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Just what kind of social change are you interested in?


Some nonprofits, older and more institutionalized, are wary of giving their members "control" of their "message" in social media. Mostly, I think that's nothing more than a fear of losing power.

This month’s “Net2ThinkTank” question: “Is Online Activism Good for Social Change?

As someone who was quoted in the “Social Citizens” report and has written in the past about technology and social change, my answer to that question would certainly be “yes.”

But I think the question is significantly complicated in the question from Allison Fine, author of “Social Citizens”:

Is our tendency to connect only with like-minded people using our online and on land social networks a good thing for activism or a critical bottleneck to the effective scaling for causes?

Put another way I think it could be asked: Online activism is good for social change – but what kind of social change?

Many nonprofits use social networks and online activism as a way to boost their membership rolls and donation levels. As I’ve written before, that seems less useful to me than focusing on empowering an effective movement – whether or not people donate to your organization or sign up for your newsletter. This isn’t to minimize the challenges everyone faces on how to support working for social change, both financially and emotionally. But it is to say that movements are bigger than any one nonprofit. Certainly, organizations can ignore that and focus on using MySpace to get new email addresses and Facebook to drum up donations – but frankly, I don’t think that has a lot to do with social change.

Only when the operational concerns are placed secondary to social change concerns do I see social change really being possible. It’s not a secondary outcome; it has to be the primary concern. And that’s true, in my opinion, whether you’re talking about online or offline social change.

More than thirty years ago, sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward wrote in the introduction to Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (1977):

[D]uring those brief moments when lower-class groups exert some force against the state, those who call themselves leaders do not usually escalate the momentum of the people’s protests. They do not because they are preoccupied with trying to build and sustain embryonic formal organizations in the sure conviction that these organizations will enlarge and become powerful.

More recently, members of the collective INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence published the scathing The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, which excoriated the nonprofit system – primarily foundations, but also the kind of institutionalized dissent Piven and Cloward explored above – for perpetuating the social inequity they say they want to end.

In the 1970s and ’80s, rising social inequality helped hasten a breakdown of both communities and community struggles. (We “Millennials” of which Fine writes were, of course, originally termed “Reagan Babies.”) Poor people’s movements Piven and Cloward explore were co-opted and defused by top-down organizers from large nonprofits. And family foundations, rooted back in the (first) Gilded Age and gaining power in the tech booms of the 1990s, helped professionalize the practice of dissent. Or as Patrick Reinsborough writes in an oft-quoted essay, “De-Colonizing the Revolutionary Imagination”:

Just as service oriented NGO’s have been tapped to fill the voids left by the state or the market, so have social change NGO’s arisen to streamline the chaotic business of dissent. Let’s call this trend NGOism, that terrifyingly widespread conceit among professional “campaigners” that social change is a highly specialized profession best left to experienced strategists, negotiators and policy wonks. NGOism is the conceit that paid staff will be enough to save the world.

Some nonprofits, older and more institutionalized, are wary of giving their members “control” of their “message” in the realm of social networks and social media. Mostly, I think that’s nothing more than a fear of losing power. When you think you know how to change the world, it can be hard for some people to want to involve others – or give anyone else the credit.

What’s interesting is that this time around, there’s a significantly higher ability for activists to self-organize. The message to nonprofits from activists in the past few years seems pretty clear: Stand in our way, and we’ll just go around you.

The 2006 student walkouts for immigrant rights spread through MySpace without any “sponsoring” organization. As I explained in a presentation on Facebook, when the Genocide Intervention Network first arrived on the scene, we found dozens of existing groups and networks already active – our objective was simply to connect them and provide them with effective tools for action. A participant in the protests over the Jena Six said, “I am so disappointed with the media right now. I live in Connecticut and I never even heard of this. Honestly if it wasn’t for Facebook, I still wouldn’t know.”

So the question really goes to the nonprofits and other groups using social networks and social media:

  • What kind of social change do you want?
  • Are you willing to help facilitate even if you don’t get credit, coverage, or donations?

That doesn’t mean that “big” nonprofits can’t work for social change through technology, or that only unsupported volunteers can really make things better – as Reinsborough puts it in the corollary to the comment above:

This is not to say that corporate campaigns and winning concessions is merely “reformist” and therefore not important. The simplistic dichotomy of reform versus revolution often hides the privilege of “radicals” who have the luxury of refusing concessions when it’s not their community or ecosystem that is on the chopping block.

A more important distinction is which direction is the concession moving towards? Is it a concession that releases pressure on the system and thereby legitimizes illegitimate authority? Or is it a concession that teaches people a lesson about grassroots power building and therefore brings us closer to systemic social change?

I’m not as worried about whether, as Fine asks, the “tendency to connect only with like-minded people” puts limitations on what can be achieved. Most social change movements, including the US civil rights movement, are grounded in those sorts of communities, what’s referred to as “affective ties.”

But there is a larger question of the technology gap – social movements in general might not be as confined by co-optation like Piven and Cloward describe, but poor people’s movements without access or usable knowledge of such technology are still vulnerable to having their goals and struggles appropriated by the more powerful.

Moreover, as danah boyd explores in her fascinating research, these issues are played out in social networks themselves. “The division around MySpace and Facebook is just another way in which technology is mirroring societal values,” she writes in “Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace.”

So I think there are gaps in access, in knowledge, and in audience – many nonprofits I’ve talked to seem to be more excited about organizing on Facebook for instance, because it seems more “natural” or “easy.” But it may seem that way simply because it aligns with the class and social habits of people who staff nonprofits – and as boyd documents, many subaltern communities of people (for whom nonprofits are often trying to speak) tend to use MySpace to a greater extent.

Tomorrow is Bloggers Unite for Human Rights (Day). The organizers assert that bloggers can “use their space to make the world a better place.” And clearly, given what I do, I think there is a potential for social networks and social media to highlight and organize and empower. But I don’t think we can get too far ahead of ourselves, and I think we need to be clear about just what it is we’re reaching for.

Working for social change means being committed to examining inequality and injustice in our world, and it’s simply naïve to think that those dynamics don’t affect the very way our organizations – and our notions of social change – are structured.

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