The Role of Social Computing Technologies in Grassroots Movement Building

Grassroots social movement organizing is becoming increasingly dependent on communication technologies. In this paper, we ask: How can social computing systems support grassroots organizations in facilitating collective action through democratic participation? We did action research with Science for the People-Atlanta, both participating in the organization, making technology for and with them, and also studying their use of technology as they build up a grassroots movement. SftP-Atlanta is a social movement organization dedicated to building a grassroots movement around science activism.

The Atlanta chapter of Science for the People is a part of a broader national movement around radical practice of scientific research. SftP-Atlanta is built on a local community of scientists, researchers, and science enthusiasts. They all came together with the shared belief that scientific reasoning could be an extremely powerful tool to resist injustice. They believe activating scientific discourse among public would not happen without a re-imagination of the practice of science for the causes of social justice. Following the core values of SftP, the local chapter in Atlanta built their identity around a practice of science-activism that is inclusive, participatory, and accessible. Their plan of collective action toward this goal includes both short-term and long-term advocacy work. While their short-term collective action includes both taking part in activist events happening in and around Atlanta as well as organizing public-facing events to advocate for their cause of science-activism, their long-term collective action is a step-by-step process that was informed by methods of community-centered research.  

Grassroots movements are assumed to have spontaneous growth; however, from our research and experience in SftP-Atlanta we understand that this process requires intense planning and collaboration among all members. In SftP-Atlanta this collaborative process was supported by a combination of social and technological networks. SftP-Atlanta’s sociotechnical ecosystem is not monolithic, it is a complex infrastructure consisting of several online platforms (Google Tools, Slack, Facebook, the web platform that we co-designed), offline networks (bi-weekly meetings), volunteer activists, local norms and values, etc. Our investigation of the existing sociotechnical practices of SftP-Atlanta reveals that while the social computing technologies they chose to use served some of the instrumental purpose, they often lacked the social, moral, and political alignment with the causes of grassroots organizing. That is to say, while technologies were chosen with an expectation of being an “efficient” solution to some practical problems, the very choice of certain social computing technologies introduced new power relationships within the organization that were perceived as antithetical to the philosophical beliefs of the organization.

In this paper, we use Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of social action and the model of participatory communication theory inspired by Freire to make sense of the movement-building process of SftP-Atlanta. Freirean model provides a three-step, iterative process for sustainable movement building: forming a collective identity, moving toward collective action, and engaging in reflexive dialog. We analyze both the perceived strengths and weaknesses of SftP-Atlanta’s sociotechnical practices in supporting the organization as they iteratively go through the phases of the Freirean model.

For instance, in the collective identity phase Google Drive was useful for the ten core members of the group who were researchers in different institutions. As the group grew and became more and more heterogeneous with different people with different comfort of technology, many members started feeling like Slack favored people who chose the platform to be used because they were already using slack for their jobs and excluded people who were not as proficient with technology which ended up reinforcing the already existing power dynamic within the organization leading to a conflicted identity. In the collective action phase, a task management feature of Slack was liked by many members that gave them a feeling of accomplishing something tangible. On the other hand in this same phase, when many events were being organized by SftP-Atlanta members shared how they weren’t comfortable with Facebook being the primary medium for events since their participation in the events were being broadcasted to their professional networks that they would not choose to share this information with. Finally in the reflex dialog phase, members pointed out how decision making through Slack was not sufficient since it did not adequately support the kind of transparency that a participatory decision making requires and as discovered in the identity phase it did not end up supporting the kind of equitable democracy SftP-Atlanta wanted to become. Our analysis of these tensions led us to identify inclusivity, privacy/security, and social translucence as three values desirable for sociotechnical practices of grassroots organizing.

With social movement organizing becoming increasingly dependent on social computing technologies (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Slack, etc.) that were built with commercial values in mind, these conflicts become a default reality of movement building. However, these conflicts come with consequences that are not just ideological but also practical: how can a group democratically decide on issues when the decision-making tool that is supposed to facilitate that process disproportionately favors people who are more comfortable with technology? In our work, we provide a way of understanding and working around conflicts that may exist within the sociotechnical ecosystem of grassroots social movements.

You can read the entire paper here: (paywalled)

If you cannot access the paper from the above link, here is a freely downloadable preprint:

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