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Notes on Nielsen (2009) The Labors of Internet-Assisted Activism

June 23, 2010

Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis 2009, The Labors of Internet-Assisted Activism: Overcommunication, Miscommunication, and Communicative Overload. Journal of Information Technology and Politics. Volume 6, Issue 3 & 4, pp. 267-280. DOI: 10.1080/19331680903048840. Link. [pre-publication version available here]

Amidst celebration of, and speculation about, endless possibilities of internet activism, often lost that it’s actually hard work – and very messy too. Not getting any easier either.

In old days, political campaigns overlooked people who wanted to be activists, nowadays they invite them to join the campaign

Previous scholars have neglected actual technologies of activism. Latour’s (2005) ideas about how the social is assembled are helpful, p. 270.

Article based on ethnographic research amongst campaigners in US in 2008 presidental nomination, Democratic Party.

Key findings:

  • overcommunication: transaction costs for communication greatly lowered, so you get increase in communicators and communicative forms;  ‘human bottlenecks’ (p. 272); tendency is to communicae more, never less
  • miscommunication: a result of the above; plus often no main repository of info; lists not synced with one another; online and offline info mismatch;
  • communicative overload: too much communication, activists feel overloaded; even professional campaign managers’ actual practices far from idealised image of all-powerful controllers; how did they try to solve overload? with more communication!; no-one there to sift through tons of materials
  • other problems: activists migrate platforms and often fail to inform others, and are eclectic in their mix of digital tools
  • and yet, with all these issues ‘many activists continued to praise the potential of the internet’ [but see Ganesh and Stohl 2010, this blog, for continuum from sceptics to equivocators to advocates of ICTs among activists in NZ]
  • many also felt that they had “done something” [see rewards of media EASA panel]
  • big challenge how to make internet elements work, not just associate people; author concludes:
  • And, as noted above, the political professionals who help define campaign assemblages and their openness to activist participation seem much more open to the idea of citizen involvement today than they did as recently as the 1990s (see Weir & Ganz, 1997 on the organizational side of this skepticism, and Stromer-Galley, 2000 on the sociotechnical side). But the professionals’ interest remains clearly instrumental, and if they come to the conclusion that the sociotechnical tools, techniques, and forms of assemblage involving activists are more trouble than they are worth, and the activists themselves are plagued by problems like the
    ones analyzed here, the current shift towards collaboration may slide back towards the emphasis on control and management that Howard (2006) highlights in his study of new media campaigns. To avoid this, people who want to pursue Internet-assisted activism must confront the labors and problems that accompany it and find ways of dealing with them so they can both assemble and get things done. That, after all, is the goal of most activism.

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