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Digitally Enabled Social ChangeActivism in the Internet Age$

Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780262015103

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: August 2013

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262015103.001.0001

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A New Digital Repertoire of Contention?

A New Digital Repertoire of Contention?

Chapter:
(p.177) 8 A New Digital Repertoire of Contention?
Source:
Digitally Enabled Social Change
Author(s):

Jennifer Earl

Katrina Kimport

Publisher:
The MIT Press
DOI:10.7551/mitpress/9780262015103.003.0008

Abstract and Keywords

The repertoire of contention is termed a set of tactics that share common characteristics and which can be used at a given historical moment. Innovation and development may enable people to change the set of tactics over time by replacing old tactics with new ones. This chapter focuses on a new digital repertoire of contention that may help change and reframe the understanding of social movement activities and enable it to expand traditional definitions of protest. It further discusses the significance of including e-tactics and online activism in the social movement studies. The new repertoire of contention may help differentiate terms of protest, contention, and social movement, and allow scholars to modify their study on social movements.

Keywords:   repertoire of contention, tactics, e-tactics, online activism, social movements, protest

Our arguments thus far can be boiled down to a few central propositions. First, the affordances of reduced costs for participation, reduced costs for organizing, reduced need for physical togetherness in order to participate in collective action (one component of copresence), and reduced need for both collectivity and physical togetherness in organizing (both components of copresence) are critical to understanding Web activism. Second, there are two broad kinds of effects that the use of Web tools can have on Web activism (aside from no effect, of course): supersize effects, which may be of practical importance, but don’t change the underlying dynamics of either participation or organizing; or theory 2.0 effects, which may be both practically and theoretically significant, because the underlying processes driving participation and/or organizing are altered. Third, according to our leveraged affordances approach, supersize effects will dominate when people don’t leverage, or at least don’t leverage well, the key affordances we discuss, while theory 2.0 effects will dominate when Web usage does skillfully leverage one or both of our key affordances. Finally, reality is likely to always be a mix of supersize effects and theory 2.0 effects because some people don’t notice key affordances, others don’t want to or can’t leverage them even if they do notice them, and still others notice and leverage these affordances quite skillfully.

In parts II and III, we aimed to provide evidence that could both evaluate these claims as well as hint at what some of the actual theory 2.0 changes might be along with their implications. In chapter 4, which focused on reduced costs for participation, we asserted that low-cost participation would make it easier to participate and would drive surges of participation that we referred to as flash activism (even if low costs might not drive longer-term affiliations with movements, causes, or groups), and also that e-tactics varied in the extent to which they employed tools that helped to drive down the costs of participation. In a loose way, we were (p.178) able to show that for the e-tactics that used cost-reducing tools, participation was higher.

In chapter 5, we turned our attention to costs and organizing to contend that the unparalleled dominance of SMOs as the producers of protest opportunities is imperiled on the Web. The Web affords low-cost organizi0ng options that allow organizers to get in the game at very low start-up costs and with quite low recurring costs. As our data showed, SMOs were better at offering protest opportunities than other types of organizers where the costs for organizing were still high, such as with e-mobilizations, but SMO and non-SMO sites were equivalent in their capacities to create and/or link to e-tactics.

In chapter 6, we argued that meaningfully collective action could be undertaken without copresence. And because collective participation is not automatically represented through copresence, we maintained that e-tactic designers had to decide whether and how to represent the collective nature of the e-tactics they were offering. Where tracking participation was easy and cheap, we saw that organizers often represented collective participation by reporting on participation and even specific participants. Where tracking participation was relatively harder, we saw organizers resort to more rhetorical flourishes to suggest the collective aspect of the action to be undertaken. Neither option is trouble free. For those who publish participation information, there are risks such as having to publish low participation numbers or data that may call into question the veracity of participation of some participants. For those who did not publish information, questions about how motivated people may be to participate are more severe, although we claim that for low-cost participation, things like collective identity are probably less influential in determining participation.

In chapter 7, we saw that low costs allowed organizing to look like a power-law phenomenon at times, where one or a small number of people did all of the work involved in organizing. The combination of low costs pulling in new organizers, low levels of socialization to social movements for these new organizers, and low organizational pressures on them meant that their behavior as organizers differed from what social movement scholars have observed before. For instance, they were willing to organize about causes that few social movement scholars had ever considered legitimate topics for protest (e.g., a protest over the cancellation of a television show), they organized against a range of targets, and they were concerned about things that haven’t historically been considered by the social movement tradition such as the privacy of participation.

