Resisting the Robust: the Internet Defense League and the Potential of Networked Kairos
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
In July of 2012, the silhouette of a cat laughing was projected onto buildings in New York City, San Fransisco, and Ulan Bator, Mongolia (Collier). The signal’s creators hoped that the symbol would come to function like the “bat signal” does for DC Comics’ Batman superhero—an urgent and public call to action. The effort celebrated the beginning of a loose organization of Internet activists known as the “Internet Defense League” (IDL), whose stated mission was to “[m]ake sure that the Internet never loses. Ever” (“Internet Defense League”). Their ambitious goal was inspired in part as a response to the recently defeated U.S. House and Senate anti-piracy bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and Prevent Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PROTECT IP or PIPA). In order to defeat the bills, many of the web’s biggest sites, including Wikipedia, Reddit, Tumblr, and Google, banded together to fight what they saw as burdensome and creativity-stifling regulation. Early last year each of the participating websites “went dark” on the same day, restricting access to their homepages and encouraging their visitors instead to join them in expressing disagreement with objectives of SOPA and PIPA (Madrigal). After an overwhelming response, elected officials in both chambers of Congress chose to drop the bills entirely, giving the loose coalition, what some colloquially (and somewhat imprecisely) referred to as “the Internet,” its first big legislative victory.
The protests against SOPA and PIPA demonstrate one model of activism: activists saw a problem, mobilized opposition, and carried out a protest. In this case, the activists acted quickly to seize a moment, beginning their campaign after the bills were created. There is another model of activism, however, that relies on proactively (and often preemptively) building networks rather than waiting for the opportune moment to arise. This model is possible offline, but as I will describe below, the networking capabilities of digital media empower activists to create potent networks long before a need arises. In this sense, I will argue that digital tools are able to facilitate a more proactive model of activism that prepares activists to both respond to problems and initiate interventions in a quicker time frame than was possible without these digital tools. I will discuss the differences between these two models of activism through the lens of kairos, the classical Greek term referring to one’s capacity to recognize and respond to a specific event in time. I will put forth the idea of “networked kairos” and suggest that this framework reveals social benefits of online activism. I will then explore the extent to which this networked kairos explains the aforementioned IDL’s ability to overcome obstacles previously considered major hurdles for activist groups.
The distinctions between the timely activism of the SOPA/PIPA protests and the preemptive actions of the IDL become clearer when looked at in light of their kairotic elements. The former activist interventions can be related to a general understanding of kairos that centers on timeliness. For instance, arguments made too early or too late are generally brushed aside and seen as irrelevant. The kairotic window opens and promptly disappears. This time-sensitivity has made kairos the object of rhetorical study for centuries (see Jasinski 149). The difficulty of finding the kairotic moment is compounded by its unforgiving nature. If we are not watchful we will miss our opportunity for maximum rhetorical effect. And that opportunity can never return.
Understood in terms of networked kairos, the IDL’s activism illustrates how the traditional understanding of kairos does not fully account for the digital age and must be expanded. I propose a shift from kairos as a reactionary rhetorical response to an actionary and activist one. Digital media magnify the possibilities for creating events and proactively influencing them from their very inception, rather than waiting to intervene once events become a crisis. While Lloyd Bitzer and others argue rhetoric only responds to external exigencies, Richard Vatz suggests that exigencies are brought into existence via rhetoric. Both of these perspectives assume, I contend, a cause that precedes its own effects. In building my argument I adopt Jenny Rice’s model of “distributed emergence,” in which exigence and rhetoric emerge together in a mutually formative and origin-less field. In this sense, rhetoric neither comes first nor second, but emerges with the events it hopes to influence. The Internet provides many examples of this distributed emergence as Internet users build online networks. Whether it is a network of likeminded blogs, a social network on Facebook, a collection of Twitter commenters, or a narrowly focused web forum, these groups coalesce online. When something meaningful happens that requires action, the groundwork has already been laid for rhetorical action from the outset, shaping events as they unfold. This groundwork is based on the concept of “phatic communication,” popularized by linguist Roman Jakobson in the 1960s. Similarly, sociologists refer to the phenomenon of “ambient awareness,” or the type of communication that exists to perform social roles and solidify relationships rather than to transmit information (Kaplan and Haenlein). Online phatic updates about lunch, children, pets, or other seemingly banal events build relationships across the network so that when information needs to be transmitted the necessary connections are already in place.
