Activism vs. Online Activism: Barnard Feminist Panel Raises Questions

Recently I attended a wonderful feminist conference Activism and the Academy at Barnard. At first I was excited by the free food, but my attention quickly turned to the intelligent and thought-provoking introductory speech by Janet Jakobsen, the Director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women. Jakobsen presented  ideas about the need for a focus on the present and the future of feminism. Her introductory talk was interesting, insightful, and really set the tone for the rest of the speakers.

The introduction of one of the panels, “Writing, New Media and Feminist Activism,” really moved me.  The first 15 minutes of this panel really opened my eyes to a completely new discussion about feminism.  Courtney Martin, who is the former editor of Feministing, opening remarks sparked the question: “What mediums do we use  in feminism?”.  There has been a shift in how we promote, discuss, and take action within feminism, and she did an excellent job in explaining this shift in this era of the internet.  She presented a very interesting question of “how  activism meets the internet.” She presented the question of which activism  is more powerful and noticeable: the  internet or “on the ground activism”.

This question  interested me even before attending the panel.  I had always felt that online media, whether it be blogging or Facebook-ing had never gotten much done as far as activism goes.  I always thought: “How could someone make any changes just typing behind a computer screen?”  I always thought that for any action or change to take place, people needed to get enough support and be made noticeable by non-violent forms of resistance and protest.

Initially I felt as if things written online were written in water, and that protests/ street organized gatherings were becoming more scarce due to  internet-activism.  I always felt the “get up and get mad” approach to activism tends to get more attention and more change.  However, there is an ongoing argument about the differences and similarities between “on the street” activism and “on the internet” activism.  But looking into history, pre-internet “on the street” activism proved to be very effective throughout the civil rights movement.  When I asked my mother how she was able to spread feminism in her day without the use of the internet, she simply responded, “What do you mean? We skipped class and rallied in the streets.”

I am not advocating skipping class, but back in the day skipping class would get the attention of everyone in school, and rallying in the streets would bring the  attention of the media which could eventually gain a lot of support from people.  Today, it seems blogs are leading in the realm of  activism and before attending this discussion, I thought that would make it impossible for contemporary feminism to be heard, or for change to be made.

However, what I heard in both panels “Archives and Activism: The Contemporary Turn” and “Writing, New Media, and Feminist Actvisim,” made me completely re-think my views on feminist activism on the internet.  It made me realize that in many ways they are interconnected, that the internet is used to organize and promote on the street activism.

Blogging, in fact, allows people to be heard who would otherwise not be able to get a voice in the feminist world.  It is used to create and spread feminism, on a day-to-day basis, and often allows “people all over the world to get involved.”  For example, Hollaback! is an organization devoted to ending street harassment.  The organization has about 37 sites world-wide which spreads writing, media, and new activism throughout all the corners of the world.  Blogging and other forms of internet activism help organize and form better ideas about feminism, and also make those ideas more public and heard.

Susanna Horng,representing Girls Write Now  (an organization that “combines mentoring and writing instruction within the context of all-girl programming”) really highlighted how blogging helps tell stories of hardship.  Blogs that “get up and get mad” as I said before, can be just as powerful and effective as street rallies.

Courtney Martin, really made clear how blogs can “kick-ass” just as much as gatherings in the street.  I believe I owe my change of mind on blogging to Martin because one of the  examples she used in her talk.  She told the audience about an anti-abortion ad in SoHo that had a caption which read: “The most dangerous place for an African-American is the womb.” She explained how the ad was removed after a blog post revealed how horrific this sign was and the post received a great deal of attention.

These two panels showed me  how effective internet activism actually is.  It also helped me understand what blogs can actually be used for, and how they can be made to be just as effective if not more effective than “on the ground” activism.

7 thoughts on “Activism vs. Online Activism: Barnard Feminist Panel Raises Questions

  1. Before going to the conference, I felt somewhat the same way about blogging as you did. Actually, to be honest, I didn’t even know that feminist blogs existed before I was in the feminism class, let alone a whole world of them that were represented at the conference. I have always treated on the “ground activism” and “new media activism” as equals but never saw them as a “beautiful marriage” like Courtney Martin said. I’ve always separated the two from each other as different movements, in a way, that were just fighting for the same cause; never as two things that worked together. I guess it was a really eye opening experience for me too.

  2. I too thought that the “‘get up and get mad’ approach to activism tends to get more attention and more change” before I attended this conference. Your quote “for any action or change to take place, people needed to get enough support and be made noticeable by non-violent forms of resistance and protest” really resonates with me after attending the conference. I never thought of that benefit to internet activism, that it is “non-violent.” Thanks for pointing this out.

  3. While I do agree that blogging can be a powerful tool to introduce feminism to the world, I would love to see more action. I feel that the amount of noise that the blog makes depends on how many people are listening in. The internet is supposed to be used to get people together and have “on the ground” activism, but it feels like there is a hesitation or something from keeping rallies from happening. Although the internet is making the fight more organized, I feel that actions always speak louder than words.

  4. Let me just say: I agree. It’s so annoying to constantly hear about how once upon a time there was so much political action, and people rallied and marched all over the place, and things really got done and people’s voices were heard. Certainly activism isn’t dead, but there isn’t all that much on-the-ground demonstrating happening. The fact that a lot of it moved to the internet feels like a Gen-Y cop-out. But I, too, was comforted greatly to see the difference online action can make. I always feel guilty because I’m not actually politically apathetic, I just don’t know what to do. Like you, the panel made me see the other options that exist for activism.

  5. I sometimes feel that things you write online are just not viewed enough to be given as much importance as it should have obtained. And that’s only because what is written online stays there meaning that no one talks about it.

  6. You raise a lot of good points and I completely agree with you. I think that society today is so technologically driven, at least in our country, that internet activism might be more effective than “on the street” activism. With that being said, in other places such as third world countries, it’s definitely fair to say that “on the street” activism is the leader in terms of how effective the forms of activism are.

  7. I really love the phrase in this post “Initially I felt as if things written online were written in water.” The idea that what’s written in water somehow doesn’t “hold” or stick or stay is powerful; you seem to be suggesting that you once thought that writing online would somehow not be seen or disappear view in a kind of ephemeral way, that somehow, what’s written online is not influential. I’m glad that your attendance at the conference helped you to see how online activism and feminist activism are actually, as Martin says, in a “beautiful marriage” in a way that is indeed, very lasting and powerful.

    In fact, I think one of the things that is so amazing about your phrase is that what you write online is actually quite the opposite of writing in water. It stays forever. Your online footprint remains in the archives and caches in ways that are quite indelible, which is why we need to be very aware of what it is we say online and how we say it. The feminist bloggers that you met at the conference are aware of this “staying power” of online media and thus leverage those platforms to make change that will last. Yes, it’s what galvanizes on the street activism, but it also inspires conversation and action in other ways too, as you rightly point out about the SoHo ad. I’m looking forward to seeing how you use this space as a platform to create that voice for change. Onward!

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