digital media, connective action, and social movements

The following is a review of W. Lance Bennett’s and Alexandra Segerberg’s The Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics. The review is slated to be published in AJS sometime later this year.

One of the most significant changes to social movements is activists’ use of digital technology and media –from texting to Facebook and Twitter. Arab Spring and the Occupy movement brought these technologies’ transformative potential to the public eye. Observers praised activists who relied on digital media to coordinate collective action, to resist authority, and to broadcast their claims to a global audience. Despite the important functions such media have played in movements, sociologists who study social movements have been slow to address their role in activism. Bennett’s and Segerberg’s book is a welcome introduction to the topic and should, I hope, convince more sociologists that our theories of movements should consider social media as a distinctive resource, one that transforms the way people engage in activism rather than simply augmenting traditional communications.

The authors make three main points. First, in contrast to traditional forms of collective action, digital media create a competing logic of connective action. This logic is derived from beliefs in individuality and distrust of hierarchy and authority, a desire to be inclusive, and the availability of open technologies. Second, with digital media people contribute to movements through personalized expression, rather than group actions that coalesce around collective identities. This high level of personalization allows individuals to connect in flexible ways, adapting movements to fit their own lifestyles, beliefs, and meaning. Ideology and shared identity take a backseat to individuality and expression. Third, communication becomes the basic form of organizing, replacing hierarchical structures and professional leaders. Bennett and Segerberg are careful to recognize that in many situations standard models of collective action exist side-by-side with connective action. Yet, their main intent is clearly to explore and uncover the dynamics of this new approach to organizing rather than explicitly compare the two.

The first chapter lays out this framework and conceptualizes three types of connective action networks: crowd-enabled, organizationally-enabled, and organizationally-brokered. The first type of network is the purest form of connective action, relying on people’s genuine expressions as a mechanism of coordination. The latter relies on established, central organizations to link individuals and provide the frames that individuals in the network should use. In organizationally-enabled networks, organizations are present but they are seen as just another node in the network, even adopting the same repertoire of personalized expression to engage with the community. Although most connective action lies somewhere along the spectrum, they point to the Occupy movement as exemplary of a crowd-enabled and the G20 London Summit protests as illustrative of an organizationally-brokered network.

The empirical chapters of the book consist of comparisons between different movement networks. Chapter two compares two online networks protesting the recent financial crisis and shows that the organizationally-enabled network was able to sustain itself whereas the organizationally-brokered network eventually disappeared after an initial surge. Chapter three compares two climate change protest networks operating on Twitter. They demonstrate that crowd-enabled networks draw from a variety of online resources, especially among middle media like bloggers and NGOs, while organizationally-enabled networks tend to be more limited in the types of online resources they use, relying on mass media. Crowd-enabled networks should be more robust and flexible to external changes. Chapter four looks at differences in personal engagement among organizationally-enabled networks and shows that when organizations seek to control the message and framing of advocacy, the network tends to encourage less personalization and diversity of expression. Chapter five compares the Occupy network, the prototypical crowd-enabled network, with the Robin Hood Tax campaign, an organizationally-enabled network and indicates that while the former tends to elicit more personal expression, the latter sustained a more focused message. The Occupy crowd was able to respond quickly to new opportunities but their message became diluted. If there is a big takeaway from the empirical chapters it is that crowds are more inclusive, flexible, and adaptive than organizations, and this is reflected in online networks.

This book ultimately asks more questions than it provides conclusive answers. In particular, the authors chose not to focus on the relationship between online behavior and offline activities. These might be two very different social movement forms with little overlap between the actors involved. If crowd-enabled movements facilitate more personalized expression and do not require commitment ideology and shared identity of its participants, then perhaps online activism simply selects a different breed of activist – people who would never go to an actual protest or volunteer to be on a community organizing committee but who do experience pleasure in publicly tweeting support for causes. And perhaps social movement organizations are aware of these different motivations for activism and seek to engage people in both forums.

Another possibility, which the authors mostly sidestep until the final chapter of the book, is that these two logics do actually compete. Connective action might weaken collective action. A recent study suggests there is some truth behind this. In a laboratory experiment, psychologists found that people who join a public Facebook activist group are much less likely to volunteer to stuff envelopes for the group than those who joined a private Facebook group. Simply joining an online activist group where others can see you’ve joined seems to encourage “slacktivism.” Consequently, people who tweet their support for movements just to be seen expressing themselves might be less likely to engage with activists in face-to-face interactions, make donations, etc.

But just because online activism might not facilitate deeper forms of engagement with the movement does not mean that online movements are not efficacious in their own ways. One final intriguing possibility that this book leaves open to the reader is that online movements may even be more effective than traditional movement forms inasmuch as they create a highly visible public platform for a new cause. Deep levels of engagement might be overrated if, as the authors suggest, online activism is better at creating media attention. We may not know the answers to these questions, but this book makes a strong case that social media and other forms of online activism should grab the attention of social movement scholars.

Written by brayden king

March 10, 2014 at 1:37 pm

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