Emergent Digital Activism:
The Generational/Technological Connection

Fernando Adolfo Mora

Professor of Management, MBAs, International Business and Health Management, St. George’s University, Grenada. Email: famorac@gmail.com


Since the year 2011, social and political activism, revolts and demonstrations have spread like fire in different parts of the world and for the most varied reasons. New forms of technology mediated activism have started to emerge and become commonplace alongside traditional media as vehicles to monitor, gather information and denounce atrocities or abuses in situations that encompass natural disasters, social justice protests and strikes, civil wars or election processes.

Nevertheless, a large body of the literature that attempts to describe the relationship between information and communication technologies and activism fall short in their analysis of current digital activism because their technological references belong to a pre-Web 2.0 world. The analysis and reviews take different directions to try to present the influence of the new technologies in the development of social and political movements. Discussions are related to the validity of considering Internet enabled activism as a new model of participation or not (Anduiza, Cantijoch & Gallego, 2009), or to propose analytical structures that can be applied to understand these new developments (Garret, 2006). In a more recent work, Earl and Kimport (2011) classify Internet activism into the categories of e-mobilizations, e-tactics and e-movements as a way to show how Internet tools can help traditional movements improve their reach, information handling, petitioning or even, online organizing. However, this classification does not take into account the social software and media that have become so pervasive globally and which have been mastered by a widespread youth culture that, as noted previously, is taking over social and political movements at this time.

The idea that social media can foster political participation and social activism is not new. Howard Rheingold introduced the concept of the smart mob in 2002, referring to a crowd that acts coordinately as a result of the technology-mediated synchronized participation of a number of individuals. Basically, the concept requires the development of a culture of participation, a high degree of networking and knowledge sharing, and the use of specialized information and communication technologies. Since Rheingold's inception of this idea, the wide spread use of mobile devices and ubiquitous computing has grown exponentially, within a maturing web ecosystem that facilitates the interaction, engagement and coordination of crowds towards social and political activism, using a wide variety of interconnected technological devices and systems. In this article, these new forms of participation are called digital activism, following the reasoning given by Mary Joyce (2010) who argues that it is a sufficiently broad term to encompass many of the other terms that have been used such as cyber-activism, Internet activism, online activism, e-activism, or even social media activism, as well as to incorporate the use of the mobile telephone, smart or otherwise, and even systems that collect and process data obtained from sensors, cameras and devices connected within networks.

The purpose of this article is to review the literature on current digital activism by considering first some of the systems and techniques that have been used to promote digital activism. Many of the recent examples of digital activism involve an emerging, computer savvy, networked, "youth culture" that, as Lynch (2011) points out, "communicates differently, interacts differently, and has different expectations of the public sphere compared to previous generations" in these countries. Therefore, this paper also attempts to connect from a review of the literature how some of these new youth cultures make use of technology mediated tools for social interaction, crowd engagement and participation, through a networked and apparently leaderless social and political activism. From the standpoint and interest of Community Informatics (CI) research (Gurstein, 2007) this is quite important because it allows to see how new groups and communities of users have been empowered to become active political participants, through their access to digital tools, and the creation of networks of knowledge and participation where know-how is disseminated .

The last section of the article examines three cases of digital activism that evolved into mobilization and new forms of organization, which occurred during the period 2010-2011 when this study was conducted. Those cases where reports on the successful use of social media to create a new virtual public spheres for protest and denunciation, which evolved on the mobilization of people into actual localized demonstrations, that contradicted traditional hierarchical political channels, and which seemed spontaneous and leaderless were chosen. The purpose is to show how in quite different contexts, with varying degrees of openness, accessibility, needs, aims actors, vulnerabilities and capabilities, develop multiple strategies to induce mobilization and produce effective and original digital activism practices.


The ecology of social media has grown to a point where social interaction, conversation and participation have been enhanced to a degree not experienced before. Technology allows the creation of knowledge within a certain context and also provides the channels for building the relationships and connections through which this knowledge can flow. This new space takes the form of a complex network with nodes (actors), links (relationships), clusters (groups, communities) and bridges (inter-cluster connections). Thus, network creation and reconfiguration becomes the most important enabling tool for social and political participation. Knowledge is embedded within these networks; the actors just have to find out "who" has it and "where" it is located in the realm of the net (Siemens, 2006).

Therefore, current developments in digital activism have to be viewed through the mirror of the technology that is available for their development. Since around 2004 the term Web 2.0 was coined to designate the new developments and more specifically the new mentality of the web, based on information sharing, collaboration, participation, co-creation, inter-operability and a higher level of digital communications (O'Reilly, 2009). The Web 2.0 draws its power from the social interactions that occur through many different devices (computers, portable devices, servers, appliances, sensors) that can connect to the web by means of different channels. Thus, a form of self-propagating social networking becomes central, which allows the spontaneous formation of very active communities that possess collective intelligence, expressed through user-generated content in variety of forms. For example, tagging of content is left to users within social networks, which allows for new classification and search systems based on the wisdom of people. Even, new software can be peer-produced through open source (OS) programming, fostering constant innovation and entrepreneurship. Also, the active participation of users as co-developers allows the improvement and continuous update of applications. Web software modules can be reused in user tailored new configurations or mashups, giving rise to new powerful services. By the same token, collection and management of data generated by social networking and by the use of web applications and services becomes fundamental for increasing connectivity and interaction, adding, as a consequence, more intelligence to the network.