For instance, late last year a New Jersey teen tweeted a request for help just before going missing: “There is somone in my hour ecall 911” (Staff). Her spelling errors notwithstanding, within eighteen hours her account had over 100,000 followers, and her friends and newfound followers had set up a hashtag (#helpfindkara) in order to help find her (Staff). Kara was quickly located and returned home safely, after a tweet—to her previously small network of friends interested in her ineffectual everyday musings—sparked a citywide search operation that was ultimately effective. Similarly, two years ago on Christmas Eve, a Utah woman posted the following to her Facebook profile: “Hello, Is anyone out there? I am having a serious problem and me and [my son] will be dead by morning” (Hollenhorst). One of her Facebook friends reported her surprise: “With Facebook you usually get on and gossip, and [see] stupid little cartoons and this and that . . . But this was something serious” (Hollenhorst). Dozens of Facebook comments poured in, friends tried in vain to contact the victim. Within a few hours, a friend living more than two thousand miles away in South Carolina provided the victim’s home address, and a Utah firefighter was ultimately able to call the police with the information. Authorities visited the house and booked an abusive live-in boyfriend and rescued the victim along with her young child (Hollenhorst). In each of these situations, social networks—normally thought of as useful only for things like gossip and “stupid little cartoons”—became instruments for cooperation and focused social action.
As can be seen by these examples, online phatic communication establishes networked kairos that is based on relationships and represents the possibility of timely and substantive action. The individuals and activists who build digital networks with phatic communication create their own decorum, timeliness, and context as they go, adding to them with each seemingly insignificant meme or inside joke. No longer is it necessary for the kairotic stars to align in order for a topic to be salient enough for people to care: the network values what its members value because they are part of the network. This variation of kairos exposes the real power of digital activism: as ideas are composed and recomposed within these networks, new webs of relationships are woven. Whenever something is caught in that web—a pressing current event, a cry for help, an invitation to join a protest—the whole group feels it and is prepared to participate.
This activist view of kairos does not supplant the classical understanding of the term. It is possible online—as well as offline—for individuals and groups to form networks for kairotic interventions rather than solely relying on capturing a kairotic moment. The IDL has tapped into this networked kairos in such a way that it is able to overcome some of the biggest pitfalls of activist causes. In the next section, I will introduce a theoretical model for understanding the practical implications of this networked kairos.
Founded in 2012, the IDL is building a network of activists.
Nassim Taleb, a philosophy professor at Oxford, proposes the idea of what he calls “antifragile” systems as a way to rethink the capabilities and potential of societal systems in general. The idea is that while fragile systems break upon encountering “stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil,” robust systems attempt to resist such opposition in order to stay the same. Antifragile systems, on the other hand, embrace opposition and draw strength through their interaction with those opposing forces. Taleb refers to this opposition as “harm,” arguing “the fragile is the package that would be at best unharmed, the robust would be at best and at worst unharmed. And the opposite of fragile is therefore what is at worst unharmed” (31). While robust systems are able to withstand opposition they are also unable to benefit from it. In other words, avoiding harm, failure, and uncertainty can be significantly detrimental. On the other hand, antifragile systems welcome the stress that comes from oppositional confrontations. As Taleb demonstrates with examples in finance, government, dieting, medicine, and even punditry, this counterintuitive proposition can be applied to a wide variety of fields.
Taleb’s argument about the value of the antifragile can be related to activism in general—many activist causes utilize, often to their disappointment, fragile means. These efforts fail to hold the attention of their supporters and generally are unable to turn that attention into meaningful commitments. Without these key developments their efforts flounder. Some causes are able to attract committed participants but are ultimately unable to translate this support into actual change. Examples of this type of activism are difficult to come by because, by their very nature, they never really make a mark on public discourse.
