10/08/2010 10:57 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Wrong Debate: Why We Should Stop Debating Technology's Relevance and Start Figuring Out How to Effectively Leverage It

When the New Yorker published a recent essay slamming the effectiveness of new technologies for social and political change, it was an important step forward for 21st-century activism.

Malcolm Gladwell moved the debate over the merits of technology-driven activism forward by, one, raising its prominence and, two, eliciting a flurry of responses which clarified that most everyone (except him) is essentially in agreement. No, technology and tools are not the most important factors -- issues and strategy are vital; no, Twitter was not essential for domestic organizing in Moldova or Iran, but rather helpful in galvanizing the international community and putting a global spotlight on both countries in real-time; no, signing an online petition is not going to change the world or turn anyone into a lifelong activist; no, digital activism and traditional activism are not mutually exclusive. By putting a spotlight on this debate, Gladwell has lined up what the next step should be for anyone who cares about the efficacy of activism in the context of an ever-growing set of digital tools: to the extent that newer connection technologies are helpful for activists, let's identify how they can be most helpful.

Figuring out how technology can be best harnessed by activists is more important than coming to hasty conclusions about its utility. This is why I'm working with a new website called to create an online living library of lessons learned for how technology can be utilized by both traditional and non-traditional movements, well-trained grassroots leaders and first-time activists. We're putting together a hub for people to build on and learn from an evolving set of best practices that are based on their own experiences; we call it a living library because these guidelines will be constantly revised based on feedback from activists.

In providing this set of educational resources, (which has in the past received funding from the US and UK governments as well as a range of private-sector companies) is joining organizations like the New Organizing Institute, Global Voices' Advocacy, Rising Voices, Mobileactive, and others. These various organizations are well-aware not only of the value of their own work but also of their mutual collaboration in creating online resources for aspiring changemakers. As an example, last week a Google document that allowed anyone to share what they had found and learned regarding tools and tactics for bypassing censorship online began to circulate. This is a small and easy task, but one that's important because it aims to help activists make a stronger impact, in this case by maintaining online security, while also facilitating collaboration between different organizations working in the same field.

Lastly, part of identifying a set of best practices is about documenting those examples of recent activism in which the digitally connected few galvanized and mobilized the less connected masses. We are constantly learning from case studies where connection technologies proved useful in creating space for effective activism as well as those instances where it failed to serve as a shield from the repressive and intrusive tactics of autocratic regimes. That's why we began a case study series that documents uses of tech for social change to varying degrees of effectiveness. In doing this, we join a growing group of researchers trying to make the body of available case studies on digital activism more complete -- most notably Global Voices' Technology for Transparency, the Meta-Activism Project, and Stanford University's program on Liberation Technologies.

There are as many weaknesses to organizing in the digital age as there are advantages. Thanks to Gladwell's article and the many responses it generated, more people are aware of both. As new technologies are not going anywhere and activists are bound to incorporate them, it's an opportune time to take concrete steps towards shaping the next 10 years of activism so that the weaknesses of protest in the 21st century do not end up overshadowing its strengths.