Social activism is increasingly internet-bound, drawing on the intuitive skills of younger generations to encourage civic development. Yet the question remains as to how this technological expertise can breach the generational divide, promoting a more inclusive, comprehensive evolution of society.
A commitment to change the Polish civil society is still not widespread. Last year, 6% Poles participated in a strike or demonstration, and 7% undertook voluntary activities.
The same CBOS research (2019), however, shows that they were much more likely to donate money for charity (74% of Poles), or clothes or books (62%). On the other hand, a mere 21% of Poles, have offered their own work or services to others.
Nonetheless, in recent decades a belief in individual influence over local matters has increased.
Today, 59% Poles believe that ordinary people have an influence on what is happening in their city or municipality. This is almost four times more than at the beginning of the 1990s.
However, only one third (34%) can list specific opportunities and strategies allowing residents the chance to collaborate with city or commune authorities in order to improve the situation of the local community.
Tantalising internet opportunities
On the other hand, one can point to many transformative social and civic activities. The power of the internet could be observed after the death of the Mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, when almost PLN 16 million was collected in donations.
The European Solidarity Center, which had received PLN 3 million less in fundraising than in the previous year from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, was also bolstered by internet support: the missing amount was collected in two days, with further funding transferred to the Centre’s bank account.
Even as early as 2012, protests against the ACTA agreement have shown that internet-based mobilisation cannot be disregarded.
The scale and intensity of these protests was a surprise to the government. For many observers too, it was also astonishing that there were no formal representatives for these protests. Many of the engaged young people represented different environments, with diverse social statuses and origins in a range of cities and towns – yet, despite these dissimilarities, the protests worked to unite their interests in defending the freedom of the internet.
The energising nature of this activity was certainly full of promise. Yet, although the scale demonstrates the potential of such protests, we must keep in mind that activities along similar lines are often situational, a revolt against a certain cause, and fail to transform into long-term activity.
Technology is not the only a catalyst of social change nor the only initiator of individual activity. It is not a question of technological determinism – rather, the social and civic potential of the internet is the potential of users. Tools, however, are not enough: there must be a connection between digital understanding and social or civic understanding. This alone can create the conditions for effective action.
Native users of new technologies
Technological activities also differ across generational divides. Marc Prensky notes that digital natives – people who were raised alongside the advent of new technologies and were unaware of life before the internet – have alternative uses for technology as opposed to older generations.
Of course, it is difficult to limit this progress to a single generation. Eszter Hargittai, among others, commented that demarcating technological prowess cannot be reduced to a simple age division; the place of residence or education level of parents also impacts technological skills. However, it is the internet which often first informs young people of pressing social concerns.
And it is the young who are the native speakers of new technologies. Accustomed to hypertext, they learn content in a non-linear way, preferring rapid processes, images, and sound. They expect fast results, whilst experimenting and collaborating with a multitude of projects. Social networking sites also help them to maintain a wide network of contacts, contributing to their civic standing.
However, it is not enough to abandon the existing practices within civil society and move wholeheartedly towards a technologically-driven imitation of younger generations.
As emphasized by professor Andrzej Mencwel in an interview with Piotr Górski, „no invention produces good of itself. Technology must grow ever-more inclusive and represent the ideas, topics and values which we consider important.”
Strategies of the overlooked
Are actions through the internet only “shouting through the keyboard”?
Of course, it’s easy to jeer against dispensing “likes” or changing a profile photo, but these activities also ensure the visibility of specific topics.
For example, the hashtag #czarnyprotest (the Black Protest) gained the greatest coverage among Polish-language topics in 2016; on the day of the women’s strike it was one of the world’s most popular hashtags on Twitter.
Through social media, updates regarding the Black Protest reached about 44.5 million people – an example of protests in Poland gaining notoriety across world media. Certainly, without visibility it is difficult to spark social change.
“Shouting through the keyboard” has the potential to become an effective tool for those who are often ignored in traditional media.
Cooperation of digital and analogue natives
Can technological activity also have a more considered use other activities? Or maybe it should be acknowledged that young people act outside formalised, traditional structures?
If civil society is to develop, it is necessary to burst intergenerational bubbles. Digital natives within civil society must work with those who are not native users of new technologies.
We can see two distinct trends today – the aging of society alongside a growing presence of technology in all fields. We must be aware of what is important for each party.
The activism of young people does not necessarily mean that we must accept all of their preferred strategies: some are not as effective as those deployed by previous generations. It is much more lucrative to surpass the standard either-or approach, both retaining the effective elements of traditional practices, whilst also being open to new, modern additions.
Will digital natives rebuild civil society? If yes, this society will be a markedly different place to the past and present. To be successful, it must be created by everyone, regardless of age and digital skills.
At the end of the day, civil society and technologies are shaped by us – only afterwards can we let them shape us.
This article was originally in Polish and published on Res Publica which can be read here.