Other causes see the danger of their own fragility and turn instead to robust forms of operation. Robust activists are skilled at keeping the attention of their participants and frequently succeed in their goals. Historically, labor unions have served as excellent examples (see Hirst and Delgado). Unions in certain states have even benefited from mandatory membership, guaranteeing them participants and negotiating power. Additionally, union hierarchies work to ensure enough funding to keep the public focused on issues relevant to their members’ interests (see Peters). Their lobbyists work to keep their causes at the forefront of legislators’ minds such that, in the past, their endeavors saw a great deal of success (see “Laborers Union”). But the downside of robust systems such as this, according to Taleb, is their inability to cope with change or learn from failure. As a result, these robust systems risk losing relevance when confronted with any substantial change. Faced with increasing mechanization, changes in political preference, and a decline in desire to participate in civic organizations, labor unions have seen a steep decline in their effectiveness over the past four decades (see Goldfield; Putnam). Labor unions’ inability to embrace failure has been a large contributor to their succumbing to that failure, as evidenced by decreasing membership rates, increasing legislative failures, and crippling inability to adapt to modern American economic realities.
If fragile activism is immediately destroyed by failure, and robust activism is unable to embrace it, antifragile activism is able to endure and succeed because of failure. There are many ways for an activist cause to fail, but in the next section I will expand upon the three key areas already alluded to: distraction, uncommitted participants, and lack of results. Drawing on the IDL as a case study, I will then explore how antifragile activism is able to confront each of these common failures and embrace them, becoming stronger in the process.
The Internet Defense League
If critics are to be believed, the Internet is the ultimate tool of distraction, with hyperlinks and pictures of cute kittens inevitably tempting our attention away from informative journalism and deep thinking (Carr The Shallows and “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”; Morozov The Net Delusion and “Brave New World Of Slacktivism”). Individuals are bombarded by digital requests, invitations, and various demands to the point where they are unlikely to do much more than “click” to demonstrate their support. If critics are correct, this “slacktivism” lacks the power to bring about the kind of change most activists hope for. Malcolm Gladwell famously argues that digital tools have little effect compared to sit-ins, protests, or strikes. Regardless of the degree to which we agree with everything said by Gladwell, Carr, and Morozov, it is worth seriously questioning the role digital activism can play in achieving social change.
While the SOPA/PIPA protests were primarily driven by urgency, the IDL is oriented more toward building relationships. The IDL is set up to build a coalition of sympathetic organizations, websites, and interested individuals. Once in place, the IDL identifies impending threats—usually legislative, but in theory, corporations or private parties could qualify as well—then alerts the various groups and helps administer direct action. According to Alexis Ohanian, IDL steering committee member, this model provides exceptional strength due to its adaptability:
At a moment of notice, this kind of digital bat signal will go up in the air and you’ll get notified and have the opportunity to take action however you see fit on your site . . . It could be a slew of buttons that give links to whatever we’re doing, a call to action to sign a petition, or a couple of lines of code that you put on your site that allows someone to call their senator. It will be up to the web owner to decide . . . We’re trying to encourage as much from the bottom up, because that’s how the Internet works. (Zetter)
In the event of a threat, members of the IDL are encouraged to make phone calls, send tweets, write letters, post alerts on their websites, or take various other protest actions. As the IDL’s network gains more bloggers, website moderators, and content curators each bring along their own communities of friends, readers, and supporters to expand the network’s reach. The IDL hopes to serve as a call to arms for “all the people who are creating something online,” Ohanian told reporter Jon Brodkin, because “[t]hey all have a community they want to keep strong” (Brodkin). In order to rally all these different groups, the IDL works to build a network of networks, a coalition of communities held together by phatic communication and a shared interest in protecting their respective corners of the Internet.
The digital tools and methods the IDL uses to distribute their message are unique and tap into communities in ways that would have previously been highly cost prohibitive, if not logistically impossible. While networked kairos is not unique to the digital age, these technologies magnify its potential. What makes the IDL such an interesting case study of digital activism is not just the tools and the medium in which it is carried out, but its embrace of an antifragile model focused more on building a network than seizing a moment. This model embraces the very failures that cripple so many other activist efforts. I will explore how the combination of digital tools and networked kairos provides activists with means to embrace the failures of distraction, lack of commitment, and lack of immediate results.