Mary Joyce (2011) presents a framework to classify digital technology in the current web ecosystem according to seven activist functions: documenting, broadcasting, mobilizing, co-creating, synthesizing, protecting and gathering and transferring resources from her observations of the recent Egyptian uprising in early 2011. Documenting encompasses the desire to tell the story, to inform, as well as to transmit some ideas about the social movement in process. Blogging is one of the widest used tools for the creation of a narrative and discourse for social and political activism. Multi-media tools are available for documentation purposes, from audio recordings to video clips such as YouTube channels. In many occasions blogging initiates a connecting phase when the blogger leads the reader to an activist social network in Facebook or Twitter.

Broadcasting takes the form of one-to-many or many-to-many using digital communication systems in order to share information about protests, meetings, human rights violations, crisis and evolution of movement actions. Cell phone text messaging; Twitter microblogs; Facebook groups; and even real-time video transmissions are among the most popular ways of broadcasting a social or political movement. In many cases broadcasting is conducive to mobilization using the above-mentioned social media technologies combining them, whenever possible, with traditional media such as radio and TV.

Co-creation requires collaborative technologies such as wikis, communities of practice or decision making tools, generally used by more private sub-communities participating in coordination and organizational tasks of the social or political movements. Synthesizing the large volume of data and information gathered is an important step for historical and legal reasons in the long run, tools allow simple means of reporting by posting comments, messages or multi-media information, aggregation of content into a searchable database, the creation of mashups of different Web 2.0 facilities, most commonly in the form of situational maps.

Protecting technology helps activist to avoid censorship and state surveillance. One recent example of this was the hacking done to circumvent Internet blockage during the Egyptian protests in January 2011, to combine standard telephony with other tools to make audio phone recordings available as Twitter messages. Finally, technologies for crowdsourcing fund raising can be used for transferring resources to finance movements. As it appears, social connectivity contributes to the development of altruist communities where resources flow in an organic way.

Chi et al. (2010) view three interacting categories for the understanding of the characteristics of technology mediated social participation (TMSP): the context of social or political participation, people as social agents, and the tools that enable the participation. This framework is very interesting from the standpoint of Community Informatics because when we analyze each one of these categories, and their interactions, in a particular situation we can see more clearly the role that digital systems and new social media play in certain situations, as well as understand better the characteristics of the social actors that would be engaged more easily through technology mediated activism and the social processes that are involved.

For example, choice of a particular digital technology for social participation will depend on whether the social movement is being instilled within a highly closed country where media is constantly monitored or if the application involves mobilization to a designated physical space, or if it requires widespread participation like in cases of election monitoring and disasters. Similarly, issues about access to digital infrastructure and devices and mastery of programming methods and computer hardware come into question. Situations where people have access to advanced digital communication systems are prone to digital activism practices. Whereas there are social crisis where the use of sophisticated technology is limited to a more educated and wealthier elite and, in order to increase participation, perhaps older methods such as SMS's have to be integrated with more current methods. Therefore, understanding the context of socio-political activism becomes fundamental to provide the appropriate technologies according to the situation being faced.

The second category proposed by Chi et al. (2010) relates to how people interface with social participatory systems as well as to how individuals interact with each other through these technologies, areas that are still under development from practical and theoretical standpoints. Very few models of interaction between users and social participating systems have been proposed. Preece and Shneiderman (2009) have formulated a framework that shows four successive levels of social participation: reading, contributing, collaborating, and leading in which the number of individuals moving from one phase to the other diminishes progressively. The framework could help explain social participation in some technological tools such as Wikipedia where a somewhat linear progression of participation is expected. Nevertheless, we find it quite limited for digital activism that results from a variety of non-linear processes among which social networking is the chief catalyst for user involvement in social or political movements.

In a study of activists around the world Brodock, Joyce and Zaeck (2009) found that social networks are the preferred point of entry or gateway of digital activism. Therefore it seems obvious that the favored initial tool for activists is the creation of connection or entry points to the movement's social network, generally in the form of a Facebook or Twitter group. In this case relationships, and the way to access them, become more important than spotless web pages with captivating pictures and well-thought content. This fact also may help to prove that, in some regards, the dynamics of digital activism remain similar to that of traditional methods, which depend heavily on relationship building to attract new participants.

danah boyd (2010) has introduced the term networked publics to refer to online social networks, as spaces for social, cultural or civil interaction, beyond close friends and family, which are created through technological means and perceived as a collective that emerges with its own characteristics resulting from the interplay of people, technology and practices. In other words, networked publics are dynamic spaces, which require constant engagement of the participants with streams of information and new interactions. Again, this concept is particularly important for Community Informatics (CI) because it refers to the construction of new spaces of interaction through digital means.

