Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Activism Going Digital, Activism Going Global

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We can see how technologies impact almost every aspect of our lives – from the way we find our spouse to the way we work. What about activism going digital?

Being mostly enthusiastic about new technologies and the broken boundaries they brought us, I never questioned their importance and influence in globalization, new trends in governance, ecological movement, or political activism. Internet, mobile phones, GPS-based services did make people closer by visualizing “6 degrees of separation” (the idea that all people are six friend connections away from each other), and, in many cases, by transforming them into “3 degrees”. Recent political and environmental campaigns reach us in the virtual world sometimes even more effectively than in the real life.

Below, I present several examples where new technologies influenced the megatrends in quite unusual way. As digital technologies become omnipresent, it’s time to think how they will affect not only the megatrends themselves but also the dynamics of those megatrends.


Migration cannot stay aside from using the Internet: a number of expatriants’ forums online support people who wish to come to other countries to work, to study, or to live. When Green Card lottery was still based on snail-mail, forum participants living in the US offered their virtual immigrant-to-be friends help in sending their letters to the Lottery office in time. One could send their applications early to the US residents and they would promptly re-send it right in time, eliminating the chance for the letter to get lost. If all the advices, “how-to’s”, and even “tutorials” on immigration and settling at the new country would be printed, the papers would beat a decent city library.

Computer networks that came to life in the 1990-ies were utilized by mail order bride agencies, which offered faster, more reliable, and interactive way of matchmaking. A number of agencies, promoting an easy way to meet a future spouse online, made it an  everyday phenomenon. No one will be surprised to find out that their new friend has a profile on such a website and is looking for a spouse or just “yet another significant other” in exotic country, or anywhere in the world. It still seems strange to meet kids from India, France, Czech Republic, and United States, each of them having one parent from Russia on the same playground in Moscow, on the same day, and all of them – at once. But if 20 years ago one would seriously think of becoming mentally sick, today we just smile and exclaim “What a coincidence!”


A cohort of new online services influenced the environment by bringing to life “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” idiom. Freecycle, Ebay, Craigslist and other platforms, allowing people to offer their “trash” to others to take are spread around the world, eliminating at least some percent of garbage.

The number of kids’ computer games, educating young users on the diminishing rain-forests, extinct wildlife, animal habitats, and recycling, is also growing. Popular preschoolers’ animations character, Diego, devotes all his life to saving baby animals in different parts of the world, teaching kids about penguins, pandas, tigers, their habitats and food they eat.

Climate challenge is a game for older users, where they can learn more about global warming and try to wear a United Nations President’s hat for a while. A multiplayer game,  WebEarthOnline,  offers you to become a bird or an animal and try to survive in a modern world on your own. North American Association on Environmental Education keeps a list of computer games devoted to teaching players about the climate change, recycling, and ecology.

Political and social change

It’s evident that technology makes the world we live different. But how does it change us and our political/social behavior? There’s a big debate on the role of digital activism in actual political and social change. Despite many encouraging evidence, it is still not clear where does the digital activism lead. On one hand, digital political activism helps many people, on the other – the Internet works as a steam gauge (as Luke Allnutt puts it) and therefore doesn’t lead to anything but a heated online debate.

The new cycle of the debate on this matter has started with the The New Yorker Op-Ed by Malcolm Gladwell, bestseller author and one of the more influential writers. Gladwell argued that contemporary revolutions and actions were done by the same people and the same methods they were done 20 and 30 years ago. And it was not Twitter (Facebook or Livejournal) that made the difference. Gladwell made a clear difference between “networking”-dependent small actions a lot of people can take with a small risk for themselves (like resending information about an event to their friends, donating a small amount of money, etc.), and a “real activism,” when  people risk their careers, possessions, and lives for the sake of political or social change.

The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960 writes Gladwell,
Rally participants and protesters from various countries (Moldova, Iran, and others) did not use Twitter or Facebook during their actions, Gladwell argues. Most of the posts were in English, while protesters speak Farsi (or Moldovian). From Gladwell’s view, only strong friendship ties can drive a revolution; weak connections like Facebook or Twitter-originated can lead to tiny actions like donations or spreading the word.

Gladwell’s arguments make sense in some way, but these are just arguments: no one ever actually measured the impact of social interactions on activism. Stop, that’s not true. Some researchers approached this problem and tried to compare political engagement in offline and online social groups. Kittilson and Dalton examined how interpersonal social group activity  and virtual activity contribute to social trust, citizen norms, and political involvement. The research was based on the data from 2005 Citizenship Involvement Democracy survey. The results of their analysis showed that such virtual interactions make people react not only in virtual, but in real life electoral behavior. Both online and offline social interactions contribute to higher political involvement.

But researchers did not stop at this point, asking if virtual networks work better or worse than real friendship ties. The next question is how to make virtual networks work better, what tools, where, by whom, in what situations will help activists, and what is not working. For that purpose, Mary Joyce founded Meta Activism project; its mission is to analyze the ways we get knowledge about digital technology’s effect on activism. Meta Activism is a real “meta” project: volunteers are creating a database of all the activists’ actions when some sort of digital technology was used. The database is almost ready – the next step will be to code the data: each case will be supplied with the number of variables, such as country code, the rate of Internet penetration in this particular country, the age of participants, the technologies and platforms used, the goals of the actions and the outcomes of the event. Based on that data some, at least on the very high level of generalization, conclusions can be made. What technologies work best in what countries, what is the age of the people whose attitudes are affected the most by this or that activist’s approach, how the technological way of spreading the word can be supplemented by traditional activism.

The data set will be updated regularly – anyone can join the project by writing a letter on the project’s page. To be submitted to the database, a case should be described in English at least once, and (which is optional) be described in two more sources. That’s why not that many cases are in the database – a lot of them are not translated into English, which makes them inaccessible for English-speaking volunteers.


The changes that turn activism into digital actions are still to be investigated by researchers. It will take a while to get to everybody’s home, email, newsfeed, and become an everyday experience. It may take longer time to understand the impact of  digital activism and compare it with events and actions, that now are becoming history.   It probably will be different in one country, comparing to another, as it happens with media or social networks platforms, or ways people get and share information. The evident part of the drawbacks grows out globalization processes. One cannot be responsible for the whole world, there is no simple way to become Frodo Baggins and save everyone at once and give a new “happily ever after” a good start. While we are  getting more and more information and begin to see the bigger picture, it becomes more  and more obvious how much injustice and suffering happens not only in the world, but in your own tiny city or even neighborhood. With such information overflow, it is not easy to choose and devote yourself to something useful. Maybe, a better way to find a perfect match between things we care about and our abilities is needed to make more people not only resend a link on their Facebook page, but also step out to a street.

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