(p.179) We hope that the driving force of all these changes—the leveraging of key affordances—has been clear. But what may be harder to glimpse so far is whether the products of those forces—the resulting changes themselves— culminate in some meaningful way. We believe that it is quite likely that they do. Specifically, we think it is worth considering whether e-tactics that well-leverage cost and copresence affordances represent a kind of Web activism that is actually creating a new repertoire of contention.

Traditional, Modern, and Digital Repertoires

The set of tactics available for use at a given historical moment as well as the characteristics that those tactics fundamentally share constitute what scholars have called the “repertoire of contention” (Tilly 1977). The motivating idea behind a repertoire of contention is that would-be organizers and activists don’t exist outside the historical moment that they are living in; they are not blank slates, nor do they choose from an infinite array of tactical options. Instead, they must learn how to perform protest, and they therefore choose tactics from a culturally and historically specific set: the repertoire of contention. The tactics included in a repertoire may change over time as people innovate and develop new tactics, and/or as older tactics fall out of fashion. There are two parts to this term, though. Repertoires of contention are both the actual set of tactics that are culturally available and the common characteristics shared by that pool of available tactics (Tilly 1977, 1978, 1979, 1995). While many social movement scholars look at the addition of new tactics to the existing repertoire, such as the rise and diffusion of shantytowns as a protest tactic (Soule 1997), far fewer have explored the latter.

If we focus on the shared characteristics of tactics within an overall repertoire, we find that what its tactics have in common is generally stable, defining fairly durable repertoires. In fact, Tilly’s research on repertoires (1995) suggests that there have been just two, with a single major historical shift dividing them. First, there was the traditional repertoire of contention, which characterized the forms that conflict and contestation could take prior to and during the early nineteenth century. Tactics included actions such as food riots, “seizures of grain, tollgate attacks, disruptions of ceremonies or festivals, group hunting on forbidden territory, invasions of land, orderly destruction of property, [and] shaming routines” (Tilly 1995, 33). These tactics shared three defining characteristics; they were

parochial, particular, and bifurcated. It was parochial because most often the interests and action involved were confined to a single community. It was particular because (p.180) forms of contention varied significantly from one place, actor, or situation to another. It was bifurcated because when ordinary people addressed local issues and nearby objects they took impressively direct action to achieve their ends, but when it came to national issues and objects they recurrently addressed their demands to a local patron or authority who might represent their interest, redress their grievance, fulfill his own obligation, or at least authorize them to act. (Tilly 1995, 33)

By the middle of the nineteenth century, that “traditional repertoire” had been replaced by the “modern repertoire,” which is what most contemporary social movement scholarship examines. Tactical forms in the modern repertoire shared a distinctly new set of characteristics. They tended to be: directed at national or state-based targets (i.e., what Tilly termed “national”); used across a range of movements (i.e., “modular”); and directed at political elites, eschewing patrons or intermediaries (i.e., “autonomous”). Clearly, this is a quite different set of shared characteristics than what historians and social movement scholars interested in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century are studying.

Tilly’s work on these two repertoires does a wonderful job of articulating the differences between them, but here we want to highlight some of their unacknowledged similarities. For instance, both the traditional and modern repertoires identify participation in collective action through physical copresence at an event (as shown in table 8.1). Similarly, both the traditional and modern repertoires have posited a coupling between tactics and movements such that tactics are a means to an end (and an explicitly economic and/or political end at that).

Additionally, another unexamined feature of the modern repertoire is its strong belief in the enduring nature of protest. Protests (i.e., the use of tactics) in the modern repertoire mark different levels of mobilization along the life course of a movement that has ups and downs. (This is not shared by the traditional repertoire because of pronounced differences in industrialization and urban versus rural life in their respective time periods.)

We explore each of these below in more detail, and argue that these characteristics of the modern repertoire (two of which are also shared with the traditional repertoire) may be changing in important ways with innovative uses of the Web or other ICTs. A different way to think of the same issue is that there are things that have been treated as constant in the social movement literature—particularly about how social movements are defined and how tactics are related to social movements—that may now be able to vary.