One of the most enduring and persuasive critiques of the Internet has been how overrun it is by the banal. Pornography, grammatical errors, pictures of puppies, and bad arguments are so widely accepted as fundamental to the Internet, and even regarded as the rule rather than the exception, that they are codified in its (only partially tongue-in-cheek) “laws” and “rules” (13375p33k; Chivers). Scholars and health experts are increasingly worried about the dangers of this distraction, often focusing their concern on digital multitasking’s effects on our social skills, political knowledge, family life, and brain capacity (Ritchel; Connelly; Sunstein; Pariser; Parker-Pope). Even an anecdotal trip to a favorite web page can justify this worry—sidebars cluttered with flashy advertisements, social networks full of acquaintances announcing what they had for lunch, message boards overflowing with links to inside jokes and provocative images unsafe for work. This level of distraction would have been bad enough in a pre-digital age with less competition for attention, but in our time of information overload, attention itself becomes our most valuable asset (Lanham 6, 223). If the monopolies of the attention economy dominate our attention to the extent that we cannot discover meaningful information, then activist causes will be unable to convince us to even hear them out. We will be too busy dancing Gangnam Style to pay them any attention.
One of the unique (and counterintuitive) elements of the Internet is that distractions can actually end up serving a substantive role in digital activism. The seemingly meaningless bits of communication so many scholars and critics rightfully worry about are in fact examples of phatic communication. These insignificant rhetorical acts add up over time to create a web of relationships, and meaningful digital connections are often forged through a simulation of this very method (Manovich 185). If attention monopolies dominate through heavy-handed advertising or shameless tactics, the more meaningful players of the Internet earn our attention through personal relationships even if our interactions with them are often phatic in nature.
In addition, it is worth considering whether the web’s distractions are actually a marker, and perhaps even guarantor, of its own openness and accessibility. Web researcher Ethan Zuckerman argues that the very tools that make it possible to share frivolous pictures of cats are the same ones that enable meaningful digital protest:
It’s important that these tools are generally used for banal purposes. If Internet entrepreneurs created “Protestr” as a web 2.0 tool for activists, no repressive government would leave it unblocked. But blocking a tool that is mostly used for amusement or communication between friends has consequences – the users looking for cute cat videos get annoyed that YouTube is blocked … and learn about their government’s willingness to constrain speech. This cost doesn’t mean that governments won’t choose to block these tools, but it makes the calculus more complicated. (Zuckerman)
Ironically, the videos and memes that show up on Tumblr, Reddit, Twitter, and weblogs are the very things that make those tools effective vehicles for protests like the IDL’s of the last two years. When the IDL needed to mobilize, it distributed code for banners and buttons to participating owners and moderators across the web, distracting regular visitors by presenting them with compelling calls to action. In this sense, the website owners and website visitors can become participants in the digital activism—the former alerting the latter, in the spirit of Paul Revere’s ride, so that all might engage in the protest.
While distraction from substantive issues is, by definition, a failure for most causes, in a truly antifragile manner the IDL embraces distraction in order to enable the phatic creation of activist networks. Rather than giving up as a fragile system would or uncompromisingly moving to monopolize attention as in the case of a robust system, the IDL puts forth a model of digital activism that embraces the failure and thereby becomes all the more powerful and effective in increasingly competitive economies of attention.
Attracting and developing fully committed participants is almost always one of the biggest hurdles for activist projects to overcome. Gladwell argues that most online activism does not clear this hurdle: “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.” In other words, if activists are not ready to engage substantively, and willing to sacrifice, there is no reason to believe their goals will be met. Digital activism is seen as fostering a level of engagement more likely to result in meaningless mouse movements than substantive real-world action. Morozov refers to this as “slacktivism” and argues no matter how heightened digital activist efforts become, they will never match the fervor of a civil rights march or a picket line and likewise never have the same direct effects (“Brave New World Of Slacktivism”). Further, many worry that the pseudo-engagement rampant in digital media will ultimately serve as a release valve for feelings of solidarity that once drove people to protest in the streets (Gladwell). Rather than actually doing something, digital “clictivists” will instead move a mouse and fill in a text box and feel like they have done their part (White).
