What Is Activism?
Editor’s Note: the following is an excerpt from a Master’s thesis I completed at Colorado State University in May of 2015. For that project, I researched soaps, online activism, and their juncture in the Save Our Soaps (SOS) movement. In the introductory section that follows, I define activism as it pertains to the SOS group I created for the project, thistimeitsforever.org. Prior to this section, I mention that I will rely on three texts on activism in defining activism: Building Powerful Community Organizations by Michael Jacoby Brown; Tweets and the Streets, by Paolo Gerbaudo; and Cyberactivism by Martha McCaughey and Michael D. Ayers. Though I reference and use other texts in the document and the creation of my own SOS group, these three texts ground and found my thinking on online activism.
As I approach it in the following overview of these texts, I define “activism” as the focusing of behavior in the interest of accomplishing goals related to a specific issue facing a culture, whether this culture is as strictly defined as a neighborhood or, in the case of saving the soap opera, the world over. The theory behind and practice of activism have undergone great changes since the advent of the Internet and World Wide Web, and since these and other digital technologies (e.g., smartphones, apps, multiple digital devices tethered to each other, etc.) have woven themselves into the fabric of virtually every aspect of our lives. For activism, this has meant the birth of new ways of engaging in activism and the refocusing of activists’ view of their tools to online spaces. The Brown School sees the Internet as an ancillary tool in activism and sees the no need for change in its view of the place of face-to-face activism in the overall activist endeavor. The Gerbaudo School sees a central role for online spaces in activism, but always in pursuit of face-to-face action. And finally, the McCaughey and Ayers School sees digital arenas as home to wholly new and promising activist behavior.
If we think of activism as having begun the first time a human being attempted to convince his/her fellow human being to take a certain action, which I
do, then perhaps we would say nothing but the means and modes of delivering rhetorical discourse, that which seeks to persuade others (and I see all discourse as persuasive, because it has “designs on the recipient” of it, as rhetorician Jeanne Fahnestock has said), have changed. In fact, the Brown school literature on activism does express this belief. But the Gerbaudo and McCaughey and Ayers Schools see the situation as more complex and nuanced.
My suspicion upon beginning reading the literature on activism, similarly, was that I would find that because activism’s intent is the same as it always was, and “only” the technologies of accessing and distributing information have morphed over time, the literature would reflect an essentially unchanged theory and practice of activism. I suspected that digital technology would be given attention in the literature, but as simply some of many means to activism’s ends.
Not so. To be sure, activism has retained certain features over the decades, features that inform or are mentioned explicitly in all the literature that covers it. But the passage of time and all that entails have atrophied certain aspects of activism while adding others. The Brown school sees the Internet as one of many means of distributing information on activist initiatives—a useful component in activism, but not one essential to its character. The Gerbaudo school looks at the Internet as game-changing in the realm of activism. It sees the Internet as having altered what is attempted in the pursuit of activism, how it changes where activists gather, its potential to add to the number and power of activists —but it still holds face-to-face interaction as the raison d’etre of all activism. Finally, the McCaughey and Ayers school on activist thinking includes a palpable belief that activism can be conducted in wholly new ways.
Stay tuned for more on soaps and online activism. Who knows–you might be inspired to create your own SOS group, as I did!
By Akbi Khan
Edited by Akbi Khan
© Copyright Akbi Khan 2015