Is technology undermining the much-vaunted community values of Millennials and creating a generation of semi-activists clicking for change on their computers, but ultimately disconnected and disempowered from each other and from the levers of real social change? This is the thesis posited by Sally Kohn, the director of the Movement Vision Lab at the Center for Community Change in an op-ed published in the Christian Science Monitor last week:
On their own, for example, none of the activists in the civil rights movement had sufficient power and influence to end segregation. Coming together in local committees, led mainly by young people, they used the tools of face-to-face community organizing, developing shared strategies to address shared problems. And they took shared action; in sit-ins and Freedom Rides, they formed groups that were more than the sum of individual parts.
By contrast, Internet activism is individualistic. It’s great for a sense of interconnectedness, but the Internet does not bind individuals in shared struggle as the face-to-face activism of the 1960s and ’70s did. It allows us to channel our individual power for good, but it stops there.
This is great for signing a petition to Congress or donating to a cause. But the real challenges in our society – the growing gap between rich and poor, the intransigence of racism and discrimination, the abuses from Iraq to Burma (Myanmar) – won’t politely go away with a few clicks of a mouse. Or even a million.
Over at Daily Kos, Georgia10 has already written an eloquent rebuttal highlighting the failures of the old activism models of the 60s in today’s political and media environment, and the recent successes enjoyed by Millennials engaged in online activism. I won’t rehash all that now. What I do want to point out is that this is not an either/or proposition, and to frame this as a zero-sum game between the old activism and the new creates a false dichotomy and friction where none needs to exist. There is no hard evidence showing that internet activism decreases offline activism. More mouse clicks does not equal fewer door knocks. In fact, the opposite is true.
According to a 2006 report by CIRCLE (pdf) on youth civic engagement (emphasis mine):
Internet Use and Civic Engagement
We separately asked about the frequency with which people go online, whether for news or other purposes. According to our survey, 69% of young people reported using the Internet at least a few times per week, and 41% reported using it daily. In general, those who use the Internet at least a few times per week are more engaged than those who never use it, while those who use it daily are the most engaged. For example, among those who do not use the Internet regularly, 72% are disengaged, and 23% have not participated in any civic engagement activities we measure. In contrast, among those who use the Internet daily, only 49% are disengaged, and only 10% have not engaged in any civic activities. That remains true even when we take into account the effects of education.
Statistics aside, there is hard evidence all around us that online engagement can produce just the sort of on-the-ground, community activism that Kohn desires. In 2006, tens of thousands of young immigrants and second generation Americans took to the streets to protest harsh, anti-immigrant legislation in Congress. Those mass protests, which received national attention in the media (and undoubtedly played a role in beating back the Sensenbrenner Bill), were organized primarily via MySpace and text messages. In 2007, at least 10,000 protestors descended on the small town of Jena, Louisiana to protest the unequal treatment six african-american students received at the hands of the local justice system. This protest, too, was primarily organized online via blog bloggers and the rising new – and internet savvy – organization Color of Change.
Without the internet, two of the most successful protests in our recent history – and ones that did not cater to an issue of great concern to the white upper-middle class elites who are normally associated with the netroots – would not have occurred. And in both instances, traditional community organizing groups, lauded by Kohn in her piece, found themselves playing catchup to the more agile internet organizers.
Today, one need only look to the campaign of Barack Obama to see that this trend is alive and well. Young Obama supporters are not just running successful campaigns on Facebook, they are finding each other online and building the social capital to change their local communities.
In a rebuttal to the post by Georgia10, Kohn states that she did not mean her piece to be taken as offering an either/or proposition – merely to highlight that the internet cannot achieve long-term radical change in our society by itself. With that, I agree wholeheartedly, but in saying so, Kohn defangs her entire thesis. Only the most starry-eyed techno-utopians believe that the internet can supplant all other forms of activism to change our world. Every serious person involved in the use and discussion of technology in politics recognizes that the internet is but one tool among many; that it does not replace older forms of activism, but rather compliments and strengthens them. In the end, Kohn seems to be fighting a straw-man of her own devising. The kids are alright. And so is the internet. In fact, they’re better than ever.