This lack of substantive commitment would stop fragile activist causes completely and serve to slow and severely hamper robust activism as well. Many activist strategies attempt to address the dangers posed by a lack of engagement. For example, newsletters, picket lines, town meetings, witty slogans, high-priced advertising, marches, sit-ins, and occupations all serve not only to get the message out, but also to build a sense of investment and solidarity in the participants. As soon as an individual actually stands shoulder-to-shoulder with comrades and compatriots, their personal dedication to the cause is all but ensured. Because online activism is entirely confined to the digital realm, it can easily seem hopeless. 
Slacktivism, if we are going to call it that, would likely lead to failure if found in robust or fragile activist systems. Antifragile activism, on the other hand, seems able to embrace failure and become stronger because of it. The IDL is a great example of this to the extent that it embraces uncommitted slactivism. The IDL’s initial call to action only asked supporters to type in the address of a website, provide an email address, and then indicate their country of residence (“Internet Defense League”). Their second call to action was not any more impressive. When the organization identified a serious threat, members were asked to copy and paste code onto their website. Participants were then given a few different choices for how to incorporate this code. The code allowed them to either feature a banner or pop-up window or to use the general code that, in their own words, turned “itself off after the campaign, and activate[d] automatically for the next one” (“Join our Campaigns”). For the IDL, participating is literally as simple as cutting and pasting. Their action page prompts participants to “tell the world that you are a member of the league” by placing one of six badges on their own websites, blogs, or profiles (“Join our Campaigns”). These badges help track participation, but also serve as a sort of digital bumper stickers to help get the word out about the IDL’s mission. Certainly it is hard to see how any cause could be successful with this level of (un)commitment.
However, the IDL’s antifragile model is unique in that it embraces this slactivism, leveraging it to create powerful networks of supporters. The more people join the IDL and copy and paste code to their own websites, the more potential this slacktivism has to translate into direct contact with legislators (e.g., phone calls, letters/emails to legislators, etc). For example, when the IDL activated their cat signal in April 2013 to protest a cyber-security bill known as CISPA, over thirty thousand websites joined in to voice opposition (“Press Release: Internet Defense League Raises Cat Signal”; Fitzpatrick “Reddit”). Due in large part to this massive participation, the IDL also gathered 300,000 signatures to their online petition opposing CISPA (Fitzpatrick “Internet Activists Deliver”).
A traditional organization built around the robust model might hesitate to see these acts as significant. For them, if an activist is not out in the streets or donating money, they are not fully committed. Even with the success of the IDL’s antifragile activism , there is no guarantee higher levels of engagement will achieve their desired effect. And, in many cases, even progressing toward the desired end is not enough to maintain a movement.
Lack of Immediate Results
Even after identifying people who agree with their goals and express interest in participating, activist organizations struggle to maintain people’s interest and attention. Supporters’ attention can begin to wane if they believe the cause to be hopeless, or that it has succeeded, even if neither is fully accurate. Perhaps we could better characterize this kind of failure as getting results, but not the ones aimed for. Valocchi, for example, categorizes activist aims as either “cultural” or “political” (164). In the former, goals include consciousness-raising, attitude change, and identity change (68), while the latter entails changes in legislation or official practice (62). Activists often have multiple goals fitting into one or the other of the categories, and sometimes overlapping both. One of the central questions for any activist campaign revolves around how to deal with activists’ high expectations. Valocchi summarizes the dilemma this way: “do we accept management’s ‘last and final offer’ even though it is not all we wanted and risk alienating the more radical [participants] or do we accept the offer, define it as success, and risk cooptation?” (1). If a lesser result is accepted as “success,” participants can easily feel that their work is finished and then disengage before achieving the real goal. If this less-than-ideal offer is accepted, participants often get disillusioned and move on to find more promising causes (or more funny YouTube videos). Powerbrokers are generally aware of this cycle and often use it to co-opt causes by diluting their demands by including them in strategically-worded bills that seem to do what the activists want but really only provide surface-level and temporary solutions. Fragile activist models most often buckle under this weight while robust ones battle against it, diversifying their demands, perpetually pushing for more, or even, like the Occupy Wall Street movement, avoiding making demands altogether. Digital tools enable digital activists to embrace the all but inevitable failure that follows a “resolution” of an issue and use that failure to grow stronger still. The IDL, for its part, is dedicated to the principle of defending the Internet, rather than, say, the passage (or defeat) of specific legislation. Supporters lie dormant until needs are identified, at which point they engage in support (or opposition), then, upon completion, fade back into the woodwork.
