This interview was originally published on Netsquared.org. I wrote this post about a new book called Digital Activism Decoded and followed up with editor Mary Joyce to learn more.
About the book:
Citizens around the world are using digital technologies to push for social and political change. Yet, while stories have been published, discussed, extolled, and derided, the underlying mechanics of digital activism are little understood. This new field, its dynamics, practices, misconceptions, and possible futures are presented together for the first time in Digital Activism Decoded.
About Mary Joyce:
Mary is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer, writer, consultant and commentator on the field of digital activism. She is also the founder of two nonprofit organizations: the Meta-Activism Project, which seeks to find better ways of developing digital activism knowledge, and DigiActive which publishes best practices in digital activism from around the world. She was also New Media Operations Manager for President Obama's national campaign in 2008.
Q. How did you get interested in digital activism?
I started off being interested in grassroots political activism in developing countries and everything kind of jelled when I was a Fulbright scholar researching the topic in Morocco in 2005. I was seeing this kind of activism for the first time and was very inspired by it. That same year I went to the first Global Voices Summit in London. There I learned about the rise of the blog, of social tagging, of citizen journalism, and at the same time I was aware of these political activists with limited financial resources who needed to organize and get the message out. I saw a natural connection between these two field and the deeper I dug and the more I learned, the more important and interesting those connections became.
Q. Tell us more about Digital Activism Decoded and what makes it so unique!
This is not the first book to discuss digital activism, but it is the first to attempt to map the field in its entirety. There have already been guides that instruct activists in the use of popular applications like blogs and social networks. There have also been scholarly works that analyze the effect of the Internet or mobile phones on political dynamics, both in rich democracies where politicians “tweet” and under repressive regimes. Best sellers have tried to explain the digitally changing world, including the impact on activism.
This book attempts to bring all those themes together in one place. The book starts with a chapter on Contexts (infrastructure, social, political, economic), then looks at digital activism practices (both constructive and destructive) and finally balances the Effects of digital activism, weighing the opinions of optimists and pessimists.
Q. Digital Activism Decoded is an anthology of works by several authors. How did you choose the contributors and topics?
Many of the authors are young scholars from around the world, while others are activists, private sector consultants, and even futurists. They hail from Brazil and the US, to Greece and Denmark. The goal in assembling the author pool was to bring together a group of innovative minds that reflect the full diversity of digital activism, which encompasses theory and practice, political science and computer science, passionate opinion and meticulous statistical analysis. The topics were decided by the field of expertise of the author and what content I felt the book needed. Many of the authors are colleagues I have worked with on different projects, but a few I have never met to this day…wonders of the network.
Q. What advice can you give to people who are just getting started with online political activism?
Start with activism strategy and layer digital technology on top of it. Many digital activists start with the tools without ever having mastered the campaigning basics like goal, message, audience, and action. Digital media is the last question an activist needs to answer and you won't get it right unless you have answered the other strategic questions first.
Q. Are there any networks or resources available for digital activists to connect or learn?
DigiActive has over 200 case studies of digital activism around the world which present tools in campaign context. The Alliance for Youth Movements will have similar resources, split into how-tos and posts, when it launches later this year. Blogs like Beth's Blog have more granular advice about how to use specific digital tools for activism and I recommend Beth's new book, “The Networked Nonprofit” for a more macro perspective on how nonprofits should engage with the digital.
Q. Is there a particularly interesting anecdote or example from the book that you'd like to share?
It's interesting that you use that term, because one of the arguments in the book is that we need to stop understanding digital activism through anecdote. The wealth of anecdote only fragments our understanding and gives ammunition to both optimists and pessimists who fight unwinnable debates over the value of digital activism, each armed with their own pile of anecdotes. We need to start testing these assumptions and theories with rigorous analysis and data.
Q. What have you learned from editing Digital Activism Decoded?
Actually, it was the single best digital activism learning experience of my life! I learned so much, not only from the authors, who shared their expertise in the chapters they wrote, but from the process. When I was forced to define the field of digital activism on paper I suddenly felt pressure to be much more rigorous, even-handed, and skeptical. It helped me to see not only what we know about digital activism, but the great deal we do not. It was a great experience.
Q. How can people get their hands on Digital Activism Decoded and follow your work?
People can download the book for free at Meta-Activism.org/book or buy a paper copy on Amazon. I blog at Meta-Activism.org/ideas, tweet at @mary_joyce, and my personal site is MaryJoyce.com