From Collective to Connective Action: How do Environmental Non-Governmental Organisations use Technology to get us to do Stuff?

What makes us dump ice on our heads enough times to raise 90 million dollars? How do 50 kids building polar bears on the streets of London help to win a fight against Shell? There is a lot of hype around digital technologies, but is it really the technology itself that causes social change amongst people – or – is it our creative application of technology that causes social change?

Heralded by some as a tool for the diversification and democratisation of politics, digital new media is an important factor in how we organise social movements, protest and campaigns. However, sceptical scholars have raised important questions on the degrees of supporter engagement afforded by digital media as well as its overall accessibility and reach. Can we really measure the ‘impact’ of a technology on social movements? While technological affordances are by no means the silver bullet for protest and campaigning, they have certainly and continue to influence how we organise around everyday environmental politics.

Beginning in 1898 and traveling up until present day, I’ve selected a series of campaigns to explore how environmental non-governmental organisations have drawn on technological affordances for supporter engagement over time. These campaigns were not necessarily the most famous or the most iconic but instead were pioneering in their application of ‘technology of their time’. Together, these campaigns have allowed me to develop a ‘tech tactic toolbox’ of the go-to technologies used by environmental non-governmental organisations (ENGOs). From these campaigns, I’ve found that despite being nearly 120 years old, the tactics of environmental haven’t really changed. So, it’s not about what is new or old but instead, it’s about what is different.

With the emergence of digital technologies, the structures of campaigns are transforming. There is a general shift in the organisational logics underpinning environmental campaigns moving protest from ‘collective’ to ‘connective’ action. Whereas traditional campaigns were brokered by ENGOs under a centralised and hierarchical organisational model, contemporary campaigns are being co-produced with supporters using networks, hubs and crowdsourcing. In a nutshell? It is not necessarily the technologies of campaigning themselves that are changing but the way in which we design campaigns.

This research raises important questions on how we can best leverage digital affordances for improving the way we build environmental campaigns. In theory, digital provides us with tools to take a more participative, representative and personalised approach to campaigning, so how do we actually do this in practice? More importantly, do we want to? What’s the trade off between moving from collective to connective action and how does it influence the overall impact of our campaigns? What does this mean for the role of ENGOs in environmental politics? How do we account for the change in design in the way we conceptualise and measure supporter engagement?

Social movement and collective action literature provides a rich foundation from which to explore contemporary campaigning and environmental protest. However, there are obvious limitations to key conceptual tools, which in some ways are now ‘dated’ and ‘pre-digital’. Through examining campaigns over time and exploring the variations in campaigning pre and post digital, I aim to direct scholarship towards a more reflective understanding of digitally-enabled activism and the emerging potential of digital protest to capacitate, engage and empower.

Image credit: James Beeson https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Anna Hushlak
School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford

Anna Hushlak is a second year doctoral student at the University of Oxford’s Centre for the Environment. She is based out of the Biodiversity, Ecosystems and Conservation and Technological Natures: Materialities, Mobilities and Politics research clusters. For more information on her project visit www.whydowecare.co.uk or follow her on twitter for updates.

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