The logic of connective action: digital media and the personalization of contentious politics
Handbook of Digital Politics
From the Arab Spring and los indignados in Spain, to Occupy Wall Street (and beyond) , largescale, sustained protests are using digital media in ways that go beyond sending and receiving messages. Some of these action formations contain relatively small roles for formal brick and mortar organizations. Others involve well-established advocacy organizations, in hybrid relations with other organizations, using technologies that enable personalized public engagement. Both stand in contrast to the
... n contrast to the more familiar organizationally managed and brokered action conventionally associated with social movement and issue advocacy. This article examines the organizational dynamics that emerge when communication becomes a prominent part of organizational structure. It argues that understanding such variations in large-scale action networks requires distinguishing between at least two logics that may be in play: The familiar logic of collective action associated with high levels of organizational resources and the formation of collective identities, and the less familiar logic of connective action based on personalized content sharing across media networks. In the former, introducing digital media do not change the core dynamics of the action. In the case of the latter, they do. Building on these distinctions, the article presents three ideal types of large-scale action networks that are becoming prominent in the contentious politics of the contemporary era. With the world economy in crisis, the heads of the 20 leading economies held a series of meetings beginning in fall of 2008 to coordinate financial rescue policies. Wherever the G20 leaders met, whether in Washington, London, St. Andrews, Pittsburgh, Toronto, or Seoul, they were greeted by protests. In London, anti-capitalist, environmental direct activist, and non-governmental organization (NGO)-sponsored actions were coordinated across different days. The largest of these demonstrations was sponsored by a number of prominent NGOs including Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, Save the Children, and World Vision. This loose coalition launched a Put People First (PPF) campaign promoting public mobilization against social and environmental harms of 'business as usual' solutions to the financial crisis. The website for the campaign carried the simple statement: Even before the banking collapse, the world suffered poverty, inequality and the threat of climate chaos. The world has followed a financial model that has created an economy fuelled by ever-increasing debt, both financial and environmental. Our future depends on creating an economy based on fair distribution of wealth, decent jobs for all and a low carbon future. (Put People First 2009) The centerpiece of this PPF campaign was a march of some 35,000 people through the streets of London a few days ahead of the G20 meeting to give voice and show commitment to the campaign's simple theme. The London PPF protest drew together a large and diverse protest with the emphasis on personal expression, but it still displayed what Tilly (2004, 2006) termed WUNC: worthiness embodied by the endorsements by some 160 prominent civil society organizations and recognition of their demands by various prominent officials; unity reflected in the orderliness of the event; numbers of participants that made PPF the largest of a series of London G20 protests and the largest demonstration during the string of G20 meetings in different world locations; and commitment reflected in the presence of delegations from some 20 different nations who joined local citizens in spending much of the day listening to speakers in Hyde Park or attending religious services sponsored by church-based development organizations. 1 The large volume of generally positive press coverage reflected all of these characteristics, and responses from heads of state to the demonstrators accentuated the worthiness of the event (Bennett & Segerberg 2011). 2 The protests continued as the G20 in 2010 issued a policy statement making it clear that debt reduction and austerity would be the centerpieces of a political program that could send shocks through economies from the United States and the UK, to Greece, Italy, and Spain, while pushing more decisive action on climate change onto the back burner. Public anger swept cities from Madison to Madrid, as citizens protested that their governments, no matter what their political stripe, offered no alternatives to the economic dictates of a so-called neoliberal economic regime that seemed to operate from corporate and financial power centers beyond popular accountability, and, some argued, even beyond the control of states. Some of these protests seemed to operate with surprisingly light involvement from conventional organizations. For example, in Spain 'los indignados' (the indignant ones) mobilized in 2011 under the name of 15M for the date (May 15) of the mass mobilization that involved protests in some 60 cities. One of the most remarkable aspects of this sustained protest organization was its success at keeping political parties, unions, and other powerful political organizations out: indeed, they were targeted as part of the political problem. There were, of course, civil society organizations supporting 15M, but they generally stayed in the background to honor the personalized identity of the movement: the faces and voices of millions of ordinary 1 Simultaneous protests were held in other European cities with tens of thousands of demonstrators gathering in the streets of Berlin, Frankfurt, Vienna, Paris, and Rome. 2 US Vice President Joe Biden asked for patience from understandably upset citizens while leaders worked on solutions, and the British Prime Minister at the time, Gordon Brown, said: '. . . the action we want to take (at the G20) is designed to answer the questions that the protesters have today' (Vinocur & Barkin 2009). people displaced by financial and political crises. The most visible organization consisted of the richly layered digital and interpersonal communication networks centering around the media hub of Democracia real YA! 3 At the time of this writing, this network included links to over 80 local Spanish city nodes, and a number of international solidarity networks. On the one hand, Democracia real YA! seemed to be a website and on the other, it was a densely populated and effective organization. It makes sense to think of the core organization of the indignados as both of these and more, revealing the hybrid nature of digitally mediated organization (Chadwick 2011). Given its seemingly informal organization, the 15M mobilization surprised many observers by sustaining and even building strength over time, using a mix of online media and offline activities that included face-to-face organizing, encampments in city centers, and marches across the country. Throughout, the participants communicated a collective identity of being leaderless, signalling that labor unions, parties, and more radical movement groups should stay at the margins. A survey of 15M protesters by a team of Spanish researchers showed that the relationships