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Creating Social Change Through Digital Media II: Earl And Kimport’s “Digitally Enabled Social Change”

September 8, 2012

The notion that electronic  media–especially the Internet, and Web 2.0–can truly be a game changer that transforms the ways people engage in social and political change remains a compelling belief, one to which the Egyptian uprising and other Arab revolutions have contributed.

The issue of emancipatory media poses two crucial questions:

  1. Can media be used in emancipatory ways by social movements and
  2. if so, how is this to be accomplished?

I recently reviewed a two volume series of case studies examining successful as well as not-so-successful efforts at harnessing media to create social change. Since then, my attention has been drawn to several more efforts that answer the first question with a resounding “Yes” and seek to move on to the second. My first installment was an assessment of Dan Gillmor’s Mediactive.

Here’s the second installment, an assessment of Jennifer Earl’s and Katrina Kimport’s Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age. Like the others I am reviewing in this series, Earl and Kimport do not question whether new media are, or can be emancipatory, they ask how this is accomplished.

Earl and Kimport emphasize that “it is people’s usage of technology – not technology itself – that can change social processes” (p. 14). At the same time, they want to emphasize that new technologies create new “affordances” which activists can creatively leverage in pursuit of their goals.

The book consists of nine chapters divided into four parts. In the first part, after a brief introduction to on-line activism, the authors begin by drawing a distinction between two different theories about how the web is emancipator, which they categorize as “supersize” theories versus “theory 2.0” approaches:

  • Supersize theories posit that when information and communication technologies (ICTs) are used for protest purposes, they “primarily increases the size, speed, and reach,” of protest movements, but have little or no impact on the fundamental “processes underlying activism” (p. 24).
  • Theory 2.0, on the other hand, posits that the use of ICT “may change the actual processes of organizing and/or participating in activism, resulting in model changes to existing theories of activism” (p. 24).

The authors argue that this rift in the literature on the role of social media in political activism is mostly an artifact of what kinds of protests scholars are writing about, and are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in their comparative Earl and Kimport “observe a mix of supersize and theory 2.0 findings” (p. 63).

The method that the authors choose for assessing the values of these two theories is a risk and reward analysis.

Part Two of the book analyzes how on-line activism allows Internet users to organize protests more quickly, and at less cost than was previously possible. Calling this “e-mobilization” they point out how significantly more efficient web-based efforts can be compared to the slow, careful and relatively expensive efforts involved in the US Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In Chapter 4 they look at how these changes affect participation in movements, and in Chapter 5 they look at how these efficiencies affect organizers.

Part Three analyzes the declining importance of copresence in protest participation (Chapter 6) and in the organizing of protest movements (Chapter 7).They look, for example, at forms of web-based activism that do not require copresence to operate. Not only electronic petitions but startegic voting web sites and other efforts that allow tens or hundreds of thousands of people to contribute to a cause without coming physically together.

From their many case studies–including many I’d never heard of–they draw conclusions about changing nature of social movements

I was particularly interested in their account in Chapter 8 of changing repertoires of protest movements, in which Earl and Kimport suggest that a new ‘digital repertoire of contention’ (p. 180) is emerging, changing the rules of activism. Essentially, they draw on Charles Tilly to argue that the nature of protest movements changes as protesters and activists acquire new repertoires of strategies, tools and tactics. For example, they argue that in the nineteenth century, activist repertoires were defined by three characteristics; they were

parochial, particular and bifurcated. They were parochial because in most cases the interest and action involved were restricted to one community. It was particular because forms of contention varied significantly from one place, actor or situation to another. It was bifurcated because when local people addressed local issues and nearby objects they took impressively direct action to achieve their ends, but when it came to national issues and objects they recurrently addressed their demands to a local patron or authority who might represent their interest, redress their grievance, fulfill his own obligation, or at least authorize them to act (Tilly 1995: 33).

What fascinated me was that this description closely tallies with the description I heard of labor movements in Egypt from ???? at the Oxford Conference I attended last Spring.

This was replaced by the “modern” repertoire, which Tilly characterizes as national, modular and autonomous. Tactics are aimed at national or state based targets, the same tactics tend to be used across a range of movements (hence, modular), and aimed directly at political elites rather than employing intermediaries.

The authors agree with Tilly’s distinctions between these two styles of protest, but point out that they have certain similarities as well:

  1. They rely on the physical -copresence of actors to produce successful collective action
  2. They assume a congruence between tactics and shared goals (i.e. tactics are presumed to be means to a specific political and/or economic end)
  3. Tactics are often associated with a long-term campaign which has its ups and downs (albeit this is more a feature of modern repertoire than the traditional)

The authors posit the emergence of a new digital repertoire that differs significantly. In the digital repretoire:

  1. Coordinated collective action can, and does, take place without physical copresence of actors
  2. Tactics may be used as a means of redress rather than to achieve a larger goal
  3. Campaigns are often disassociated from larger social movements; they may be enduring, but they may also be short, sporadic and episodic.

Ultimately, they argue, as activism increasingly utilizes the growing and changing body of new media technologies, the existence of coherent movements may become less and less necessary for significant social change to occur.

What strikes me here is something that historians and sociologists of media and other technologies have frequently noted: that new technologies rarely replace old tachnologies but co-exist with them, transforming the media technologies as they do so. Thus in Egypt, we may be seeing elements of all three “repertoires” being utilized. In addition to the labor movement drawing heavily on what Tilly calls “traditional” repertoires, piggipedia, the Kullina Khaled Said and April 6th Facebook pages and similar efforts all


Earl, Jennifer and Katrina Kimport. 2011. Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lindgren S and Lundström R. 2011. Pirate culture and hacktivist mobilization: The cultural and social protocols of #WikiLeaks on Twitter. New Media & Society 13(6): 999–1018.

Tilly, Charles. 1995. Activist Mobilization in Great Britain, 1758-1834. Harvard University Press.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Milena permalink
    October 11, 2012 12:49 pm

    What does “tactics may be used as a means of redress” (in point 2 of the digital repertoire) mean exactly? Could you please explain better this concept? Thank you very much in advance.

    • January 25, 2015 9:14 pm

      As I understand it, the authors make a distinction between goals, the desired outcomes of a protest activity, and tactics, the specific outcome-oriented actions undertaken as part of a protest. But even within a larger set of protests (I.e. Revolution) aimed at a revolutionary goal (i.e. Regime change), some tactics may not be aimed at that larger goal but rather at seeking redress for specific wrongs, problems or injuries.

  2. MPeterson permalink
    October 23, 2012 2:54 pm

    Reblogged this on medi(t)ations.

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