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For some time, I’ve been developing the argument that when we want to understand the role of internet technologies in politics—in particular when it comes to getting people involved in electoral campaigns, in various forms of activism, and in other forms of civic and political activity—we should focus less on the newest and most heavily hyped tool of the moment (Twitter election! Twitter revolution!) and pay more attention to the role of what I call “mundane internet tools” like email, search, and ordinary websites.

New Media & Society has published the article where I make the argument, based on ethnographic research I did during the 2008 U.S. elections, but based on intuitions and interests aroused by previous research in the 2007 U.S. presidential primaries (published by the Journal of Information Technology & Politics here).

The abstract runs as follows:

The internet’s potential for political mobilization has been highlighted for more than a decade, but we know little about what particular kinds of information and communication technologies are most important when it comes to getting people involved in politics and about what this means for the active exercise of engaged citizenship. On the basis of ethnographic research in two congressional campaigns in the USA, I will argue that specific mundane internet tools (like email) are much more deeply integrated into mobilizing practices today than emerging tools (like social networking sites) and specialized tools (like campaign websites). Campaigns’ reliance on mundane internet tools challenges the prevalent idea that sophisticated ‘hypermedia’ turn people into ‘managed citizens’. Instead, I suggest we theorize internet-assisted activism as a process for the coproduction of citizenship and recognize how dependent even well-funded political organizations are on the wider built communications environment and today’s relatively open internet.

The notion of “mundane internet tools” is part of an empirical and relational typology distinguishing between mundane, emerging, and specialized internet tools—these are not properties of the tools themselves, but of patterns of use and degrees of familiarity, which of course change over time, between places, and across social groups. Tools are not causes of social actions, but parts of socio-technical action, things that help us do some things, hinder others, and are integral to how we live, act, and see ourselves—this is also how I hope people will think of the role of social networking sites and other technologies in the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, not as causes, or as irrelevant, but as tools (for protesters, though sometimes also for security forces)—in North Africa, even with a less than open internet, some of those involved in recent events certainly seemed to produce their own role as active citizens partially through the use of everyday tools and technologies.

Stressing the importance of mundane internet tools in processes of political mobilization (really one should include mobile phones in this, something I hope to research more in the future) does not mean that these tools are the most important internet technologies for all political processes (fundraising, PR, etc) let alone all social processes (online banking, open software development), or in all contexts (think ‘digital divide’).

My argument is simply that even in countries like the United States, where I did my research, which has high levels of internet access and use, and plenty of money plus professional expertise in politics, the oft-discussed “mobilizing potential” of the internet is mostly realized in practice where campaign staffers and volunteers trying to get more people to participate “meet them where they are.” People get involved in politics in many ways, amongst them via the various online (and offline!) platforms that are already part and parcel of their everyday life—whereas newfangled emerging tools and specialized platforms owned and operated by campaigns themselves in general seem to play a more modest role. Some politicians—in the U.S. most notably President Obama and Sarah Palin—have managed to leverage their high profile and charisma to generate a large community around themselves and their own profiles.

But most politicians and political campaigns still labor in the shadows of popular indifference (for instance on Twitter and even Facebook), and should not assume that people come to them—if one want them to be involved, one needs to mobilize and organize them, one at a time, on their terms, using their tools. Every elected official trying to capture the so-called “Obama effect” by purchasing this or that technological solution used by his 2008 campaign should have a sign in their office reminding them “you are not Barack Obama.” And they should never think they can become something like what he was in 2008 simply by buying some gadget—hence the suggestion they and the people who work for them—if they are genuinely committed to getting folks involved and building a movement for change—start elsewhere, try to meet people where they are, and go from there.

(cross-posted from rasmuskleisnielsen.net)

(image credits: Julie Vazquez)

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9 Comments

  1. Celeste
    March 15, 2011 at 6:42 pm — Reply

    I understand the importance of utilizing “mundane internet tools,” but I want to see where is it that it’s proven more effective for political campaign websites than social networking and media. Consider e-mail for instance, how can we evaluate readership and how do we not know for certain they aren’t being just sent to spam or trash? Social media web sites require more “active” responses.

    • March 17, 2011 at 10:29 am — Reply

      Hello Celeste, thanks for your note–remember that my argument is about political mobilization, that is, getting people involved in campaign activities or other forms of civic engagement.

      The relevant metric for whether a particular suite of tools is effective or not in that regard is thus not readership or click-through rates (surely low for many email blasts), but scale and scope of volunteer involvement. Interviewing campaign staffers and volunteers about how they work together and how the latter were recruited in the first place demonstrated very clearly that very mundane tools like email were more important for these people during the 2008 U.S. elections than any other internet tools available (and that telephones remain more important still).

      It is an open question how well this point travels to other areas of campaign activity like messaging and fundraising, and I’d be interested to see more data. From what I hear just anecdotally from my sources in the US, direct mail and email remains the most important forms of small-dollar fundraising, though mobile will surely grown in importance.

  2. Mohammed Al-Busaidi
    March 20, 2011 at 7:23 am — Reply

    I largely agree with you on this, but I think the more convenient way to frame this is not through the liveliness of the tools (based on the response they can return), but rather on the consistency that each of the platforms can provide.