We think of this new constellation of characteristics as a new “digital repertoire of contention.” Noting that repertoires are defined by both their (p.181)

Table 8.1 Traditional and Modern Repertoires of Contention

Traditional repertoire

Modern repertoire

Digital repertoire

Time frame

Through mid-1800s

Mid-1800s to present

Present

Copresence is a feature of the repertoire

Yes

Yes

No; coordinated collective action possible with or without participant copresence

Tactics associated with long-term campaigns (i.e., social movements)

Yes

No; short, sporadic, episodic, and enduring campaigns are possible, as are campaigns disconnected from larger social movements

Tactics are politically oriented

Yes

Yes

Not necessarily; tactics are used widely as a means of redress

tactics and the shared characteristics of those tactics, we do not mean only that new tactics have been added, such as online petitions, denial-of-service actions, or hacktivism. Rather, we contend that when the key affordances that we outline are leveraged, the sum of the effects is not just to add new tactical options but to entirely change what is common between tactics and hence the fundamental repertoire. Of course, while in important ways it is too early to know conclusively whether this is a new pivot in history that is ushering in a new, digital repertoire of contention, the data examined here and extant research on other online protest both strongly suggest that scholars need to seriously examine this possibility. In the following sections, we marshal evidence from prior chapters to demonstrate how we are connecting these dots.

Copresence versus Coordination

As we mentioned earlier, in both traditional and modern repertoires of contention, the collectivity of participation was defined and marked by people gathering in time and space. Whether townspeople were coming (p.182) together to threaten a local elite in the eighteenth century or civil rights protesters were marching across a bridge to challenge segregation, collectivity in participation has (thus far) always been marked by physical togetherness.

In chapter 6, however, we showed that collective participation no longer requires copresence in time and space. Participants can now participate in online actions in the ease, luxury, and privacy of their homes (or anywhere else a wireless or wired connection to the Internet exists). Instead, the importance of physical togetherness to the execution of a tactic now varies between tactics, most markedly between e-tactics and offline mobilizations (although readers should recall that some online tactics, such as distributed denial-of-service actions, can be designed to require temporally synchronous participation). And as we showed in chapter 7, organizing doesn’t even need to be collective anymore, and when it is collective, it can benefit from all of the Web tools that allow distributed work teams to be productive. Lone-wolf organizers can produce actions independently, and the groups that are organizing collectively can share the burden without meeting face-to-face.

As a result of these changes, the spaces in which participation and organizing occur are also being decoupled: many of our e-tactic organizers will never meet any of the people who participated in the actions that they organized. This is in marked contrast to organizers’ experience only decades ago, even if they had been simply gathering physical signatures for a (offline) petition. Just as the lack of copresence between participants has potential consequences for collective identity, so too does this growing separation between organizers and participants. Organizers can’t create a sense of connection through their own physical interactions with participants.

Although these changes may seem somewhat innocuous after reading about them for so many pages, this move away from physical copresence as a key shared characteristic among tactics is nothing less than a rupture from practically all of extant thinking about collective action. In the place of physical copresence, we offer coordinated action among participants as the new shared trait that binds tactics that are part of the digital repertoire. Importantly, (coordinated) collective action by participants is still required, but not collective organizing.

The Rise of Sporadic, Episodic, and Enduring Challenges

Social movements are often defined by their “enduring” nature. If you think of civil rights, the women’s movement (and different feminist (p.183) “waves”), or even conservative movements such as antitax movements, they all have been around for a while. Sure, there are ebbs and flows in their level of activity—sometimes the civil rights movement is strong and sometimes it is weaker, for instance, but it’s around. In fact, there is a concept in social movement studies called abeyance that is meant to explain how social movements endure through the hard times of low mobilization levels (i.e., low protest levels). Taylor (1989) introduced the concept in order to show that the women’s movement did not disappear between periods of high mobilization but rather was maintained during these periods of low mobilization by a cadre of lifelong activists. When the conditions for feminist protest improved, this group of diehards sprung into action and supported resurgent mobilization.

Occasionally, what people generally recognize as a movement is of comparatively short duration, but this is usually because of a clear success or failure. For example, if there is a controversy about the siting of a toxic dump, within a year or two a decision will be made, and people fighting the dump will have either won or lost. This sort of contention is of much shorter duration than, say, the civil rights movement, but still long enough for scholars to easily accept its legitimacy as a social movement.

