizations. Others involve well-established advocacy organizations, in hybrid relations with other organizations, using technologies that enable personalized public engagement. Both stand in contrast to the more familiar organizationally managed and brokered action conventionally associated with social movement and issue advocacy. This article examines the organizational dynamics that emerge when communication becomes a prominent part of organizational structure. It argues that understanding such variations in large-scale action networks requires distinguishing between at least two logics that may be in play: The familiar logic of collective action associated with high levels of organizational resources and the formation of collective identities, and the less familiar logic of connective action based on personalized content sharing across media networks. In the former, introducing digital media do not change the core dynamics of the action. In the case of the latter, they do. Building on these distinctions, the article presents three ideal types of large-scale action networks that are becoming prominent in the contentious politics of the contemporary era.

References:

Bennett, W. Lance and Alexandra Segerberg. 2012. The Logic of Connective Action. Information, Communication & Society 15(5): 739-768.

Tilly, Charles. 2004. Social Movements, 1768–2004, Paradigm, Boulder, CO.

Tilly, Charles. 2006. WUNC. In Crowds, J. T. Schnapp and M. Tiews, eds.  Pp. 289-306. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

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