    I don’t think the focus of the division between different levels of political commitment lies in the liveliness of the tools used, Twitter and Facebook being more lively, and Email and blogs being more mundane.

    Email and blogs aren’t inherently more politically effective by coincidence, but rather because they’re an extension of a more formulaic political motivation system.

    The difference between the two sets of rules is the same difference between the two types of people who use both. On one hand you have a larger group of people who have a temperamental interest in politics. Usually hightened in election or scandal times or during times in which there is an inherent (divisive, perhaps) political interest like the recent unrest in the Middle East.

    You’ll find that the majority of the people in this group do use Facebook, Twitter and video blogs to propogate already existing deliberations of the facts and politics of the matter issue written by other sources (Al-Jazeera, or the NYT for example). Any additional opinion or fact is brief and often non-contextual. This is worth noting because its more likely that the absence of original opinionation will result in less consistency rather than more.

    On the other hand, the more ‘mundane’ tools are used by people who have more consistent and genuine interests and alignments in the politics that they favor. Their deliberation is less based on sharing, and more on original opinion or observation of facts.

    Their political motivations are always more contextual based and they will often reference historical politics in addition to the reported politics (of the day). Manifesto based politics v Events politics.

    Brining it all back to mobilization potential. I think there’s a problem of definition. All existing definitions of mobilization seem to favor that such mobilization is represented of activism or fundraising while I believe that these things are more evidential traits concomitant with the existence of mobility.

    If mobility is more about getting people to become more active in political balance then I would agree that both sets of tools have the ability to do that, but in my opinion, mobilization is motivating/inspiring/polarizing people to adopt political life (align themselves with manifestos more rigidly, vote based on long term values and beliefs rather then immediate necessary political goals). Naturally activity in the fundraising, activism and dissent follow suit, based on and stem from the adopted values, rather than having those occur autonomously without any type of partisanship.

    Perhaps.

    • March 21, 2011 at 3:24 pm — Reply

      Hello Mohammed

      Thanks for your thoughtful post. I agree that no technology is inherently more politically effective than others, that instead, it is all about the combinations of tools, people, and purposes—or to speak “sociologese”, assemblages of subjects, objects, and semantics.

      You suggest some rather stark divisions between people who use one set of tools and people who use another—I don’t know the Middle Eastern cases you refer to very well, but my own inclination is always to think of media and technology use as additive rather than in exclusionary terms.
      You may be right in underlining the value of a broader and more holistic conception of politics—certainly political life is about more than campaign volunteering—but in this particular article I wanted to address the specific issue of which tools actually play an integral role in getting people involved in electoral activism, and found that what I call mundane tools are the most important ones.

      What role these and other tools play for politics more broadly is a wider question well worth pursuing in the future. Thanks for your thoughts on this and for broadening the conversation beyond the Western cases I know best myself.

  3. Pat Lockley
    May 9, 2011 at 12:27 pm — Reply

    http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/2011/04/22/twitter-spambots-an-emerging-tactic-for-silencing-speech/

    Thought this would be of interest.

    I wonder if there is also the element that real life cannot as easily be “gamed” or “spammed” as an online presence. Do you think it possible that successful online campaigns (Dean, Obama, Uk Uncut) – reflect a co-option of a latent movement, as opposed to the generation of a new one?

    • May 10, 2011 at 7:20 am — Reply

      Hello Pat

      Broadly speaking I agree with you–irrespective of the tools and techniques involved in getting people involved, no political mobilizations come from nothing.

      But though pre-existing motivations, social networks, and perceptions of mobilization (electoral or extra-parliamentary in some form) all play a role that predate attempts to mobilize people, internet-assisted or not, I think it is often hard to tell in advance whether there is what you call a “latent” movement (for me it is not really a movement if it is latent, but that’s a game of words). Organizers sometimes have to work on faith.

      When they do, some activists and politicians (like Ron Paul) manage to mobilize significant numbers of people on the basis of strongly motivated minority support rather than more broad-based sympathy, so an additional question within your comment is then the question of where there is potential for mobilization.

      • Pat Lockley
        May 11, 2011 at 4:14 pm — Reply

        Good point – potential movement – rather than latent movement. I am also remembering how Howard Dean’s campaign was reliant (AFAIK) on meetup.com organising actual social gatherings as opposed to “clicktivism”.

        It’s interesting to see if there is a distinct difference between say a Dean / Paul approach where provenance can be established amongst people in more usual methods – as opposed to a pure online option.

        Then there is a lot of stuff about gamification as a way of generating kudos on islamic forums.

        It’s certainly a very interesting side of social media.

  4. May 26, 2011 at 4:19 pm — Reply

    http://twitter.com/#!/fieldproducer/status/73651501133860864

    If this is true, it’s quite awesome.

    Sweden and Bahrain’s foreign ministers trying to get in touch via twitter!

  5. April 30, 2012 at 12:28 am — Reply

    Appreciate you sharing, great blog article.Much thanks again. Great.

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