The Labor of Democracy and the False Promise of Digital Activism

Open to the Public
Nador u. 11
Thursday, January 29, 2015 - 12:45pm
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Thursday, January 29, 2015 - 12:45pm

Digital democracy, Twitter revolutions, hashtag activism—with the advent of digital technologies in the last two decades, a host of new terms have cropped up to refer to Internet use for egalitarian and participatory collective action. With the ready availability and ease of tracking social media, often in large troves of “Big Data,” both scholars and new media analysts have hailed the Internet as essential to modern social movements. Much of the excitement of digital activism stems from the idea that political participation has been “flattened” and more available to the masses, making social movements more individualized and democratic.

However, Schradie will show that the work and labor required for online activist participation does not create a bastion of digital democracy that is egalitarian, less hierarchical and bottom-up. Instead, the Internet reinforces and deepens the same inequities, hierarchies and ideologies in broader society. By looking at an American case of political, labor and social movement groups in one political field, Schradie argues that groups with the highest levels of online participation have the power, resources, organization, and top-down ideology to do so. She has three overarching findings: 1) A digital activism gap. The supposed mechanism of democratic participation— the Internet— in fact, reproduces and deepens social class inequality because of the high costs of online participation, including resources, labor and a feeling of empowerment necessary for digital activism, as opposed to it being an egalitarian space; 2) Organization matters. More hierarchical and bureaucratic groups have the infrastructure to maintain digital participation, rather than organizational structures withering in the digital era; 3) Top-down ideology. Top-down reformist groups used the Internet more than bottom-up radical organizations because they saw it as a pipeline to those in power. The groups that care the most about participatory democracy cared less about the Internet.

Jen Schradie is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, based in the Toulouse School of Economics. She received her PhD from the Department of Sociology at the University of California-Berkeley with a designated emphasis in New Media from the Berkeley Center for New Media. She has a master’s degree in sociology from UC Berkeley and an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School. She studies social class, social media and social movements. Her broad research agenda is to interrogate digital democracy claims with empirical data. After she published two articles on digital production inequality in Poetics and Information, Communication and Society, the publicity she garnered from these publications earned her the 2012 Public Sociology Alumni Prize at UC Berkeley. With a National Science Foundation Grant, she researched the relationship between technology and democracy among social movement and labor organizations in the American South. Currently, she is examining how what she calls Silicon Valley Ideology intersects with French society and digital use. Before entering academia, Schradie directed six documentary films, including, “The Golf War – a story of land, golf and revolution in the Philippines.” Most of her films, however, focused on social movements confronting corporate power in the American rural South. Schradie’s documentaries have screened at more than 25 film festivals and 100 universities. Follow her on Twitter @schradie or go to