Connective Action. An answer to the question of what the role of digital media in mobilizations really is

By Isabel Sol, Master student Political Communication at the University of Amsterdam

Mark Zuckerberg and others have announced on the morning of September 26th 2015 that they want to give the Syrian refugees in the refugee camps, and the whole world within five years, access to the internet. “Prominent leaders (…) joined (…) in an unprecedented call for world leaders to implement the promise within the newly agreed Global Goals that universal internet access become a reality by 2020.”  They have named this the “Connectivity Declaration” and it states that the internet is critical to fighting injustice and sharing new ideas. “The internet has revolutionized the way that citizens organize and mobilize,” according to Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Secretary General of World Alliance for Citizen Participation and one of Zuckerberg’s fellow “leaders”. Intrinsic to these statements is the belief that technologies inevitably will ensure a more democratic society wherein citizens will speak up and engage. It thereby implies that citizens need the internet to do so. Of course this all sounds very plausible, nevertheless the question remains whether this is also true? 

This question links to an interesting discussion about technology that has been raving since (at least) the beginning of the Arabic Spring in 2010. Much speculation has been done about the role of digital media and a division has been created between the so called cyber optimists and cyber pessimists. What these discussions try to explain is whether the large scale (globalized) mobilizations that have been occurring the last years, are enabled by digital media or not. Sadly, neither of these sides seem to have been able to give any real and substantial answer. The fact of the matter is, the usage of social technologies has been growing rapidly on a global scale (see Pew, 2010) and they undeniably play some kind of role within modern day mobilizations and demonstrations because well, people use them. Therefore, if we truly want to understand the relationship between mobilizations and digital media we need to step away of this rather pointless debate and instead focus on how people use them.

So then, what is the more productive way to analyze the role of digital media in large scale mobilizations? To answer this prominent question Bennett and Segerberg (2012) posed the term connective action. By studying multiple substantial protest movements wherein digital media was used, namely The Occupy movement, Put People First (PPF) and Los Indignados (15M) they concluded that the digital media (telephones, email and new social media all together) change the core of the process because they perfectly fit the structure of the contemporary society.

The ever-changing modern society

According to Bennett and Segerberg (see also: Lance W. Bennett’s talk “The Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Organization of Contemporary Protest” at the University of Westminster Journalism Conference 2013) the world is rapidly changing, induced by different social processes we find ourselves in a more fragmentized and individualized society. In the older days membership of a political party or an organization was very common. Nowadays, citizens do not identify themselves with one specific political party or organization in the numbers that they did. Moreover, they certainly do not want to bind themselves to it.  According to Valenzuela, Arriagada and Scherman (2012) a societal shift has occurred from the dutiful citizen to the self-actualizing citizen wherein the latter is more focused on civic action through “community work, unconventional political activities, and digitally mediated forms of political expression”. It is not that people do not want to be a part of a political or social organization, rather that they want to connect with others in a way that is most fitted to their personality.

The logic of connective action

Normally, when people mobilize, we think of the logic of collective action. This is associated with the formation of collective identities and high levels of formal organization. Social technologies can be used, but it does not change the core of the dynamics. This is the big difference between collective and connective action. By combining multiple research strategies (surveys and mapping Twitter activities by analyzing hashtags and hyperlinking) Bennett and Segerberg found that social technologies used during connective action were not only a manner to spread the message, they also became a prominent part of the organizational structure itself. Furthermore does connective action distinguishes itself because these technologies enable personalized public engagement. It is self-motivated, which means that the eagerness to share thoughts and feelings comes from within citizens not through membership, a formal organization or a leader that is telling them to. Neither is leadership or formal organization needed because the technology platforms and applications take on that role of ‘established political organizations’.

Moreover do the personalized frames (or memes) travel much easier online than the collective frames and work as an invitation to those who had not thought about the issue yet. Thereby are they always large frames wherein you can merge your own personal struggle. An example is the ‘we are the 99%’ frame, or more recently the #62MillionGirls campaign that is currently going viral. Just by using the hashtag, posting a photo and telling what you learned in school, anyone with access to the internet can be a part of this global movement. So what is interesting is that all these changes through the process of connective action have led to much larger, quicker and more flexible mobilizations in comparison to conventional social movements protests.

No differentiation

Somewhat problematic is that Bennett’s and Segerberg do not define the specifics of their research. Thereby does the term connective action stay slightly vague. It seems as if in every society that has a relatively high internet connection this process can occur, not differentiating between different countries and cultures. They do highlight the fact that differences occur (i.e. some frames are more successful than others) but they do not specify what these differences exactly are. In addition, it seems to entail some form of technological determinism which is also noticeable in the ‘Connective declaration’, which can be seen as debatable.

Conclusion: Useful to answer the question

However, this theory is undeniably very useful when analyzing the role of digital media in large scale mobilizations. Instead of asking if the revolution was tweeted or not, this theory can help to answer the question how modern day society is using digital technologies. The personalization of communication that is facilitated by technologies work for large numbers of people and without them the scale, stability and organizational capacity of these movements would probably not exist. Thus, the technologies do have revolutionized the way that citizens organize and mobilize; nevertheless this should not be seen separate of the changes that have occurred in society. It is not one or the other, it is the relationship between both processes.