Much attention has been paid in recent years to the emergence of “Internet activism,” but scholars and pundits disagree about whether online political activity is different in kind from more traditional forms of activism. Does the global reach and blazing speed of the Internet affect the essential character or dynamics of online political protest? In Digitally Enabled Social Change, Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport examine key characteristics of Web activism and investigate their impacts on organizing and participation.
Earl and Kimport argue that the Web offers two key affordances relevant to activism: sharply reduced costs for creating, organizing, and participating in protest; and the decreased need for activists to be physically together in order to act together. A rally can be organized and demonstrators recruited entirely online, without the cost of printing and mailing; an activist can create an online petition in minutes and gather e-signatures from coast to coast using only her laptop. Drawing on evidence from samples of online petitions, boycotts, and letter-writing and e-mailing campaigns, Earl and Kimport show that the more these affordances are leveraged, the more transformative the changes to organizing and participating in protest; the less these affordances are leveraged, the more superficial the changes. The rally organizers, for example, can save money on communication and coordination, but the project of staging the rally remains essentially the same. Tools that allow a single activist to create and circulate a petition entirely online, however, enable more radical changes in the process. The transformative nature of these changes, Earl and Kimport suggest, demonstrate the need to revisit long-standing theoretical assumptions about social movements.