In boyd's work she points out to six characteristics of digital information, which we think play an important role in the development of social networks as networked publics for digital activism and which have made social networks so pervasive in current social and political movements practices.

The first characteristic proposed by boyd (2010) is the persistence of online information once it has been created, in the form of stored files that can be opened at any time by anyone. This is the power of sites like Blogger and Wordpress that makes blogging simple and available to anyone, and which provided the means for grassroots journalism, or the case of YouTube which gives social network participants the possibility of creating and posting audiovisual content. The replicability property offers the possibility of duplication, transfer and modification of content by participants of the social network. For example, the now old-fashioned "forward" of emails has been surpassed by the retweet tool of Twitter, where no longer is necessary to send the content but a shortened URL with the web address of it. This is also the logic of RSS (real simple syndication) feeds, which allow the automatic generation of content derived from other sites or blogs in the web. In third place, there is also the extraordinary potential for the multiplication of participant's visibility through the scalability of generated content. This entails channels or interconnections through complex and many times massive networks where all kinds of media (serious or otherwise) are scaled. Someone's personal network of Twitter "followers", through their respective social networks, can amplify a simple 140-character tweet many times, reaching unimaginable audiences. One of the ways to achieving scalabality in networked publics is through the searchability property of social networks, which allows participants to find content, to be found by others and to reconfigure the social network in a very dynamic way. This is what tagging content does; it leaves a mark such that the content and its producer can be located in the web by means of powerful search algorithms and data mining techniques. The last qualities, mobility and locatability (boyd fuses these two in one word, (dis)locatability, 2008), are introduced by the pervasive presence of mobile technologies among social network participants, allowing them to be active in networked publics regardless of their physical location (mobility), giving at the same time the possibility of providing precise information of their whereabouts (locatability).

Castells (2009) takes the concept of technology-mediated communities of practice and the networked culture to explain the origin of a digital activism. Castells sees in these mobilizations the presence of individuals that having constructed their on-line identities with values, interests, practices that transcend traditions, loyalties and hierarchies, seek in like-minded communities a place for personal expression and also a trench to resist oppression, to protest against injustices and to dream of a better world. Thus, Web 2.0 social networking sites serve as connecting places of these communities, creating some class of third place, where frustrations, ideals, reactions against institutions, support to causes can be expressed and shared without restrictions to peers. Moreover, if individuals are connected through mobile devices and smart phones, the private resistance and disobedience sentiments can be synchronized into the form of a large mobilization that will certainly surpass planning and predictions, into what Castells has termed an instant insurgent community. Reinghold's smart mob, which Etling, Faris and Palfrey (2010) define as a digitally organized social or political demonstration that impacts at a certain time and space trying to call attention upon a defined cause. The combination of the scalability and locatability properties of social networks make mobs possible and effective.

In a relatively short time, we have witness the widespread use of microblogging for digital activism. Twitter became a rather popular and ubiquitous technology, easily implemented in smart phones, which from the contextual category standpoint, can be used as broadcasting tool in situations where traditional media is controlled or censored. In different situations that have been widely reported, people has found microblogging as a tool simple to learn, requiring minimal effort to produce information, and quite useful to report incidents and serve as simple means of citizen journalism. Twitter enables fast flow of information through a network of followers by amplifying the information cascade through practices like retweeting or tagging. It also highlights topics through the trending topic feature making certain flows of information more visible at a certain point in time, making it very useful for digital activism (Lotan et al., 2011). Also, Twitter has changed dramatically the way journalism is now practiced by increasing the number of sources of information and the characteristics of its flow during events.

However, when applied in large-scale crowdsourced social participation systems, the amount of information that Twitter produces is so large that sometimes what is important, relevant and current can be buried within thousands of messages that become noise. Thus, new methods, based on artificial intelligence, are being researched, designed and implemented such that the signal-to-noise ratio of the social information gathered is increased and the purpose of the social participation system is realized. One recent example is Swift Riveri a software platform that performs semantic analysis, filtering and classification of real-time data from different sources, improving the quality of the information being originated in the social networks associated with the participatory system. The overflowing amount of digital information generated online is growing exponentially and will certainly continue to grow. The problem for digital activism is how to give meaning to these vast amount of data that is generated from tweets, blogs, SMS's, wikis, news feeds, comments, tags, photos, videos, status updates, content in participatory systems (links, stories, notes, pictures, etc.) and so on. Organization of this information as well as methodologies for its retrieval require curatorial tools to help activists "sift through and make sense of these massive content streams in the immediate term while also helping to manage and preserve information in the long term" (Liu, 2010, 19).