In contrast, collective behavior has been academics’foil to social movements where length is concerned. Social movement scholars have argued that contention that only lasts for a few hours or days is too much of a flash in the pan to be a social movement. A bit of background adds some important context to this claim. When resource mobilization was busy convincing people that social movements were rational and potentially positive, most of the negative beliefs that scholars had shared about crowds didn’t just dissipate, they were instead refocused. While social movements became the proverbial good child of collective action, collective behavior became the proverbial bad child of collective action. All of the positive things associated with collective action were suddenly social movement characteristics, and all of the negative aspects were suddenly characteristics of collective behavior. Perhaps worse yet, the status of scholarship on collective behavior was often considered lower than that of social movements. With these incentives in place, fewer people wanted to study collective behavior while a good number of people were interested in social movements.

So when we say that short or sporadic incidents of contention are labeled as collective behavior, while long and enduring mobilizations are considered a proper social movement, we are implicitly saying that the line between collective behavior and social movement scholarship is (p.184) heavily policed. What’s really surprising about this policing is that there are actually many relatively ephemeral collective engagements that have been studied in social movement scholarship. For instance, campaigns about specific local issues tend to be fairly short lived. A campaign to stop a toxic dump might take years, but one against a Wal-Mart siting might only last months. Likewise, a campaign against a proposed city policy might be quite short, yet is political and collective, and likely has dynamics that could be usefully unpacked using social movement concepts. But if something is too short (with “too” being a subjective description), social movement scholars are often quick to suggest that it might be better classified as a case of collective behavior, or at least not as the stuff of social movement studies.

As a reader will quickly see, e-tactics complicate this picture quite substantially. As we have shown, flash activism, which is a model underlying at least some uses of e-tactics, is not about a steady and long stream of contention. Instead, it is about the effectiveness of overwhelming, rapid, but short-lived contention. And whether or not organizers have flash activism in mind, there are a range of reasons to believe that the time horizon for campaigns that use e-tactics will be much shorter in duration, particularly when campaigns rely solely on e-tactics.

On the participant’s side, there has never before been an opportunity to be a five-minute activist who navigates between participating in an e-tactic, checking Facebook, and doing job-related work on a computer. There have only been opportunities to spend hours or more coming together with people and put oneself in harm’s way. This dramatic drop in participation costs means that participants are able to easily and quickly respond to calls for well-designed e-tactics, especially when facilitated by some level of automation (recall that these were crucial findings in chapter 4). And they are likely to be willing to consider participation even if they have not developed a substantial sense of collective identity with other potential participants and/or organizers (see chapter 6).

We expect that the ease of participation, then, could produce quick rushes of participation when a call for participation is made. Further, these rushes of participation don’t require high relative participation rates; Liben-Nowell and Kleinberg’s (2008) research on online petitions shows that online petitions can persist in gathering signatures and garner high signature totals even when a large proportion of those who are asked to sign don’t sign or forward information about the action to anyone else. Given that this is true, it is possible to have both flashstyle activism and varying levels of activity by any given potential (p.185) participant. If potential participants have time one day and not the next, mobilizations can go forward as long as some people have some time each day.

Organizers’ creation of opportunities to engage in e-tactics contributes to the ephemeral, sporadic, and episodic character of some Web activism. There have never before been opportunities to set up the bedrock of a petition campaign in minutes and then spend just another hour raising awareness through other online tools. Organizers’ careers traditionally culminated in organizing opportunities for others to take action; now, your afternoon can culminate in the creation of an e-tactic. In chapter 7, we showed that lone individuals and drastically small teams could produce e-tactics quickly, with relative ease. We also demonstrated that these same organizers were unconstrained by the concerns of traditional social movement organizers, leading them to behave differently. For instance, these new organizers sometimes organize around nontraditional topics, target less traditional actors in their campaigns, and are concerned about issues such as privacy that have not concerned social movement organizers in the past. Moreover, in chapter 5, we showed that if you compare sites produced by SMOs to those that are not, there are no real differences in the e-tactics that can be produced. There are few barriers, in other words, to these new organizers creating protest according to their own expectations.

If you string out the arguments over time, you can see other likely impacts, such as protest actions on specific issues or causes becoming more sporadic, with less evidence of continued concern for the cause remaining between mobilizations. Since protest is no longer so dependent on SMOs and long-term activists, there are often extremely low start-up costs for creating campaigns. Further, there are low recurring costs and low investments that must be protected. This means that there is potentially less reason for abeyance to occur.

