Molly Beutz Land
The same technologies that groups of ordinary citizens are using to write operating systems and encyclopedias are fostering a quiet revolution in another area—social activism. On websites such as Avaaz.org and Wikipedia, citizens are forming groups to report on human rights violations and organize
email writing campaigns, activities formerly the prerogative of professionals. Because the demands of human rights work often require organizations to professionalize in order to be successful in their advocacy, human rights provides an ideal case study for evaluating the effect of lowered barriers to online group formation on citizen participation in activism. This article considers whether the participatory potential of technology can be used to both broaden the mobilization of ordinary citizens in human rights advocacy and provide opportunities for individuals to become more deeply involved in the work.
Existing online advocacy efforts reveal a de facto inverse relationship between broad mobilization and deep participation. Large groups mobilize many individuals, but each of those individuals has only a limited ability to participate in decisions about the group’s goals or methods. This inverse
relationship is principally a problem of size. As groups grow in size, they may replicate the process of professionalization in order to avoid the problems that would be associated with decentralized decision-making. Thus, although we currently have the tools necessary for individuals to engage in advocacy without the need for professional organizations, we are still far from realizing an ideal of fully decentralized, user-generated activism.