Centre for Internet & Society
Alternative Approaches to Social Change

Nuraini Juliastuti

Review of Maesy Angelina’s essay, "Digital Natives’ Alternative Approach to Social Change", in Digital Alternatives with a Cause Book 2: To Think, pp.64-76 by Nuraini Juliastuti.

Alternative Approaches to Social Change

Nuraini Juliastuti

Dominant assumptions about social movements need a redefinition. They are not compatible with youth movements, which are mainly operated within the framework of contemporary technology development.

Although being acknowledged as ‘the potential future directions of activism’, the capability of digital-based movements to bring about concrete changes has been in doubt. It has been associated with degrading terms such as ‘slacktivism’ or ‘click activist’. Some scholars consider it a quasi-movement, and argue that it needs to be accompanied with “real” activism.

Each movement calls for a different analytical lens. The source of predicaments of the digital movement opponents revolves around the persistence of focusing on concrete aspects of a movement. Unless we consider the tangible aspects, a proper understanding of a digital movement cannot be realized.

Observations about intangible aspects of a movement will keep a research from clinging to activism with a capital A, and start seeing a gradation in the social movement practices. It is constructive and opens the door to analyses of multi-dimensional movements such as the Blank Noise initiative (India). Drawing on methods of identifying new developments to the field of social movement, Maesy examines some aspects of it: the issue, strategy, site of action, and internal mode of organization.

First, a straightforward summary of Blank Noise. It is a movement to address sexual harassment against women in public spaces in India. Sexual harassment includes staring, catcalls, groping, and is usually disregarded as a one-off, casual incident. It also takes under purview ‘eve teasing’, generally considered soft sexual harassment. Established in 2003, the main workspaces of the collective are a combination of street interventions and online campaigns mediated on social media sites such as blogs, YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter.

Blank Noise attempts to subvert populist notions of what activism is within culture. Artistic approaches are regarded not as merely illustrational, but integrated into the methods of drawing attention to sexual harassment.

It chooses not to see things through a simple black and white perspective, but from a more complex view; loose, not rigid, is an instructive term to explain the character of the movement that is held together by two stakeholders: youth and technology.

In the antecedent period—this essay provides little space for it and hence lacks a historical explanation—social movements were carried out by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The keyword ‘society empowerment’ was in application then; embedded within is the idea of power relations. The NGO activists are powerful agencies and therefore have the authority to empower others.

In the case of Blank Noise, it consciously disrupts the mainstream notion of what a social movement entails and at the same time, displays coherencies within the accepted movement’s principles: the collective thus offers alternative approaches. An alternative movement however, is indicative of a classic pattern within the trajectory of social movements - it is a natural occurrence in response to a static state of affairs. Negotiations of the appropriate ways to confront circumstances are accelerating, putting old concepts of voluntarism, political participation, social contribution, and the meaning of being an activist into fragile categorizations. They are all subject to constant reinterpretations.

A new question then arises: as local people acknowledge Blank Noise as an outstanding example of citizen activism in India, does this youth initiative differentiate itself from other youth movements of its kind?

Online spaces formerly built to showcase the profile of movement organizers have now transformed into collaborative workspaces to archive and advocate women’s right movement. Interactivity has permeated through online spaces, replacing the static nature which was earlier associated with activism-related websites. The distance between the initiators and the participants is disappearing. The initiators and the participants are no longer two separate entities and are now joint content producers.   

Some literatures characterize a social movement as a form of intellectual intervention. It is the practice of social intervention where the power is arranged in a relatively clear intellectual hierarchy. The dynamics of the action spaces has blurred such a hierarchy. Nonetheless, the question of class is still worth asking.

The issues of the ideologies of technologies being used in a movement, how they are operated, the actors behind them, what discourses are being developed, whose interests do they speak on behalf of, are important matters to be further explored to bring forth a reflection on power dynamics. 

An undemanding way to value a social movement is through impact examination. A common way to assess impact is by observing the tangible aspects of the movement or campaign: the number of participants in activities conducted (do men and women participate equally in them?); the number of meetings; the organization’s coverage; public response to the campaign; statistics of crime. It asserts that a significant impact can be achieved through concrete goals and demands.  

The question of impact meets its philosophical turn when dealing with a grey issue such as normalization of street sexual violence. The meaning of street sexual violence is hard to pin down. One of the possible ways to cope with it is through a micro-movement. It is a strategy, which aims to create changes at the personal level. The meaning of empowerment is shifting. In the case of Blank Noise, as the author puts it, “they empower people through their experience with the collective”.

Blank Noise differs from other types of movements in their inability to identify the opponent. Or, rather, they live a situation where it is impossible to establish who and what the opponent is. Rather than merely seeing it as a representation of the faltering state, as many scholars usually do, the author sees it as a ‘grey productive gesture’. It directs the course of the movement to a constant dialogue with the meaning of participation. Often unintentionally, it engages in the search of the meaning of what one can contribute to the others, without having the need to incorporate in, or being absorbed into, old society empowerment jargon. It attempts to remake the language of a movement.

But how should an opponent be defined? And how should change be defined? Although indirectly, the discussion on ways of organizing the movement as well as articulating the issue—the uncertainty about their values included, points to the base of the debate on the concept of activism. As each context is walking its own social-technological life path, and the division between the debatable terms ‘quasi-activism’ and ‘real activism’ requires an elaborate explanation, what changes should social movements bring (and how ‘real’ should they be), is still a difficult question to answer. 

Changes function both as the foundation and goal of the digital native movement. Much as they indicate hopefulness, changes often turn out to be grim and lead to frustrating facts. As alternative ways of social movements are developing and being performed in various contexts, in particular historical junctures many things remain the same. Instead of progress, a series of setbacks become apparent.

It is as if each new movement’s strategy would bring back the possibilities of reversals and stagnancies, putting causes and choices in question. It is not about the seemingly clear separation between decisiveness and indecisiveness. This is the time when being decisive offers clichéd, predictable acts, which are often twisted into an intense, conservative attitude. This is the time when being indecisive is promisingly progressive and demonstrating the signs of thinking critically. It may seem indefinite, but it provides spaces for resiliency, an important character to develop amid the chaotic situation. 

Nuraini Juliastuti is the co-founder of KUNCI Cultural Studies Center (http://kunci.or.id/) established in 1999 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. She is currently a PhD student at Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands, focusing on popular music in Southeast Asia.


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