The Language of Digital Activists

Activism is a difficult sort of outreach; there are multiple types of target audiences that are drastically different, and all need to be touched by the same story or idea. Often times, it is even more difficult because the people to be reached comprise of those with authority, who are on the opposing end of those with the desire for change. This creates a very dynamic kind of activist - someone who is capable of navigating those different group by crafting special approaches for each group while engaging with them all physically.

But does the digital activist have the same skill?

Activism through social media and other web-based tools are the product of a necessity to reach and mobilize a large amount of persons quickly and easily, which is something we see now that the internet does best. However, those messages don't change from computer to computer. The student and single mother, politician and preacher all see the same thing.

While face-to-face activism allows for the activist or the group that's doing the work to be the bridge between the citizens and policymakers. But digital activism seems placed in a position to display their message and hope for the very best. While the primary purpose of mobilizing people for the cause it met online very well, converting any sort of digital mobilization to change is near impossible when the message to grab the common man is the same one that tries to usher change in those who have the authority to create solutions (or may even be stakeholders in the problem). Multiple approaches for each group under the same cause may be the fix to this now, but is there a way for digital activism to appeal to all those affected simultaneously?

While there is still a secure place for digital activism in mobilization and awareness-raising, it is quite possible that the communication line between the community and the authority may lie within physical activism, and that digital technology is just a very helpful compliment.

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I found your comments on

Estefania_Salazar's picture

I found your comments on language and activism while on the Catedral restaurant (along with Nishant´s comments on the issue) to be one of the most interesting moments in my personal experience on the workshop, partly because I´m looking forward to reading more about sociolinguistics issue in the Digital Natives world. Could we keep that conversation going on? I recall (please correct if I´m not mistaken) that it began with the question: "what does language, the appropiation of certain words play in digital activism?" E.g. while working with women issues, should we always strive to employ gender-neutral language? Or would it depend on the demands/dynamics of the communities we are working with?

If anyone would like extra clarification on the questions (after all, I´m using a second language, English), please feel free to say so :)

Thanks for continuing that

BrendonOBrien's picture

Thanks for continuing that conversation Estefania (that's secretly why I posted this). Because I gave it a lot more thought when I came back home. One of the characteristics of language is that it is symbolic. It doesn't truly have set meanings applied to words, but instead the meanings are fluid even if words remain for generations. But there are different symbols for different groups and different reasons (e.g. recent 'evolutions' in Trinidadian creole English lead to the use the words 'bad' and 'wet' to mean very good, and the word 'ting' - 'thing' - to refer to women).

That said, let me return to my example within the LGBT community. In the community, people easily refer to each other as 'fags', 'bullers', 'battimen', 'anti-men' and the like, therefore stripping it of its damaging power from those outside of the community somewhat. However, they are still understood in the larger community to be symbolically obscene. That means that it still can't be used as part of the register to appeal to the larger community or engage in mobilization. There has been some discussion about the difference in approaches to 'The Trevor Project' and 'Fck H8' initiatives in the US in terms of how they engage to civil society and refer to themselves...

Which is where I wrote this from. Clearly, there either needs to be a middle ground in language in the digital space, or multiple digital spaces managed in order to appeal to all different groups...but maybe someone can help me here...

This makes me think...

tettner's picture

This makes me think...

Thinking is good. Telling us

BrendonOBrien's picture

Thinking is good. Telling us what you think is even

I also hope that Fernanda

Estefania_Salazar's picture

I also hope that Fernanda Tusa and Paola Quiroz, among others, can add their "two cents" from the perspective of gender and cultural studies, for example.

Brendon: you talk, rightly, about the need to either seek a middle ground in language or manage it in the context of multiple levels within the digital space. For example, as you know, in the journalism field we are called to promote an inclusive society through several means, one of which is using language that respects in all times the communities you´re writing about. I have seen several examples through the digital journalism world which use, for example, inclusive language, both because of the journalist own decision and the and the request of the communities she/he is working with. Several communities, both present or non-present in the digital world devote time and efforts to educate journalists in the "codes" they see themselves best represented in.

By referencing the journalism world, I would like to add more thoughts to the initial discussion: should digital activists take up language as a fundamental part of their mobilisation // public outreach efforts, not just towards journalists but other stakeholders they are interested in reaching out?

p.s 1 Brendon, in the context of this new question, do you think it is a challenge for stakeholders to fully know about how a community they are interested in (let´s take the LGBT one as a study case) refer themselves as, both inside and outside it? I ask because I confess I did not know there were such differences in use, thought terms as "fagg..." were a BIG no-no both outside and inside the English-speaking LGBT communities. Would it mean a difference now? no, I´d still condone its use in the mainstream context, but I have a greater "scope" now on the community.

p.s 2 Brendon again and everyone else (heh): do you think this conversation about language belongs to the "representation" theme on the PROCESS activity? (actually it does belong to all, but I wonder what exactly would´ve been discussed in Representation, our non-chosen theme.

To answer your question,

BrendonOBrien's picture

To answer your question, language is a fundamental part of mobilization for digital activists, both for mobilizing private citizens to participate in activities as well as mobilizing politicians, philanthropists and other stakeholders who can assist.

I think that it is challenge for individuals representing a community that they are not a part of. For instance, I was recently told that every time I say 'the GBT community' when I'm at a meeting with members of the community it sounds forced. That's because I am conscious of my non-membership in the community and am unaware of whether the term will come across to them as somewhat offensive.

On the other hand, even if you understand how a group appreciates being represented, I believe that those that they are being represented to also have desires concerning how they are willing to engage with a group. They may be more receptive to referring to them as 'the LGBT community' than calling them by their separate titles (homosexuals, bisexuals, etc...) because of their willingness to engage with the topic itself. If they are very much against engaging with LGBT issues, then they may respond to a veiled message of inclusion without reference to the community, but knowingly represented by an LGBT group. Or maybe they would respond to messages of sexual and reproductive health and rights, that also cover sexual orientation and gender identity issues, but also other issues that they are willing to deal with.

And yes, this does fall into the sphere of 'representation' as well as mobilization, depending on to which stakeholder it is used, and for what purpose.

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