The changing landscape of organizing and learning online

The following is an excerpt of work that we did for Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) for their membership strategy. Helpful to think about how to reclaim online space for critical learning and organizing.


Increasingly, organizing is finding creative tactics online to reinforce face to face mobilisation. Power and gender dynamics, of course, exist in these spaces too so it is important to enter these critically. Feminist and critical writers help others to navigate these spaces with intention. Aristea Fotopolou (2016, p. 360) talks about the importance of online feminist space “embodying activist practice” as important for both challenging current power structures and negotiating our identities within and across communities. She urges us not to fall into the trap of replicating the fast-based business cultures online. Digital spaces and social media platforms are not the only spaces where we dialogue and learn. It is where we represent ourselves, belong, labour, build and negotiate within and across communities. She reminds us what it means to enact feminist and queer activism in an accelerated digital age when culture, economy and politics are so intertwined and there is such a diversity of feminisms. 

How to navigate these tensions, spaces and communities while understanding that people learning, organize and network differently now because of these spaces? Movement organizations such as Mama Cash, Movement Strategy Center, Move to end Vioelnce, Greenpeace have adapted their way of interacting with members to take into account the fluidity with which we now move. This is not to dilhute campaign messages or learning but to acknowledge that online spaces between convenings tend to be most impactful as microlearnings that are provocative, inspiring and relevant yet minimal. Strong movements and alliances account for the fact that their members are fluidly moving across many communities, in and out, deep and skimming, depending on relevance and urgency. We are often, by default, part of many communities with lots of flexibility in how to engage. 

It is also increasingly possible to trace and make sense of online organizing in order to improve and deepen organizing opportunities within these spaces. Some movements have explored how they negotiate and frame campaign issues including how online spaces helps to frame shifts in thinking and narratives (McAdam et al, 2004). Hollaback! an online platform to crowd-source stories of harassment and gender-based violence uses this space to help shape gender narratives, campaign strategies and for women to feel less alone in their struggles. Similar online spaces in the Nordic context share gender-based insults and harassment using ”shamelessness as a feminist tactic of resitance.(Sundéna & Paasonen, 2018). HarrasMap in Egypt has found intersectional differences in perspectives and also found that anonymity helped uncover more severe forms of sexual harassment. 

Feminist activism that takes place in face to face ways will always be used to advance movement and cross-movement agendas. It is critical that offline organizing and cross-movement building is harmonized and each type of space leveraged for what it can do. Josephson et al. (2017) describe the powerful role that face to face activism has in mobilizing protests and calling attention to injustice. Newsom and Lengel (2012) found the ‘Arab Spring’ a joint operation of online awareness-raising and offline action. Both are, of course, critical. While women were integral to the face-to-face organizing of the uprising they have not really been recognized as part of the mass movement. 

For a global cross-movement organization like AWID, it is helpful to consider how issues and voices of different feminist movements, both global and local, are harmonized. Contemporary feminist movements have shifted to a more diverse cross-movement that integrates international standards and ideologies while establishing local precedence. Newsom and Lengel (2012) found that online helps women and trans people bring their different backgrounds and locales to their movements as well as be part of broader organizing. How AWID balances emphasis on their own strategic priorities versus amplifying the diversity of issues and campaigns arising from movement partners is a critical consideration for cross movement-building and co-creation.