In addition, since the central tools needed to create e-tactics are usually software routines and databases, not the knowledge inside long-term activists’minds, e-tactic organizing is easy to shut off and restart later, unlike traditional organizing. Earl and Schussman (2001, 2003) assert that traditional abeyances structures (Taylor 1989) may be replaced by digital abeyance structures. Instead of SMOs, flash drives might hold the organizing blueprints (through archived Web pages and software) that allow online protest actions to be remounted in the future. It is clear in the data examined here that starting a second petition is no harder years after a first one than it would be the next day. In such a scenario, one might ask whether (p.186) abeyance would provide any return to organizers or social movements. In other words, why not just shut off a movement and turn it back on later? Why not organize around something that is short term? Why not organize whenever the time seems right and not organize when it doesn’t seem so? Without social movement activists and organizations to support, there can be real on and off switches that perhaps have fewer repercussions to a campaign’s ability to mobilize.

If these arguments hold up across time, ephemeral protest will not be an isolated boundary case lurking between the studies of collective behavior and social movements. Rather, ephemeral protest will be an increasingly important exception that scholars are forced to deal with. We contend that protest (i.e., the use of tactics) will become more central to the study of contention, and enduring social movements will be forced to share the academic stage. That is, where tactics have always been attached to longterm movements, we think they can now be attached to short-term campaigns. This means that to really understand the use of tactics, we will have to think of ourselves as scholars of protest rather than as scholars of social movements.

Another way to think about the same trends is to understand what is being variablized. We argue that the temporal length of collective action campaigns has been a relative constant set to “long,” but innovative uses of Web technologies can allow length to become a variable. So while we hope that we have effectively shown that despite their brevity, shorter campaigns can usually be understood using social movement concepts, we hold it is also true that the consideration of these shorter campaigns in social movement research can provide that literature with useful variation in return.

Most specifically, really trying to understand the ephemeral, sporadic, episodic, or enduring nature of contention will force social movement scholars to determine whether there are meaningful conceptual and theoretical differences between protest, contention, and social movements. If social movement scholars want to continue to think of social movements as long, enduring quests, they will need to also consider protest that occurs outside of social movements. And they will need to recognize whether and how their theoretical tool kit is limited to describing longer-duration engagements. Moreover, if enough ephemeral protest happens over time, we would not be surprised if the same scholars who think of themselves as students of social movements today consider themselves students of protest in a decade.

(p.187) Challenges and Challengers without Movements

Social movements have been considered not just enduring contests over power but specifically enduring contests over political power—in other words, social movements are about “important” issues. Historically, this has been the case; social movements are about civil rights, human rights, local political decisions, and economic fortunes, among other weighty issues. There is good reason why social movements have been about this kind of weighty issue: they have been expensive to create and grow, leading people to only attempt to create (and likely only succeed in creating) a movement when the stakes are high enough to justify the costs. But when the costs are much lower, can the stakes be lower, too? Or can they at least be personally felt stakes—committed fans, after all, consider their issues weighty—as opposed to ubiquitously political? Another way to ask this question is to ask whether tactics that have social movement heritages can now be used to address a much wider array of goals. The answer from chapter 7 is clearly yes.

Further, these efforts don’t require SMOs, as chapter 5 demonstrated. And since participants have lower costs as well, and hence less need for close identification with a movement, there is less pressure from the participant side for only big stakes, traditional political organizing.

To recap, the low cost of starting and organizing online protest actions (and participating in them) makes organizing collective action around entirely new issues (sometimes less political and sometimes even fairly idiosyncratic personal issues) far more likely. Now that online protest is cheap, individuals may find it worth the meager investment to create protest actions even when protest is not connected, nor intended to be so, to a larger movement. This means that the connection between contention and more enduring social causes will become a variable, not a shared common trait. What will be constant is the use of a protest form as a means of redress. Put differently, we are witnessing a decoupling of tactics and protest from social movements not just in the temporal sense that we discussed in the previous section but also in terms of the goals and scope of the issues that are being addressed.