One aspect that cannot be overlooked in this analysis and which is related not only to the tools but also to very basic aspects such as access to broadband Internet connectivity is what has been termed as the digital divide, which in this case involves not only computer skills but also the possibility of successfully accessing networks and communities of practice through the Internet. In the case of digital activism perhaps the most important aspect to consider is what van Deursen and van Dijk (2010) define as "strategic Internet skills" through which refer to the ability of the activist to use the Internet for very specific goals, which implies a certain savyness or hacking capabilities that often goes way beyond basic usage. This form of digital divide may well account for the lower age of the digital activists, and for being predominantly male and well educated middle class individuals (Rice and Haythornthwaite, 2006) as will be also consider in the following section. However, it is also important to state form a technological standpoint that cell phone technology and the development of 3G/4G access to the Internet could lead to improve access in certain regions of the world like India and Africa which have very underdeveloped standard phone landlines or cable TV deployments. Some important developments in term of activist technology have come from countries like Kenya where the technology has had to adapt to what is available there, in this case the simple cell phone text message. Finally, it is important to point out that the digital divide may be due to political control by authoritarian regimes such as in the case of the Middle East, in which case access to this technology advances very slowly.


In the new young cohorts around the world, there is a complex interaction between the local and the global. The local may be characterized by the lived experiences of social hardship, intolerance, corrupt politics, poverty and religious fundamentalism. While the global exposes young people to new cultures, technologies, widespread connection to peers all over the world, diversity, openness, new perceptions of life and consciousness about social issues. These new digital activists have a global networked perspective without loosing grasp of their local realities, struggles and cultures. They view activism as globalised, networked, open, collaborative and shaped by new information and communication technologies (Juris and Pleyers, 2009).

Throughout the world local cohorts of young people have been raised familiarized with the language of computers, the Internet, video games, information management and sharing, social networks, and specially mobile phones. Nevertheless, although Internet penetration has been growing faster in recent years, Prenky's digital native definition (2001) as someone with a different way of thinking and information processing and technology savvy would have very many different tonalities at an international level. Palfrey et al. (2011) point out to three aspects that would affect the experience of younger generations of growing up immersed in a digital culture: access to digital technology, digital literacy in a connected world, and digital engagement for socializing, learning, creation, business and activism. Therefore a simplistic generalization of youth into some kind of "global digital native" stereotype is not possible, because the degrees of access, literacy and engagement are quite different from nation to nation and each case may have to be considered according to the state of advance of these aspects in a particular country. In spite of that, it is possible to affirm that the general global trend is an intense engagement of youth with digital technologies for entertainment, socializing, learning, participating, creating and story telling.

Three large categories that describe degrees of intensity and sophistication in the engagement of youth with digital media termed: hanging out, messing around and geeking out have been recently suggested by researchers (Ito et al., 2010). Through these activities young cohorts connect with each other in order to share the contents and media that make them different from other generations. These practices allows young people to develop their own discursive practices, their particular way to tell their story and describe the world, to connect and share, that make the digital generation conscious of its singularity, something that Aroldi (2009) has termed a "generational semantic". We can see all of this at work in varying degrees of expression in different examples of current digital activism all over the world.

Hanging out refers to the process of getting involved in digital social interactions of various kinds such as meeting, communicating, exchanging, sharing and playing using social media. Although deemed as irrelevant, superficial or banal (Buckingham, 2008) by many, it constitutes the basis for the development of a networked identity for digital youths. As Hammelman and Messard (2011) point out, participation in social media contributes to youth identity formation by exposing them to the world culture at large and to different expressions of diversity. This in turns empowers them to voice opinions to friends and acquaintances in social networks, participate in social causes and explore what their peers are doing in the rest of the world. All of this is done through the non-threatening and friendly environment that social media provides, for the most part far out of direct control from family and governments. Although previous reports from the USA and other developed nations had shown that only a minority of young people were being empowered to engage in social participation or political activism (Buckingham, 2008), the events of 2011 in different parts of the world have started to show signs of a maturation of youth cohorts in their engagement with social media for digital activism.

As it is well known, one of the most popular social media environments that provide facilities for connecting, constant communication, adding content, finding new friends and other simple community features is Facebook. For some theorists, social networking sites such as Facebook help digital youths in their identity construction by relationally situating the individual among a network of peers using visual resources (photos and videos), cultural content preferences (links, causes supported, events), some explicit statements (status updates) and a variety of social ties and associations (friendships) (Miller, 2011). This idea of being connected, networked, relationally linked and also relationally defined, is what makes Facebook powerful and also what brings the idea of collective identification, cooperation, participation and crowdsourcing content generation into fruition.

The next degree of involvement of youth with digital technology as proposed by Ito et al. (2010) is the idea of "messing around", which for the authors represent a more intense, social-media centric form of engagement. This requires a deeper understanding of social connectivity, on how to implement blogs or wikis and a more technical background on the production of graphical material, videos or photography manipulation. Similarly, the involved digital youth have a broader spectrum of Web 2.0 technical choices to pursue his/her interests, and also communities and interests groups are formed to support this level of involvement.