between individuals and organizations differed in at least three ways from participants in an array of other more conventional movement protests, including a general strike, a regional protest, and a pro-life demonstration: (1) where strong majorities of participants in other protests recognized the involvement of key organizations with brick and mortar addresses, only 38 per cent of indignados did so; (2) only 13 per cent of the organizations cited by 15M participants offered any membership or affiliation possibilities, in contrast to large majorities who listed membership organizations as being important in the other demonstrations; and (3) the mean age range of organizations (such as parties and unions) listed in the comparison protests ranged from 10 to over 40 years, while the organizations cited in association with 15M were, on average, less than 3 years old (Anduiza et al. 2011). Despite, or perhaps because of, these interesting organizational differences, the ongoing series of 15M protests attracted participation from somewhere between 6 and 8 million people, a remarkable number in a nation of 40 million (rtve 2011). Similar to PPF, the indignados achieved impressive levels of communication with outside publics both directly, via images and messages spread virally across social networks, and indirectly, when anonymous Twitter streams and YouTube videos were taken up as mainstream press sources. Their actions became daily news fare in Spain and abroad, with the protesters receiving generally positive coverage of their personal messages in local and national newsagain defying familiar observations about the difficulty of gaining positive news coverage for 3 http://www.democraciarealya.es/ collective actions that spill outside the bounds of institutions and take to the streets (Gitlin 1980). 4 In addition to communicating concerns about jobs and the economy, the clear message was that people felt the democratic system had broken to the point that all parties and leaders were under the influence of banks and international financial powers. Despite avoiding association with familiar civil society organizations, lacking leaders, and displaying little conventional organization, los indignados, similar to PPF, achieved high levels of WUNC. Two broad organizational patterns characterize these increasingly common digitally enabled action networks. Some cases, such as PPF, are coordinated behind the scenes by networks of established issue advocacy organizations that step back from branding the actions in terms of particular organizations, memberships, or conventional collective action frames. Instead, they cast a broader public engagement net using interactive digital media and easy-to-personalize action themes, often deploying batteries of social technologies to help citizens spread the word over their personal networks. The second pattern, typified by the indignados, and the occupy protests in the United States, entails technology platforms and applications taking the role of established political organizations. In this network mode, political demands and grievances are often shared in very personalized accounts that travel over social networking platforms, email lists, and online coordinating platforms. For example, the easily personalized action frame 'we are the 99 per cent' that emerged from the US occupy protests in 2011 quickly travelled the world via personal stories and images shared on social networks such as Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook. Compared to many conventional social movement protests with identifiable membership organizations leading the way under common banners and collective identity frames, these more personalized, digitally mediated collective action formations have frequently been larger; have scaled up more quickly; and have been flexible in tracking moving political targets and bridging different issues. Whether we look at PPF, Arab Spring, the indignados, or occupy, we note surprising success in communicating simple political messages directly to outside publics using common digital technologies such as Facebook or Twitter. Those media feeds are often picked up as news sources by conventional journalism organizations. 5 In addition, these digitally mediated action networks often seem to be accorded higher levels of WUNC than their more conventional social movement counterparts. This observation is based on comparisons of more conventional anti-capitalist collective actions organized by movement groups, in contrast with both the 4 Beyond the high volume of Spanish press coverage, the story of the indignados attracted world attention. BBC World News devoted no fewer than eight stories to this movement over the course of two months, including a feature on the march of one group across the country to Madrid, with many interviews and encounters in the words of the protesters themselves. 5 For example, our analyses of the US occupy protests show that increased media attention to economic inequality in America was associated with the coverage of the occupy protests. While political elites were often reluctant to credit the occupiers with their newfound concern about inequality, they nonetheless seemed to find the public opinion and media climate conducive to addressing the long-neglected issue. organizationally enabled PPF protests and relatively more self-organizing 15M mobilizations in Spain and the Occupy Wall Street protests, which quickly spread to thousands of other places. The differences between both types of digitally mediated action and more conventional organization-centered and brokered collective actions led us to see interesting differences in underlying organizational logics and in the role of communication as an organizing principle. The rise of digitally networked action (DNA) has been met with some understandable scepticism about what really is so very new about it, mixed with concerns about what it means for the political capacities of organized dissent. We are interested in understanding how these more personalized varieties of collective action work: how they are organized, what sustains them, and when they are politically effective. We submit that convincingly addressing such questions requires recognizing the differing logics of action that underpin distinct kinds of collective action networks. This article thus develops a conceptual framework of such logics, on the basis of which further questions about DNA may then be tackled. We propose that more fully understanding contemporary large-scale networks of contentious action involves distinguishing between at least two logics of action that may be in play: the familiar logic of collective action and the less familiar logic of connective action. Doing so in turn allows us to discern three ideal action types, of which one is characterized by the familiar logic of collective action, and other two types involve more personalized action formations that differ in terms of whether formal organizations are more or less central in enabling a connective communication logic. A first step in understanding DNA, the DNA at the core of connective action, lies in defining personalized communication and its role along with digital media in the organization of what we call connective action.