Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations has lots of terrific insights. Here’s one about activism.
He describes a couple examples of citizen activism facilitated by new social tools. One is about angry airline passengers organizing to create an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights by using newspaper interactivity and an online petition and blog. Another is about college students and graduates using Facebook to organize to reverse a bait-and-switch bank policy. Both of these cases describe an unjust situation which pisses off a bunch of people, one of whom takes the initiative to start something which a lot of other people join in on. As stories, these are interesting, but not necessarily extraordinary. What I find most fascinating is his explanation about the role played by new social tools, and the implication of this for the future of activist causes.
The old model for coordinating group action required convincing people who care a little to care more, so that they would be roused to action. [The new model] lower[s] the hurdles to doing something in the first place, so that people who cared a little could participate a little, while being effective in aggregate. Having a handful of highly motivated people and a mass of barely motivated ones used to be a recipe for frustration. The people who were on fire wondered why the general population didn’t care more, and the general population wondered why those obsessed people didn’t just shut up. Now the highly motivated people can create a context more easily in which the barely motivated people can be effective without having to become activists themselves. (p. 181-182)