The last stage of involvement of youth with digital technology requires more technical skills, continuous access to digital media, specialized knowledge and connection with specialist networks. This is the world of the young hacker who engages with software, gadgets, games, digital video, and communication systems in a proficient and creative way. It is not surprising that the ideas of sharing, openness, decentralization, free access, cooperation and freedom that have characterized the so-called hacking movement have found in the Web 2.0 a natural medium for its development. Hackers are considered a social movement that takes advantage of their mastery of technology, creativity and ability to innovate and solve technical problems to promote social change (Breindl, 2010). By geeking out, tinkering with technology, building Internet mashups and being exposed to newer digital media young hackers have contributed decisively to the newer forms of digital activism that are predominant nowadays.


In the previous sections we have explored how digital activism, within the current social media ecology available in the Web, can eventually evolve into practical activism and how world youth culture has prepared itself to take advantage of this technology-based ecosystem in order to advance their protests, causes, solutions, from virtuality into real-life situations. We can see how a generation that has been regarded as mostly oriented to seemingly ludic trivial tasks (such as getting together, gaming, browsing, navigating, sharing, messaging, posting, listening, searching and engaging with media just for fun), through its familiarity and expertise with the use and design of social media technologies, disrupts and transforms traditional activism by providing new environments for relationships, creativity, participation, organization, mobilization and social leadership emergence. It is not difficult to imagine how these practices transform activism going from the virtual space to physical spaces using non-conventional and as Feixa, Pereira and Juris (2009) put it even highly "theatrical", expressive and creative forms of protest and demonstration. Let's take a look at some recent examples and how the connection between these younger generations and technology is made in each case and how it facilitates digital activism.

a. From Clicktivism to Practical Mobilization

Using Van Laer and Van Aelst (2010) four-quadrant classification, it is possible to classify digital activism using two dimensions. One of them measures the dependency of activism upon digital tools. Activism can then be digitally supported, when it uses the same traditional methodologies of social movements, somehow enhanced by the new communication media. On the other hand it would be digitally based if its methods are novel and require the use of telecommunication networks and sophisticated computer software. The second dimension measures the relative participation threshold based on risk, commitment, effort, or intensity of the digital activism practice. This serves as a way to differentiate between relatively simple, low-risk and inexpensive practices like signing an on-line petition all the way to participating in a smart mob involving a concentration in a certain square in a particular day, which could entail a possible confrontation with the police.

The more acquainted with participatory and social media tasks and tools available in the web ecology spectrum, such as making connections, adding comments, tagging photos and videos, sharing information, expressing opinions, the more likely an individual will engage in social or political on-line activities without the burden of rigid hierarchical lines and the heavy ties and loyalties that political proselytism produce. However, it is still unclear how these new forms of digitally enhanced social interaction, engagement and participation stop being just the more comfortable, effortless, even lazy, asynchronous "clicktivism" or "slacktivism" (Morozov, 2009; Rotman et al., 2011), go beyond the awareness stage and translate into synchronous, face-to-face, time and space bounded sophisticated ways of mobilization, demonstration, protest, or social auditing actions. In this regard, let's look at a situation which shows how the path from clicktivism to practical activism can be navigated through digital activism methodologies.

An unprecedented heat wave towards the end of July and beginning of August 2010 hit Russian territory. More than 500 forests were ignited across the country with large lines of gigantic flames, killing over 50 people, destroying homes and thousands of trees. In cities like Moscow, unusually high temperatures and the smoke produced by the fires were blamed for nearly doubling its typical mortality rate. Many sources pointed to government negligence and ineptitude to control the fire. In particular, the dismantling of the once huge Soviet-era State Forestry Service with more than 70,000 rangers and 200,000 additional workers that protected about 775 million hectares of Russian forests as well as the introduction of new regulations that atomized forest supervision (Kirilenko and Sindelar, 2010).

As fires spread uncontrollably, the Russian blogosphere with its associated communities and social networks started to expose the failure of the government in handling the disaster. Nevertheless, as Asmolov (2010) has pointed out, the Russian online community had to go beyond denunciation and clicktivism to produce practical alternatives in those situations were the government was lacking. This was only possible because there were established trusted bloggers and networks that engaged each other in a highly complex interaction, enabled by the increased connectivity that current technology provides, leading to a self-organized form of coordination that somehow replaced the government in the midst of the crisis. It is important to notice, as a recent study by Etling et al. (2010) has indicated, that the Russian blogosphere is a peer-produced space which, so far, has had very limited government control, becoming an open space for the discussion of public concerns in a way that is conducive to active political and social mobilization.

