Digital Activism: Relationships and Stories

Communities of activism are made up of two essential components: relationships and stories.


Activists are convinced to join an activist community because of friends or experts they trust. Rhetorical communities are built on networks of relationships, so the ability to extend communication channels also extends communities.


Most successful movements will eventually grow too big for everyone to have a relationship with everyone else in the movement, making stories absolutely necessary. As a supplement to individual relationships, stories motivate action, create identities, and form new realities. Activist stories bring supporters together and tell alternatives to the current dominant narratives.

Digital Relationships

When looking at digital activism, we must take into consideration how digital media enable or change the dynamics of relationships and stories. We look at how social networking enables new kinds of relationships over time and space. Tools such as Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, and Vine facilitate relationships maintained over time and space at a scale that would be far difficult, if not impossible, otherwise. But it’s still about relationships — the smartest discussions of “Twitter revolutions,” for example, tend to focus on how people connect with other people using digital media.

Digital Stories

At the same time, digital media have an effect on the nature of the stories we tell. A man sets himself on fire and becomes a rallying cry for an extended revolution, even though the facts of his life aren’t as clear cut as the story it inspired. Occupiers transmit stories of police brutality, corporate control of public space, and alternative forms of decision-making, recruiting some to their community and repulsing others. Digital media allow activist communities to spread their stories farther and faster than they could otherwise, but studies of digital activism repeatedly suggest that this capability doesn’t necessarily create an entirely new kind of activism.

We have long been aware of the ability and tendency of institutions and corporations to leverage our stories and relationships for profit. Facebook sells our eyeballs, our “social graph,” and our likes to the highest bidder. Twitter sells. . . . something. They don’t seem to know what they sell yet, but they’ll eventually have to sell something. These companies, as well as many others, have seized on the advantages of digital media to channel relationships and stories for corporate gain.

Activists have started catching on to the power of these digitally augmented relationships and stories. We can see the effects of this all over the world, as people find likeminded individuals, share protest videos, create viral Tumblr memes, and generally build up support for causes using digital media.

One aspect that is only recently being leveraged by activists, however, is the digital tracking of relationships. It might seem counter-intuitive for communities to use facebook-like tracking of relationships to anti-institutional or activist causes, but it’s being done. And, if you ask me, this is a good thing.

One example of this is, a 2014 social media get-out-the-vote project in Oregon. Upon connecting a Facebook account to the website would tell visitors if their friends had already voted in the midterm elections and prompt them to pressure their friends to get out and vote. This idea of working to achieve a goal by encouraging others to reach out to their friends — and then (this is the intriguing part) subsidizing that action by providing them contact information for those friends — has implications far beyond the realm of GOTV.

The second example of activist communities using digital media to track and leverage relationships is the Internet Defense League, a coalition opposed to particular types of legislation of the internet. In the event of a threat, members of the IDL are encouraged to make phone calls, send tweets, write letters, post alerts on their websites, or take various other protest actions. As the IDL’s community gains more bloggers, website moderators, and content curators, all bring along their own communities of friends, readers, and supporters to expand the network’s reach. The IDL hopes to serve as a call to arms for “all the people who are creating something online,” the IDL’s organizer told reporter Jon Brodkin, because “[t]hey all have a community they want to keep strong.” In order to rally all these different groups, the IDL works to builds and stores a network of networks, a coalition of communities held together by a digital database maintained by the IDL.

The IDL and DidTheyVote both represent early implementations of what Facebook, Google, and data mining companies have known for years: digital media can be used to track and facilitate relationships for a cause. The fact that this cause has so far largely been limited to corporate profit doesn’t mean that it must always be. As activist communities are increasingly able to provide members the tools to engage directly with their friends, they will be able to combine the long-adopted story-spreading capabilities of digital media with the power of digitally leveraged meaningful relationships to build meaningful community at a scale previously impossible.

This is based on a presentation given at the 2014 National Communication Association conference in Chicago.

PhD in Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media. Democracy junkie. Father of three.

PhD in Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media. Democracy junkie. Father of three.