Generations of Digital Activism

In a forthcoming essay in Social Media + SocietyRosemary Clark and I emphasized the importance of a historical approach to the study of digital media practices. Our argument is that temporality is a missing variable in much current thinking about social media and that communication research should focus more on explaining historical change. We proposed that breaking down historical processes into smaller temporal phases, or periodization, might be a useful analytical strategy for highlighting historical change.

To continue that line of argument and to gesture forward to the upcoming ICA conference in Puerto Rico, I briefly discuss the possibility of using a generational perspective to study digitally mediated activism, or digital activism. The sociology of generations offers useful resources for historicizing communication research.

The theme of this year’s ICA is “Communication across the Life Span.” This theme signals not just toward the analysis of communication in different stages of the life course, but also toward theoretically informed generational perspectives for the study of communication.

As a sociological concept, generation denotes collectivity and temporal duration. The formation of a sociological generation spans twenty or thirty years; or it takes place through exposure to historical experiences of the kind characterized by Karl Mannheim as “dynamic de-stabilization.” The succession of generations is a historical process of change in continuity and continuity in change. In other words, the concept of generation is fundamental to the analysis of historical dynamics.

In the modern world, sociological generations are often defined by great historical events and extraordinary experiences. Hence terms like the Lost Generation (of WWI), the Greatest Generation (of WWII) and the Vietnam War Generation. The receding of epoch-making historical events and the ascension of the role of technology in shaping personal lives lead to the proliferation of generations defined by technologies. And so we have terms such as the Net Generation, the Facebook Generation, digital natives, the iGeneration and Generation Z.

The concept of generations is also used in the study of social movements and revolutions. First-wave and second-wave feminisms are rooted in an implicit concept of generational change. The notion of 68ers comes from the student protesters of 1968. In China, the Tiananmen generation of protesters is distinguished from their predecessors known as the Cultural Revolution generation or the Red Guard generation.

In addition, there are affinity terms for describing the temporal duration of protest activities, the most common being “waves” of protest or “cycles” of protest. Indeed, in a chapter for the 1995 volume Repertoires and Cycles of Collective Action, Doug McAdam criticizes the tendency to study social movements as discrete entities, arguing instead that social movements are inseparable from broader “movement families” and therefore researchers should focus more on the rise and fall of “families” or cycles of protest, an approach that is similarly advocated by Sidney Tarrow in his classic Power in Movements (3rd ed. 2011).

How might we incorporate the sociology of generations into the analysis of digital activism is a question we hope to continue to address in our blog series and we welcome your thoughts and responses through your own blog contributions. I will end by merely noting that it is possible to differentiate several families (or generations) of digital activism in the contemporary world. There is an American “family,” represented early on by the Indymedia movement and more recently by the Occupy Wall Street protests. There is a European family, represented most recently by the May 15th protests in Spain), an Arab family, represented by protests of the Arab Spring, a Chinese family, and so forth.

None of these is purely or even mainly digital activism, but the use of digital media is common in all of them. They may all be related to one another in small or big ways, but analytically they stand clearly as independent cycles of activism in their own right. Since most research on digital activism has focused on discrete cases within one or another family, taking a longer-term, generational perspective to the broader cycles of digital activism may yield surprising new insights. Might we identify different generations within each of the above-mentioned “families”? Does Indymedia activism belong to a separate generation of digital activism than today’s hashtag activism? How about generational differences between Chinese online activism today and ten years ago? These are only a few of the many possible questions from a generational perspective.

Guobin Yang, Associate Professor of Communication and Sociology, University of Pennsylvania

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