As incredible as it may seem, Russian bloggers started to respond in practical ways by locating and buying firefighting equipment, training volunteer firefighters, raising money from donors for the purchasing of all kinds of items and sending them to the different locations were aid was needed. New leaders emerged from the ad-hoc network of bloggers and related social networks that originated. According to Etling et al. (2010), the Russian blogosphere can be considered a social network system that combines the typical features of open blog platforms (e.g. Blogspot, Wordpress) with features of closed social network services (e.g. Facebook, MySpace) including 'friends,' communities, groups, and different kinds of file sharing options. This may have had facilitated the diffusion of the crisis response but at the same time it created an overwhelming amount of information and requests that needed response.

In order to expand the number of reporters and information management beyond the capacity of regular blogs and social networks that were actively reporting the situation, a coordination crisis mapping platform was deployed by the Russian on-line IT community in response to a petition by some bloggers. The platform was a crowdsourced crisis mapping implementation in Russian of Ushahidi, named Help Map (Author, 2011). It was basically implemented to aggregate the reports from those in need responding to the basic question: "What is needed?" and the reports from those that were in the capacity of providing help, by responding: "I wish to help". Offers of help included transportation, food, clothing, homes and many others. In parallel to that, a coordinating center was activated and other civil society organizations like the Orthodox Church and volunteer groups were included in this self-organized network of social actors.

The response of the on-line community revealed the altruistic potential of the Russian society, especially because of the timid or ineffective official response. In this process, digital activists and Internet users in general took a lot of responsibilities in their shoulders in a critical moment where they felt that the Russian government was failing to provide the required coordination and the help needed to the population. Some sort of "virtual self-organized emergency command" emerged from the synergy between an existing dedicated and trusted online community whose discourse served as the main motivator for the response, a leadership that sprung organically from the already existing social networks, and the rapid deployment of a coordination center based on Help Map. This provided an alternative form of governance when it was most needed, supplanting in many instances governmental functions. The situation described integrates context, technology and people in a complex way, which is still difficult to model with our current understanding of the interaction of these factors.

b. From Digital Spaces Into The Square

In January 2011, a rising younger Egyptian generation was perhaps the main contributor for the upending of Hosni Mubarak's cruel regime that had been in power for over 30 years, probably longer than the ages of those involved in the revolts. According to Wael Ghonim, a young Egyptian Google executive turned into one of the main activists, the revolt belonged first "…to the Internet youth. Then it belonged to the Egyptian youth. Then the revolution belonged to all the people of Egypt" (Joyce, 2011). Linda Herrera (2011) called this Egyptian generation the "Facebook generation" or the "Facebook rebels", because according to her analysis of the situation of youth in Egypt since 2006, it would be hard to imagine that the uprising had happened as it did without a decisive participation of these young cohorts with the tools they employed to subvert the established government.

By January of 2011 there were 4.7 million of Facebook users in Egypt, 78% of which were 15-29 year old youngsters, representing a penetration of only 5.5% with respect of the total population and 22% of all Facebook users among the Arab countries, within a system with a relatively high Internet freedom ranking according to the Arab Social Media Report of the Dubai School of Governance (2011). According to the same report, in the first quarter of 2011 almost 2 million new Egyptian Facebook users were added in Egypt, one of the fastest growing rates in the world.

Making use of this emerging public space for social and political protest, the Facebook page "We are all Khaled Said" was created as a protest channel to bring justice for the crime of this young citizen journalist. A day of rage and protest against torture, corruption, poverty and unemployment was organized for January 25th (2011), which at least 85,000 people pledged on Facebook to attend to the event. Additionally, social networks were sparked with changes in profile pictures with Egyptian flags and messages inviting to the demonstrations and status updates with allusive slogans. The original protest became a series of protests and civil resistance that extended for several weeks until finally, Mubarak resigned on February 11th, 2011. The whole situation gained international attention through Facebook, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos in spite of attempts from the government to infiltrate social media and shut down Internet connectivity. The ensuing strategy of the revolutionaries can be summed up in the words of an activist, quoted by Philip Howard (2011) saying: "we use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world."

Many wonder how thousands of people who seemed to be under a mass state of apparent lethargy rose and inspired by the youth, took the streets in a peaceful way even in the midst of repressive state forces. But there was a long process by which North African youth learned how to use Web 2.0 tools to bypass state censorship. Hammelman and Messard (2011) describe how this deeper involvement with social media exploring and production was progressively fostered in Egypt prior to the uprisings in January of 2011. One example of this is the April 6 Youth Movement (A6YM) which, as early as 2008, had organized a social media based demonstration that attracted quite a few online supporters but which did not have an important repercussion in the streets. This group was also involved in the We are all Khaled Said Facebook page, which reached a membership of 350,000 in January 2011 (Khamis and Vaughan, 2011).