In the language of repertoires, there was a strong linkage between tactical forms/specific protest actions and social movements in both the traditional and modern repertoires of contention. This is why social movement scholars have studied tactics. In the modern repertoire, tactics are in fact thought to be modular so that multiple movements could (p.188) benefit from the same tactical form (e.g., petitions have been used by a broad range of movements, as have rallies). But social movement scholars did not expect that people outside of enduring social movements, indeed even outside of politics as commonly understood, would use protest tactics. Modular stopped at the boundaries of social movements. Online Star Trek and Felicity fans don’t stop at—or maybe even recognize—those boundaries, however. In essence, we are arguing that the modularity of tactics that began in the modern repertoire has become so extreme that tactics and protest events in the digital repertoire can, and frequently are, deployed absent a relationship to a larger protest movement.

What Does a New Repertoire Offer to Social Movement Studies?

Up until now, protest, contention, and social movements have been almost equivalent terms. If one were to try to extract some subtle differences, it is possible to say that protest tactics are the forms used to enact or execute protest/contention, and protest/contention is always subsumed by larger social movements. But these are subtle and not well-enforced distinctions, in contrast to the close policing in other subareas of terms that seem related in common parlance yet come to carry specifically different technical meanings. For instance, while STS and Internet studies scholars both like to make a clear distinction between the Internet and the Web, it is unlikely that many nonexperts make such a distinction when referring to digital technologies.

The new digital repertoire of contention, though, challenges this casualness in terminology—it threatens the conflation of protest, contention, and social movements—because suddenly these terms could refer to empirically divergent phenomena. We think that e-tactics, particularly if they persist and/or grow, offer an opportunity to rethink whether there are useful distinctions between these terms and can lead to a productive widening of the field. As we mentioned earlier, we imagine that if these trends continue, instead of social movements being the top-level concept, protest might become the more inclusive term. We use protest here to refer to the use of contentious tactics, which we have shown may or may not be related to larger movements, and may or may not have any temporal longevity. In this sense, social movements as classically understood—enduring, unconventional political contests—would become a special (and quite important) case of protest. But protest itself would not necessarily need to be enduring or political. Were social movement scholars (read: protest (p.189) scholars) to reorient their thinking in this way, we think a bounty of theoretically useful variation is to be had.

Let’s peel back the onion. At the most basic level, the changes we are discussing allow students of protest to examine in a deep and nuanced way how costs matter. Costs have always been relatively high—for both participants and organizers—and now they can vary widely depending on how online tools are used. This affects “downstream” theoretical concepts, which have presumably mattered previously because of high costs. For instance, abeyance, collective identity, and biographical availability might have markedly different relationships to low-cost forms of protest when compared to traditional higher-cost forms. Likewise, copresence has always been a constant of prior repertoires of contention, but now when Web tools are well leveraged, physical copresence is not a necessity for participants or organizers, and collectivity isn’t even a necessity anymore for organizers. This, too, is likely to affect downstream concepts such as collective identity and solidarity.

We have shown that the duration of protest and the continuity of contention can vary widely—from short campaigns, to episodic or recurring efforts, to long, enduring social causes. Using this variation to understand how and why duration matters to theoretical processes is a promising opportunity for social movement scholars, whether or not they are interested in Web dynamics. For example, are there certain kinds of efforts that are actually most successfully handled through flash activism? We suspect that there are; attempts to stop a proposal, say, are quite likely to benefit from swift and substantial action. On the other hand, efforts to change deeply embedded traditions and beliefs are probably not going to be advanced well through short, e-tactic campaigns. In this case, instead of assuming that enduring movements are always superior at achieving success, we can build an explanation that uses an interaction between the type of goal and the type of campaign to explain success.

Similarly, tactics themselves have always been bundled deep in the heart of social movements, but now protest can stand outside of larger movements, both temporally and politically. Whether a social movement scholar is interested in the Web or not, the variation that can be observed in how tightly or loosely connected a protest effort is to a larger movement opens new doors. For instance, it is likely that connection to a larger movement will remain important when the costs of participation are high. One might expect, for example, that if there is a large amount of repression directed at participants in a given protest, it will require the infrastructure of a social movement to nurture and maintain opposition in the face of (p.190) such high costs. On the other hand, whether a large movement is connected to the cause may be rather epiphenomenal to people who are engaging in low-cost efforts. When the cause is nonpolitical, such as efforts to revive a canceled television show, there is probably little expectation that a movement might exist.

