Elevate Difference

Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics In Hard Times

Brittany: I came to this collection with a lot of skepticism, mostly because I’ve grown quickly weary of the narrative about cyberactivism as a fun, accessible substitute for real-time work. I didn’t grow up with a particular activist model, but working as a communication and media scholar in recent years, my response to technology has been lukewarm at best, particularly when it is touted as a surrogate for working with people. Almost immediately, I was pleasantly surprised to find this collection of essays balanced and thorough, with an emphasis on media literacy as a necessity for successful activism and a rather open-ended approach to using certain media tools depending on the context. The range of articles could appeal to a wide variety of activist folk and media minds, so while dense, I’d recommend this collection to anyone with more than a passing interest in media activism.

Allyson: One of the things that really caught my attention was the repeated references to Jodi Dean's chapter, "Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics." I was fascinated by her focus on the problems of social media: the way signing online petitions makes us think we’re doing world-changing activist work, the way reading selected blogs from an RSS feed means that we’re possibly limiting our access to other news and opinions we wouldn’t know of otherwise, the ways in which the massive amount of information available can actually inhibit access to said information, the ways in which online forms of “activism”—such as blogging—can distract us from other forms of work that might be more meaningful and effective.

It seems to me that a lot of the contributors to this collection disagreed with Dean's views, or that they found them too pessimistic. While I agree that Dean's article is pessimistic, I don't disagree with her. In fact, it's the sort of thing I think I needed to read, and it's the chapter in this collection that stands out in my mind above all the rest. Dean's article was a real wake-up call for me to think about how I approach technology, activism, and feminism. At the time I read the chapter, I was already working with ways to have a stronger offline feminist presence. I was getting my offline activism together, and Dean's chapter helped me get going. Her writing is pessimistic, but in a way, it's also inspirational. I think it depends what you take from it. Since I was already looking to expand my activist work, I was preconditioned to be receptive her ideas, and the piece really resonated with me.

Brittany: For me, the most resounding piece was Robert Deibert’s essay on the militarization of the Internet, tiered connectivity services, and the OpenNet Initiative. One of my greater frustrations—both with myself and other activists and media makers with whom I have worked—has been a lack of understanding of how the Internet was developed, the infrastructure behind it, and the myth of the web’s openness. In my view, it’s like any other system you want to use to benefit yourself and others: you have to understand the backend, who’s in charge, and who enables your work so that you also know who could effectively shut it down. I don’t think it’s an article for everyone, but it does speak to issues about how Internet access is blocked in certain countries and daunting user agreements many of us (myself included) have been known to sign for certain software that makes much of how we’d actually utilize the product illegal.

The article also has a nice, if too short, section on hactivism, the idea of staging digital sit-ins, and doing a sort of civil disobedience in a virtual space. I wondered if others would read about these tactics and find that normalizing technology and the social web makes those things less daunting and, ultimately, more successfully utilized by activists.

Allyson: Reflecting on these essays, and the ways in which I define my feminism and my activism, I realize that blogging, in fact, led me to activism. That is, getting involved online inspired me to get involved with the offline world. There is something about authoring a blog that is narcissistic and narrow, especially because smaller blogs with a limited readership don’t get a whole lot of debate in the comments. But oddly enough, that was sort of the thing I needed. I needed to have a space to write, and just be in my own thoughts. Yes, that could have been accomplished by a regular paper journal, but while a blog is somewhat self-centered, it also has a social component, even if that social component is somewhat limited. Blogging provided me the kind of balance I needed to both write and put myself out there. And by having a space to get all those thoughts out, it helped me (and still helps me) refine my feminism, to figure out my motivations and what I want to do. It’s because of blogging that I decided what kind of feminist volunteer work that I wanted to do.

These essays got me thinking much more not just about being an offline activist, but about the depths of my activism. Various authors in this book discuss tactical media, which is an idea I never encountered before. We see the positives and the negatives of tactical media described in Digital Media and Democracy, so I really started thinking about my own practices, and whether I was being "too" tactical or not—that is, I was focusing on one issue at a time, as it happened, without any sort of deep commitment or ideological foundation. After reading this book, I recognize the value in tactical media, and I have also reshaped my activist approaches to combine tactical approaches with more sustained commitments.

Brittany: I think we both came out of reading this book with a lot of renewed hope and some new ideas about how to take academic lessons and apply them to our personal, everyday politics. Again, a dense read, and I still think that the essays, offered together, provide a much-needed overview of the sometimes-awkward marriage between activism and media, as it exists today.

Written by: Brittany Shoot, Allyson Whipple, October 14th 2008