SMS Activism: Don't Call Us, We'll Call You

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 8 June 2005

Mobile-enabled politics are still far from true networked solidarity – and may do unaffiliated activists more harm than good.

Although invented in the thrall of the great Enlightenment and its celebration of individual human autonomy, modern democracy has never truly been about the rights and thoughts of the individual. It’s about the mass. Candidates don’t accumulate votes one by one, but bloc by bloc. They speak to potential supports as the members of affiliations or tribes: autoworkers, Zionist Jews, soccer moms or NASCAR dads. The trick is to say or do something that flips a whole constituency over into one’s column.

Activists today are coming to understand this, which is why – however legitimate the issue they’re fighting for – they know the object of the game is to get a whole bunch of other people to agree loudly, somehow, to whoever it is in power. Politicians don’t pay attention to great ideas as much as they do to great numbers of people with an actionable demand. Then, they either conform to this mass-voiced request, or figure out a way to make it look like they have responded.

Traditionally, the way to make mass activism work has been to stoke a sentiment of fraternity amongst the like-minded. Workers, unite! Antiwar activists, stand in the streets! African-Americans – let’s get a million men to march on Washington! And when people are willing to affiliate in such a fashion, their presence as a real mass can move mountains of political resistance.

Today, however, most media-savvy young people don’t feel like belonging to much of anything. Having been fooled by corporations into various forms of brand affiliation, they realize that loyalty is usually a one-way street, and that it heads only towards exploitation. Perhaps wrongly extending this suspicion to friends, family and country, they don’t want to sign up to be a “part” of any recognizable group. For once recognized, they’re in someone’s target market – reachable and predictable. Like Groucho Marx, but for new reasons, they don’t want to belong to any club that would have them as a member.

On the surface, it appears that personal networking technologies offer new modes of interaction that could foster group affiliation without the attendant loss of individuality. Being part of a smart mob feels more temporary. You can show up for one event, and not show up for another. You’re only a part of the mob for the amount of time that mob exists.

Likewise, signing up for an SMS action alert doesn’t put you on record as a member of some party – it simply gives you a chance to take action after receiving an alert, if you so choose.

That’s what gives mobile phone political efforts like People for the American Way’s Mass Immediate Response system their power – and their pathos. Devised during the recent threat by US Republicans to end the minority’s right to filibuster and block majority-supported but politically radical judicial nominees, the MIR is a simple SMS notification system through which subscribers are pinged to take action. In this case, it was to call the Senate and flood the switchboard at the precise moment that the issue was presented. Although the Senate reached a compromise before the action was necessary, 18,000 people signed up for the service, and the MIR stands ready for its next telephone crusade.

These temporary, provisional affiliations seem tailor-made for this generation of activists: they get to take action, but they don’t have to commit themselves to a group or institution that might turn around and screw them, later.

Take U2’s use of SMS at concerts this year. In the middle of playing the hit song “One,” lead singer Bono launched into a speech about how his audience comes from the generation that can end poverty and AIDS. He asked them to pull out their cell phones and sign a petition via text message to a number projected on the screen behind him. In a mass spectacle that would impress Albert Speers, tens of thousands of kids “signed” the petition at every concert.

Or look at the use of SMS messages to organize Amnesty International supporters. Subscribers are informed via their cells every two weeks about whichever imprisoned dissident or journalist requires immediate support, and can then take action simply by checking “yes” and forwarding.

Does such a strategy have any advantage over an e-mail message? If for nothing other than convenience, immediacy and the fact that many people use mobile phones and not the Internet, sure. And they certainly give the non-joining generation a chance to act as if they were affiliated – for brief moments, anyway.

But what these efforts miss is the real reason affiliations are so politically powerful in the first place: It’s because they represent lasting coalitions of constituents who are willing to put mass weight and effort behind their cause. Sure, an entire population marching out into the streets, at the same moment thanks to SMS, to overthrow their dictator may be a powerful, if short-lived, demonstration of mass power. It can work on special occasions like government overthrow. Still, the increasing ubiquity and popularity of mass SMS-enabled but temporary political affiliation may actually end up bringing its demise.

These are not true bottom-up, spontaneous, grass-roots expressions of networked solidarity, nor even representations of groups willing to follow up on their stated convictions; they are simply instances of large numbers of people momentarily willing to take their orders from above. Subscribers may as well let their causes run bots on their handhelds that automatically check “yes” or dial the politician in question. Reductive and essentially passive, these methods will ultimately favor the kinds of constituencies who take their commands from above, anyway. Once church leaders begin telling their flocks to sign onto action lists, it’ll make Bono look like a sideshow.

Of course, mass action directed from above is also the primary goal for most marketing efforts. So maybe all this progressive SMS activity will end up paving the way for some future innovation, after all: the emergence of opt-in SMS advertising.