For the last year or so, I have been a (relatively infrequent) participant at newcritics, a blog founded by Tom Watson, where bloggers of all types can join in conversations about middlebrow culture. Topics range from liveblogging episodes of Mad Men to debates about the Sopranos finale to sustained conversations about the Oscar nominees for best film in 1967, a series inspired by Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution. The blog has been an alternative community for me over the last couple of years, so I was delighted to read Tom’s new book, CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World, which focuses on the role of new media technologies in reshaping how people engage with social causes. In the book, Tom, a journalist and consultant, writes authoritatively about a wide range of web practices ranging from the seemingly banal “Cause” application on Facebook to the use of microloans to finance small overseas businesses, the Barack Obama campaign’s innovative use of Web 2.0 technologies, and even the more immediate, spontaneous uses of blogging software and Twitter to keep people informed during a crisis.
Tom brands all of these practices under the label “CauseWired,” and his enthusiasm for these kinds of practices is evident for the outset. He acknowleges this point in the book’s introduction, explaining that he does not believe “there is a good, impersonal, purely journalistic or academic way to cover this movement; you have to plunge in directly to understand it” (xxvi). And, typically, Tom’s excitement about the potentials of online social activism leads to rewarding interviews with some of the key players in the movement. Especially strong, in my opinion, was Tom’s discussion of Kiva.org, the micro-lending site that, accoring to Kiva’s website, allows “individuals to lend directly to unique entrepreneurs in the developing world.” Tom also illustrates the potential of what he calls “flash causes,” those relatively sudden events that spur individuals into action using the tools at hand. Specifically, he focuses Nate Ritter’s use of Twitter to update readers on the California wildfires during the summer of 2007.
In all cases, Tom identifies individuals or groups who make use of available technologies in order to promote a social or political cause, and while he wisely resists turning CauseWired into a modified how-to book, his book can serve as a guide for thinking about how to use digital media to support or participate in a cause. In addition, while Tom is, no doubt, a proponent of online activism, he is, by no means, naive about the limitations of these online activities. He admits, for example, that the Facebook Causes application has not always resulted in the financial support that organizers of various causes would like to see. If my experience is any indication, I will often “join” or endorse causes simply because friends have joined and I feel some pressure to show solidarity with the politics. But as Tom is quick to point out, even this desire for “social validation” can reap benefits in unexpected ways (37).
Further, as the Facebook example illustrates, Tom points out that the “CauseWired” practices are especially attractive to a new generation of activists who are just now coming of age. Drawing from Hais and Winograd’s insightful Millennial Makeover, Tom traces out how teens and young adults are adapting their use of technology to their support for certain social causes. Here, Tom draws from his own experiences with his teenage daughter and their shared participation in certain causes.
In the book’s conclusion, Tom acknowledges some of the potential limits of this new form of online activism. In fact, many of the traits that make online activism so powerful also have the potential to derail some of its urgency. Tom cites Andrea Batista Schlesinger, of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, who worries that one-click activism may lead to a consumer-oriented approach that stands in the way of true, committed activism (189). At the same time, Tom notes, the sheer volume of information about potential causes threatens to produce a kind of mental paralysis as people become increasingly inundated with messages inviting them to get involved. I’ll admit that I would have liked to see more of this skepticism addressed up-front, especially given some of my own questions about one-click activism and the role it might serve in fostering passive responses to real social problems. Also, because of how broadly he defines the concept of a cause, it’s virtually impossible to dispute the basic principle of social activism, but I found myself constantly coming up against the broader question of how much these causes can do to alleviate the genuine problems of economic inequality in the first place, especially as the banking industry continues to accumulate billions of dollars in bailout money.