Also, a form of polychromatic blogging had started to develop in Egypt since 2004, allowing the dissemination and analysis of ideas and the evaluation of the social and political situation of the country. According to Khoury (2011) this process was necessary to change people's perceptions of politics, to awake consciences, and to foster a renewed open debate by means of a space for expression that was not completely understood by governmental censorship. Young people had the great responsibility of crafting a social discourse using a fresh and original language with a voice that was able to captivate thousands of dormant Egyptians. All of these youth virtual sites containing articles, reports, opinions, images, links, and videos, became an alternative to the more traditional, state controlled and non-appealing traditional media and a form of digital activism that was necessary before moving to real spaces and more confrontational situations. Blogging and social media based citizen journalism intensified during the revolution in Tahrir Square and other Egyptian cities. Twitter became one of the most important media for professional and citizen journalism reporting, with information flowing back and forth from bloggers, journalists, activists, individuals and a variety of organizations tweeting or retweeting messages (Lotan et al., 2011).

The need to hack or geek out the technological means available, in the midst of possible regime intervention in the media ecology, required less spontaneity and more preparation with the help of international groups and activists. Workshops to learn about strategies and techniques for social media support of non-violent political change used in other countries were conducted during the months before the climax of the revolution in January of 2011 (Hammelman and Messard, 2011). Young Egyptian activists were trained in video camera operation and steady shooting, video production, mobile phone photographing in stress situations and basic audio engineering principles for open public spaces (Ishahini, 2011). In another effort to gain digital media expertise, young activists also learned how to use digital tools to maintain the anonymity of users while online, in order to circumvent the fact that the government closely monitored the Internet, social media sites and mobile networks and, in many occasions, censored the flow of information (Khamis and Vaughn, 2011).

The Egyptian revolt showed how a new generation that had matured politically and technologically in a very short time, took the historical opportunity to make their voices heard. These youth groups were highly organized in loose networks, as those enabled through social media applications, and which do not resemble classical political parties or classical movement structures. This organic movement was so strong that it literally dragged the traditional opposition groups and parties into the streets, following the movement and initiatives taken and led by the youth (Traboulsi, 2011). New expressions of collective leadership emerged from these new cohorts that had proven a way of motivating, reaching and mobilizing everyone, without distinctions of age, social status, religion and gender. Although social networks were the sparks of the Egyptian uprising, Filiu (2011) asserts that it was the leaderless dynamic of the organization, which was the key to the revolution, much more than the social networks. However, the evidence collected thus far seem to show that digital technology was instrumental in facilitating this organizational structure, although this needs to be demonstrated.

c. Beyond Weak Ties

Some critics have surfaced recently that undermine the role of on-line social networking as an effective channel to produce real commitment to a cause and therefore mobilize activists from their comfortable computer rooms into the messiness, often painful, and usually bloody face of street protests and long term revolutions (Gladwell, 2010). However, this is based on pure observation, perhaps relaying in a romantic view of past movements that had other methodologies to transform weak ties into stronger ones. Perhaps more detailed and well-designed studies of some of the cases might lead to surprising results. For instance, Harlow (2011) interviewed leaders and analyzed the contents of two Facebook pages that were created to protest the killing of a prominent lawyer in Guatemala in 2009. In a country with one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the world, the social network based movement was able to mobilize more than 50000 protesters into the streets, a movement that led to the creation of an organization that has continued its work as pro-justice and anti-violence group.

As in the Egyptian revolution and the Guatemalan protest, in the case of the Spanish indignados protests in May 2011, these insurgent communities based on the existing social networks of individuals and the new connections that are produced through the different platforms, emerge and become central to the movement. Calvo, Gómez-Pastrana and Mena (2011), conducted surveys, interviews and focus groups among protesters that were part of the movement. Results show that of 250 surveyed, about 75% came to the march of May 15th (emblematic of the movement) through Facebook, Tuenti (a Spain-based, invitation-only private social networking site) or Twitter. It is also interesting to quote from this study that only 35% of responses gave to on going face-to-face friendships a relevant role in the access to the information about the march, which means that the vast majority of participants got it from their on-line social networks. This is important because the preliminary study stresses the role that weak ties (Granovetter, 1973) play in web-enabled social networking as a way of connecting someone's personal intimate network or community with others that can have similar social and political interests, integrating them into a larger social realm, thereby expanding the horizons of individuals. As Tufekci (2011) has expressed, large pools of weaker ties are crucial to being able to build robust networks of stronger ties, Internet social media is a key to this process.

We can see the power of weak ties in networking quite clearly in the indignados movement in Spain, which is also an interesting example of the role that social media plays into moving someone from low risk activism to a more involved status, like attending a simple march at first, and then committing to camp out in Puerta del Sol in downtown Madrid for several weeks. According to Haro Barba (2011) what has been called the "15M movement" belongs to a series of social protests in Spain in the last five years, which have relied heavily on digital tools to organize and call for action and demonstrations in designated public spaces. This is the case of the 14-M movement right after the March 11, 2004 bombings in Madrid to protest the manipulation of the information and which led to the subsequent lost of J. M. Aznar of the presidential elections (Castells, 2009). These protests have given birth and invigorated what Haro Barba calls multitudes vigilantes (vigilante crowds), which have a strong web presence that allows a networked, self-organized and plural horizontal environment for interaction, knowledge creation and the generation of bursts of activity which go beyond the online realm into public spaces. These digital activists address causes related to issues of justice, human rights and social inequalities, that traditional Spanish political parties, with their hierarchical power structures, internal struggles and disinterest, do not seem to be capable of engage well with.

