Beyond the Digital-The Digital Tipping Point

First posted here

Is Web 2.0 really the only reason why youth digital activism is so successful in mobilizing public engagement? A look into the transformation of Blank Noise’s blog from a one-way communication medium into a site of public dialogue and collaboration reveals the crucial factors behind the success.

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What images popped in your head when you hear the term ‘digital activism’? Those that popped in mine are of campaigns that originated in the Internet, perhaps with a blog, a Youtube video, or a Facebook group, mobilizing people to take part in a certain action to advocate for a cause or to respond to a specific event. Whether the request is to sign a petition for a new legislation or to wear a specific colour on a specific day, the campaigns also ask people to spread the message, usually responded by re-tweets, status updates, and link-shares that appear on my timeline. These campaigns, like the famous Wear Red for Burma or the Pink Chaddi, are usually responses to certain events and dwindle after the events have passed.

With its four blogs, two Facebook groups, a YouTube channel, and a Twitter account, at first glance Blank Noise certainly resembles the images in my head. However, they popped one by one as I got to know Blank Noise better. For one, as I have shared before, Blank Noise was not a response to a specific event but rather the long term, ongoing, structural problem of street sexual harassment. For another, street interventions started as the main core of Blank Noise and have remained a crucial element despite its prolific online presence. Blank Noise did not start in the Internet nor did it immediately turn to Web 2.0 for its mobilization.

The main blog was created soon after Blank Noise started in 2003 to serve as an archive, information center, and space to announce future street events. The diverse online campaigns, lively discussions in the comment section of blog posts, and abundant blog post contributions by people who have experienced, witnessed, or committed street sexual harassment started after two unexpected events that I call ‘the digital tipping point’.

The first was when Jasmeen Patheja, the founder of Blank Noise, started uploading pictures of her harasser, taken with her mobile phone, to the blog in March 2005. The first picture was of a man who had stalked and pestered her for coffee despite her rejection to his unwelcomed advances. While some readers applauded her action, many challenged the post. How is the action different from “Can I buy you a drink?” Can it trigger the change wanted, especially since the guy might not even have access to the Internet? Is the action of publicly labeling the man as a perpetrator of street sexual harassment ethical, especially since the man has not been proven guilty?

These challenges then spiraled into a long discussion (72 comments!) about the grey areas of street sexual harassment and the ethics around confronting perpetrators. Although Blank Noise still continue to upload snapshots of harassers (this intervention is called ‘Unwanted’), their pictures have since then been blurred until the face is unrecognizable, including the one in the original post. This event was when Jasmeen realized that the blog also has the potential of being a space for discussions, opinions, and debates – the public conversation that Blank Noise aims for.

The second tipping point was when one of Blank Noise volunteers proposed an idea of a blogathon to commemorate the International Women’s Day in 2006. Blogging had become a major trend in India around 2004 and the blogathon basically asked bloggers around India to write about their experience with street sexual harassment in their private blogs and link the post to the Blank Noise blog. The bloggers invited were both women and men, people who have either experienced, witnessed, or committed street sexual harassment. The blogathon was an immense success, perhaps due to the frustration on the silence and downplay of street sexual harassment into eve teasing. Suddenly, eve teasing became a booming topic on the web and Blank Noise received media and (mostly the cyber) public attention.

This is when the idea of online interventions started. In the following year, Blank Noise created the first of its blogs that consist entirely of contributions from the public: the Action Heroes blog, a growing compilation of women’s experiences in dealing with street sexual harassment. It is then followed by Blank Noise Guys and Blank Noise Spectators, which respectively concentrates on the experiences of men and people who have witnessed street sexual harassment. Other than the community blogs, the main blog also introduced collaborative online campaigns in 2008, such as the ‘Museum of Street Weapons’ (a poster project that explores how women uses everyday objects to defend themselves against street sexual harassment) and ‘Blank Noise This Place’ (a photo collection of places where street sexual harassment occurs). These interventions were not only online; they were also collaborative and invited the public to participate.

These tipping points are intriguing not only for being the triggers to Blank Noise’s transformation to one of the most important digital activism in India (Mishra, 2010), but also for the reason why they are successful in doing so: they are able to attract public participation.

The first tipping point was able to attract people to participate by commenting on a post. The said post was very simple; it consists of a picture and a one-paragraph text that depicts a conversation between the harasser and the woman:

“stalker no. 1: " Excuse me, have we met before?" machlee: no Stalker no. 1: Yes we have! On commercial street! I work in a call centre. I am a science graduate." machlee: why are you telling me all this? stalker no. 1: can I have coffee with you? machlee: can i photograph you? stalker no. 1: yes! sure you can! stalker no.1: blah blah blah” (Patheja, 2005)

Having been used to NGO pamphlets and blog posts, I have come to equate discussion on sexual harassment as a very serious discussion with long text and formal language. This post is so different from what I was used to, but it was clear to me that even though the language was casual, the issue and intention were serious. The casual presentation spoke to me “we would like to share our thoughts and activities with you” rather than “we are an established organization and this is what we do”. It is not the space of professionals, but passionate people. As a blogger myself, I recognize the space as being one of my peer’s and immediately felt more attracted and comfortable to jump into the conversation.

The second tipping point attracted the more active, substantial participation than commenting; many people actually created texts, photos, or posters for Blank Noise. It was possible because Blank Noise opened itself. Jasmeen opened up to an idea of a volunteer, who opened up to the possibilities offered by the cybersphere. Instead of depending on a core team to conduct an intervention, Blank Noise opened up to a project that entirely depended on the public’s response to be successful. Moreover, Blank Noise opened up to diverse points of views and many types of experiences with street sexual harassment.

It is widely acknowledged that the success of a digital activism lies on its ability to attract public collaboration; however, the digital tipping points of Blank Noise underline several important factors behind the ability. Attracting public engagement is not always a result of a meticulous pre-planned intervention. On the contrary, it might spawn from unintentional events that welcome diverse points of view, adopt a peer-to-peer attitude, invite contributions, and most importantly, touched an issue that is very important for many different people. Web 2.0 is an enabling tool and site for dialogue, but it is certainly not the only reason behind the success of digital activism in galvanizing youth’s engagement.

This is the fifth post in the Beyond the Digital series, a research project that aims to explore new insights to understand youth digital activism conducted by Maesy Angelina with Blank Noise under the Hivos-CIS Digital Natives Knowledge Programme.

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