The IDL’s type of activism calls to mind flash mobs, where large crowds carry out public spectacles, often posting footage on YouTube or other video websites. Bill Wasik, the critic who coined the term, describes flash mobs as being organic, well planned, and narrowly-targeted. He describes the flash riots of London as an offshoot of the flash mob, where riots deliberately coalesce for a specific purpose, disband, and then come back together when other actions are deemed necessary (Wasik). This combination of careful organization and fluid spontaneity might be the flash riot’s defining characteristic: carefully choreographed spectacles organized via communication technologies. The moment the “riot” begins, the choreographed spectacle evolves into something unpredictable. Participants strike, disband, communicate about the next target, and then begin the cycle again.
Another distinguishing feature of Wasik’s flash riots is the ability to regroup quickly. Digital communication technologies empower activists in online communities to coalesce and maintain a loose connection based on phatic memes or simple email lists. When opportunity arises, these activists turn to their already-existing networks for support and then fade away once their work is completed. Just as Wasik’s flash riots were able to regroup when new actions were deemed necessary, digital activist communities like the IDL are empowered to do precisely the same through the use of their own digital tools.
While most activist efforts measure success by the number of victories, for antifragile digital activism the network itself is the success. The IDL’s network includes many of the Internet’s most prominent websites, such as Mozilla, Wordpress, CraigConnects, Reddit, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, imgur, and nearly thirty thousand other organizations and individuals (“Members”). The IDL’s well-placed interventions stir up media coverage and create the possibility of vastly expanding the group’s membership. As the network solidifies, so does their potential to create change. Since the IDL’s antifragile model focuses on constructing a network of supporters, it has a much better chance of challenging their devoted and moneyed opponents. Thus the IDL’s networked kairos strengthens their potential to act even before events have taken place.
The digital tools used by the IDL are a central part in their network-building operation. While membership lists have long been a part of activism, the IDL has built a network by utilizing a wide variety of distribution platforms. Tumblr blogs, Reddit profiles, Twitter streams, and weblogs are all immediately included, creating the potential for any participant’s action to be magnified and spread virally online. This potential rests on participating in the creation of a kairotic situation rather than simply waiting for one to arrive. Once the network is established the activists are much better equipped to create interventions, or respond to threats, thereby creating their own kairos by means of their digitally-mediated relationships.
Building on Taleb’s idea of antifragility, the IDL and their dedication to network building serve as an example of what I have described as antifragile activism. This type of activist network benefits from the failure and disorder that regularly cripple more traditional activist organizations. For the IDL, meaningless distractions enable substantive engagements and slacktivism engages the unengaged. The network itself then serves as barometer of success regardless of acceptance or rejection by outside forces.
While the SOPA/PIPA protests demonstrated the influence of a loose coalition of Internet users who were dedicated to defending the Internet, the IDL has transformed this coalition into a force with the potential to both create opportune moments and respond to them. Key to the IDL’s model is what I call networked kairos. Rather than simply waiting for something to occur and then scrambling to organize a response, these activists proactively build a network so they can be ready before anything takes place. Another distinct advantage of this kairotic networking is that organizations utilizing this model can be mobilized for positive support rather than just negative opposition.
The implications of this type of people-driven activist power extend past defending the Internet. Indeed, the fact that this antifragile activism can appear as quickly as it disappears means that its potential to reconstitute itself in response to various issues or exigencies is never entirely gone. As Wasik says, “a crowd that’s always connected can never really be dispersed. It’s always still out there” (Wasik). The IDL model represents a possibility that “we the people” might eventually have our own digital lobbying arm to pressure politicians without needing the support of high-powered lobbyists or big-spending donors. And since this antifragile process relies only on digital connections built upon free social networks, the up-front financial costs are low. This, in turn, increases the potential for effective political activism that empowers the people to build enduring networks for countering the ever-changing variety of efforts backed by the money and influence of the well-connected.
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Jeff Swift is a doctoral candidate in NC State's Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media program. He teaches classes in argumentation, persuasive writing, and digital satire, and his research (and practice) focuses on digital activism and online deliberation.