This brings us to another critical point. As Earl and Kimport (2009) pointed out in their examination of fan activism, social movement scholars have not previously enjoyed the opportunity to compare politically inflected protest to nonpolitically oriented protest. It is literally an open empirical question whether the theoretical dynamics differ at all. In other words, scholars have yet to even consider whether the political nature of protesters’ goals matters to the underlying dynamics of mobilization and organizing. So whether or not scholars are interested in the Web, they should be interested in the variation that the Web offers.

To summarize our position, we argue that thinking about a digital repertoire of contention can reframe how we understand social movement activity and expand traditional definitions of protest, helping scholars answer questions about how, when, and where contention takes place. Further, instead of defining away the empirical and theoretical puzzles that Web activism offers social movement research, we maintain that scholars need to create or modify existing theoretical lenses for understanding what collective action means when efforts can be collectivized outside of conventional boundaries (Earl and Schussman 2001). Such a theoretical shift would likely affect such elemental issues as the analytic definition of collective action, which is the bedrock of what social movements, collective behavior, and collective action scholars study. Such theoretical shifts are also likely to trickle down to affect issues of operationalization and measurement, like how scholars can measure the size of mobilizations when people do not have to be physically copresent in time and space to participate.

What Does a New Repertoire Offer to Internet Studies?

We have had much to say throughout the book about what distinctions between supersize and theory 2.0 accounts along with what leveraged affordances theory can do for social movement scholarship. Yet we also think this approach has much to offer those interested primarily in the Web or ICTs more broadly for whom Web protest is just another case of online phenomena. Our assertions are fundamentally about pushing on what is unique about a technology that people can recognize and take (p.191) advantage of (or fail to). That is, we are arguing for theoretical precision in understanding how and why technologies matter, and for considering the diverse ways in which people use technologies as fundamental to any explanation. We are arguing that technologies never just do one thing, or perhaps more appropriately, that technologies themselves never do anything. Technologies offer opportunities for people to do new things as well as to do old things in new ways, and the mix of uses that they are put toward typically heterogeneously combines the mundane with the ingenious.

In our approach, identifying truly meaningful affordances of a technology and understanding how they can be variously leveraged is critically important and difficult. When we opened our discussion of affordances we noted that while many people see the affordance of a door as opening to allow passage, it may well be that the most significant affordance that a door offers is its ability to be shut in order to forestall passage. Even simple technologies have multiple affordances, and learning to spot which ones might affect social processes is no easy task. Further, once an affordance is identified, coming to understand how that affordance can be leveraged, particularly with complex technologies like ICTs, is not a walk in the park. Scholars interested in technology must appreciate the diversity of uses that it can be put to, which will inevitably include poor as well as exceptional leveraging.

This point has a nonobvious corollary: Internet studies needs to study mundane uses of technology as much as it needs to study “revolutionary” ones. All too often, research related to technology heralds a well-known and exemplary case. How many studies are there that mention Wikipedia? How many studies of Web activism invoke MoveOn? Five years from now, if not already, how many studies will discuss Facebook? While we agree that studying such well-known success cases is important, they are not as helpful without contrast cases that are less successful. Put differently, it’s hard to pinpoint what makes Wikipedia, MoveOn, or Facebook special without comparing those sites to less extraordinary ones.

Our work is also a call to deeply embed the effects of leveraging technological affordances into existing theory. We would no more advocate a theory that claims technology does something directly than we would advocate one that says new technology makes older theory useless. As we stated in chapter 2, we are not for throwing babies out with the bathwater. Rather, we encourage scholars to really unpack the theoretical nuts and bolts of phenomena that predate their technology of interest, and come to deeply understand how various uses of a technology could reshape that (p.192) process within the confines of the known system. To illustrate, costs are not new to social movement scholars. They were lurking in social movement theory like air—hard to see, but all around us. We did not invent the importance of costs. Instead, we recognized that costs could become variable, and that when you trace the effects of variable costs through a set of complex social processes, that variation could produce new sets of empirical relationships and variations on known theoretical processes.

If scholars interested in technology don’t choose such a path, they virtually ensure that technologically inflected theory and phenomena will remain exoticized or devalued by other scholars. Social movement scholars, like other scholars, are not likely to be willing to cast aside their traditions and practical career commitments if they don’t feel that core social movement concerns are being engaged and addressed. Thus, we think that theoretically and practically, scholarship that deeply embeds technologically inflected insights into preexisting theories will be the most successful.