Distributed activism: Getting autonomy right

In social change circles, a lot of thought and innovation these days goes into ‘distributed organizing’ approaches. These are approaches which, to varying degrees, pass control and agency of a campaign over to their followers or to grassroots volunteers that are willing to self-start their own local chapters.

In line with new cultural expectations and the powers that new connected technologies provide us, the results of this new approach can be spectacular. Just look at Occupy Wall Street’s spread from a single protest in Manhattan to 951 cities across the world or the rise of member-driven petition networks such as Avaaz.org, Sumofus.org and Change.org.

Still, it’s a relatively new model and organizers are trying to get the recipe right. One of the fundamental challenges is deciding how much autonomy to give participants. Looking back at Occupy Wall Street and the instances of distributed activism which came before it, it’s clear that there is such a thing as too much autonomy. In fact, overemphasis on autonomy may have been THE factor that cut short the lives of these movements.

From what I have seen to date, Professor Todd Wolfson offers some of the most incisive reflections on the pitfalls and challenges of autonomous organizing. Wolfson worked with the Indymedia movement, a Global Social Justice network that sparked over 200 activist reporting sites across 35 countries at its height. Looking at the rise and fall of both the Indymedia movement and Occupy Wall Street, Wolfson draws some pointed conclusions about the structural weaknesses that too great a focus on autonoDigitalRebellion-Thumbmy can create for social movements.

Wolfson’s points are delivered in his very readable recent book, Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left.

For those who appreciate a more focused academic critique, see Professor Wolfson’s 2013 paper, Democracy or autonomy? Indymedia and the contradictions of global social movement networks. Below is an excerpt from this paper that is relevant to this discussion:

One reason for the collapse of the Global Social Justice Movement, I argue in this brief case study, comes from the central tension in networks between participatory democratic governance and complete local autonomy in which decentralization dominates the network’s intentional strategic unity. This imbalance between democratic structures and local autonomy, I contend, is one of a series of significant factors that has led to the lack of sustainability of the Global Social Justice Movement. This reality demands that scholars re-examine new social movement structures and get a more complex picture of these networked organizational forms and their role in creating social movement organizations and facilitating long-term social change.

Cover image by: By David Monniaux (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 2.0 or CC BY-SA 2.0 fr], via Wikimedia Commons

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