All Together Now For Great Justice Dot Org

From The Internet: Issues at the Frontier (course wiki)
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Topic Owners: Rainer + Elana + Mel - it's worth noting that we have a KSG student, an MBA student, and an engineer in our group, and no lawyers or law students, so expect this session to come from a slightly different perspective.

back to syllabus


Activism is "intentional action to bring about social or political change" ([1]). In this sense, activist have used the web for mobilizing people for all kinds of social causes, ranging from the tremendous success of the Obama campaign's online efforts to post-election crisis mapping mash-ups in Kenya to your basic online petition or full-scale and often illegal hacktivist activities. New tools are emerging for coordinating concrete action and volunteering (Pledgebank, The Point, Zoosa) as well as fundraising and matching donors and social entrepreneurs (Facebook Causes, DonorsChoose, Socialvibe), and other tools not explicitly designed for social action in particular (Twitter, collaborative document editing, IMs and text messages) are being pressed into service by tech-savvy grassroots organizers, sometimes to great effect.

Sandor Vegh has suggested three categories of "Cyberacticism":

Category Uses Examples Tools
awareness/advocacy Blogging, petitions PETA Websites, mass mailings, podcasts, RSS
organization/mobilization Campaigning, fundraising, volunteering, community building,, al qaeda; Myanmar uprising Websites, mass mailings, mobile applications, online/offline hybrids
direct online action/reaction Electronic civil disobedience, hacktivism Cyberattacks during the 2008 South Ossetia war DDoS, website vandalizing, trojans, mass mailings

Core questions

Classifications help to structure our view on the landscape of online activism. But many questions are still unresolved. Here are four of these "issues at the frontier":

  1. An issue of tactics: What are the success factors of online activism tools? Is it true that, "while marketing has always been the art of turning friends into customers and customers into friends, it is now the art of finding, befriending, and 'activating' the like-minded for a common cause, for the common good, for profit." ([2])? Have the rules for online activism changed in the same way they changed for for-profit marketing. Or is there a fundamental difference between advocating a cause (or a candidate) and promoting a product? Is there a generalizable model here? What are cutting-edge examples of successful campaigning/fundraising/mobilization/collaboration? How do they harness different channels and media (www, email, SMS, etc.)?
  2. How dow we define and measure success in the first place? Is it the number of viewers, of adresses on your mailing list, of Facebook friends for your cause? Do they indicate more than a shallow degree of engagegement?
  3. Compared to offline activism: Who is in now and who is out? Who has access and who still may not have it? How do digital divides play out? To what extent do these tools allow us to subvert hierarchies of power or to what extent do they create new hierarchies and gatekeepers?
  4. Online activism often creates decentralized organizations. Which advantages and risks do they offer? The book "The Starfish and the Spider" contracts centralized organizations ("Spiders") with decntralized organizations ("Starfish") in the following way:
    • Starfish: circles; people give ideas/feedback/resources to each other. Spiders: pyramids; top-down hierarchies; all resources trickle up and are allocated back down.
    • Starfish: catalysts; influential members who set an example. Spiders: CEOs; formal leaders whose orders you agree to obey
    • Starfish: ideology; your service is not to an organization or a person, but around a shared mission or ideal. Spiders: loyalty to a person or an organization
    • Starfish: tap into and partner with pre-existing networks (clubs, interest groups, etc.) Spiders: start from scratch


  • Ethan Zuckerman, Berkman Center Fellow, Co-Founder of, providing both practical and theoretical expertise with focus on applications in the developing world.
  • Nicco Mele, IOP Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, founder of EchoDitto, former Internet Operations Director of Gov. Dean's presidential primary campaign in 2003

Session design

Activity intro (10 minutes)

We will first explain the ground rules of the rocket pitch workshop which will be held later in the session and introduce the 3 scenarios involved.

Guests present case studies (30 minutes)

Next, our guests will give short case study examples of projects they've worked on and tactics they've used. During this part of the session, students are encouraged to write down (on pieces of paper) questions they'd like to bring up, and to save those papers for the discussion after the workshop.

Workshop (50 minutes)

During this workshop, students will roleplay the parts of teams assigned to create internet-based projects for various activism scenarios (to be explained at the start of class). Teams will compete to create the best 1-minute rocket pitch of their project idea.

  • Split into groups.
  • You get 30 seconds to set up and 1 minute to present.
  • Each group gets 3 big sheets of paper ("slides") and a marker for each round. You do not have to use the paper. However, projector setup will count against your time...
  • Groups can use any resources (including computers) and work anywhere they want.
  • Your presentation can be and use any things or people you want.
  • 20 minutes: First scenario prep
  • 10 minutes: First scenario presentations
  • 10 minutes: Second scenario prep
  • 10 minutes: Second scenario presentations

Discussion (30 minutes)

Students are now encouraged to bring out the questions they had earlier; we'll use these as the basis for a followup discussion.



  • The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, pages 133-158 on "taking on decentralization"


Theory/Context on activism, decentralization, and marketing, to be used as pre-reading. This represents the 3 different non-law fields our team has backgrounds in. The following list is still examples and is not final.

Case studies, historical resources that come primarily from our guests and their experiences. Guests will also be asked to send the class a link to their favorite resource/article on their project, or something that has informed their own work on their project. We will also include a few links documenting interesting popular examples of internet social action so that we can have a shared vocabulary. Students will pick one case study, so people will enter the class having read different ones.

Some sample types of resources that might come from this:

Techniques and tools resources will include both documents geared specifically towards online activists as well as chapters from books that focus more on corporate usages of the social web, online communities and marketing, etc. (Examples, not a final list):