In December of 2010 Fabio Gandara, a 26-year old lawyer, and two friends started a Facebook group called Juventud en Acción and a blog (Elola, 2011). By January they expanded their proposal with another Facebook group to serve as umbrella for individuals, bloggers, NGO's, activists groups, citizenship movements and so on. Through active discussion in the groups created, they ended up with a web site called DRY-Democracia Real Ya (True democracy now) where new individuals and organizations joined backing up the initiative. By mid-March the first small face-to-face encounters were started; later, in May 2nd a meeting with 300 activists was called in the Retiro park in Madrid. More organizations with suggestive names such as Juventud sin futuro (youth with no future), No les votes (do not vote for them) or Asociación de Desempleados (unemployed association), added their URL's to the DRY platform. The self-organization of the protest converged quickly and in May 15th an estimated 80000 indignados took the streets in different cities across Spain. In the following days all kinds of people started to gather and camp out at Puerta del Sol, especially tech-savvy young people between 19 and 30 years old, with university degrees, but for the most part unemployed or underemployed, and frustrated with traditional politics. In the mean time, Twitter was used as a broadcasting media for those involved with hashtags that related to the camp out suchs as: #spanishrevolution, #acampadasol, #nonosvamos, #democraciarealaya, etc.

One of the interesting things about this progression, from few activists in the digital domain to a full blast mobilization, is the interplay of internet resources, on-line social networks and offline traditional activist techniques where weak ties end up strengthening through on-line interaction at first, followed by face-to-face meetings, concentrations, assemblies, projects and so on. A very important question here is how those who mobilize political resources through digital media are able to mobilize those without these resources. In Wael Ghonim testimonial book Revolution 2.0 it is possible to see the close relationship between digital media and traditional forms of political activism, especially the use of the streets and open spaces, use of public meetings, communication with political parties and independent activists. Which leads to the conclusion that these important interconnections cannot be neglected and depend exclusively on digital media.


Throughout this article it has been shown that it is difficult to understand digital activism without a deeper comprehension of the dynamics of cyberspace, the immediacy that it provides, the amplification and multiplicative properties that social networks possess, and the way that knowledge is created, stored and shared in an incremental and dynamic way. Moreover, it was argued and shown with recent cases that the new generational cohorts are ready for digital mobilization and active participation in current social and political events due to their mastery of technology and their desire for openness, freedom and diversity that they experience in digital culture and which leads to aspirations of a more just world and the distrust of hierarchies and command chains. In spite of the digital divide present in many world societies, these global youth cohorts have been molded in the culture of networking, participation and creativity that social media provides, thanks to their access to the Internet and to the widespread use of cell phones.

Networking and subsequent mobilization have been considered fundamental to social movements whether they are online or offline, therefore the results experienced in the Egyptian uprising and the Spanish protests have awakened the interest in improving digital mobilizing methods or structures (techniques, methods, systems, devices, software) that facilitate collective action such that he ideas of cooperation, wisdom of crowds, collective intelligence, participatory cultures, and networked leadership can flourish in a variety of new organizational forms, which are determined by the context where digital activism is exercised. Technological developments will come through the work of committed individuals that had been called "movement entrepreneurs" (Meier, 2011). These digital activist developers, sort of socially conscious hackers and networked leaders, will continuously innovate the growing arsenal of enabling tools with new ideas and implementations. They will come from the cohorts of young activists that have been engaged in the many recent social and political uprisings and demonstrations, and certainly will produce a continuous stream of innovative ideas to improve the arsenal of digital activists. However, it is important to stress that the developers and the users are the ones who determine whether a certain digital technology will be employed for good or evil purposes. In other words, in spite of the fact that the Web 2.0 has develop from the ideas of openness, collaboration, participation and social networking, not necessarily it will automatically produce similar effects in political activism. Digital activists can have a wide variety of expressions, depending on his/her political orientation, which could even include anti-democratic or terrorist activities.

One aspect that has not been considered in this article, and which might be worth of extensive research, is the development by governments of digital technology in order to counteract digital activism, as well as the rise of a certain forms of sponsored pro-governmental digital media. However, what is very important to consider is the amount of effort and funds that authoritarian regimes spend in ways to control digital activism. From the simplest form of shooting down Internet performed by Mubarak in January of 2011, to more entertaining ways such as the Venezuelan government orchestrated overnight production of trend topics in Tweeter, to highly sophisticated control schemes of Internet surveillance technology used by China and Russia and which is little by little being adopted by African and Asian countries. These aspects that are extremely important require further research and analysis.


i http://ushahidi.com/products/swiftriver-platform


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