Cayden Mak – Building Online Power
The Anarchist Library
Title: Building Online Power
Date: April 19, 2022
Notes: This essay appears in the current “Power” issue of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory (N.32) and is available from the Institute for Anarchist Studies here! AK Press here! and Powell’s Books here!
Source: Retrieved on 2022-05-16 from anarchiststudies.org/onlinepower
Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, likes to claim that his company’s goal is to bring all the world’s people closer together through networking. That’s a truly astounding fiction, as Facebook – and effectively all of the firms dominating the internet today – are motivated to capture all of human experience as “behavior” from which they can extract value in order to sell more advertising.
But what if the internet wasn’t just a medium for extracting the raw materials of this new means of production? What if we treated the internet seriously as a place – a location where people spend their work and leisure time, not just in transit, but in community? There is more than one way to do politics and build a community on the internet, and in spite of the current dominance of surveillance capitalism as the model for governing the web, it is not the logical conclusion of the technology itself. Rather, it’s the consequence of social, political, economic, and legal processes, as Shoshana Zuboff argues in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.1
The internet as we experience it is a designed system that is itself the result of systems of power that are much older, and perhaps less visible, than it is. Therefore, it is possible – and necessary – to contest for power online. However, our existing models for online organizing are heavily focused on mass mobilization, utilizing the web as a communications medium connecting interested individuals to organizations and one another.
At 18 Million Rising, we’ve been at the forefront of trying to figure out how to move away from the mass mobilization/communications model of online organizing and toward models that foreground humans and, hopefully, help foster a different kind of internet. Founded as an organization specializing in mass mobilization through email and petitions, we’ve evolved to include a variety of other tactics while keeping those tools in our toolbox for strategic moments. We primarily organize young Asian Americans, a group of people more heavily online than any other race/age demographic, and for whom belonging may be particularly elusive. Our generation, often stuck between the home cultures of our parents and their homelands and the popular and political culture of the United States, frequently struggles to find belonging offline.
To make matters more complex, the term “Asian American,” in the popular imagination, spans a universe of stereotypes that young Asian Americans often feel at war with. The origins of the term, of course, are in the Third World Liberation Front, when Asian American organizers were on the hunt for a descriptor that felt new, fresh, and relevant to the political work they were undertaking. Since the 70s, the term has been defanged and turned into an almost meaninglessly general census category. Also since the 70s, who might count as Asian Americans has been shaped by U.S. imperialism, immigration policy, and globalization, making potential members more diverse, and dividable, than ever before.
18MR’s work is particularly urgent because of the ways the social and economic pressures placed on our generation are separating them from other communities. We’re more likely to have moved to cities away from our families of origin for work. We’re often burdened with heavy debt, while at the same time serving as the young professional or creative vanguard of gentrification in cities across the continent. We’ve watched our civil liberties be eroded by the expanding national security apparatus after 9/11. While young Asian Americans trend leftward, it’s by no means a given that we will be full-throated participants in social movements. And there is an expanding counterweight: the rise of right-wing movements both in our nations of origin and in the United States point to the growing possibility many of our people will be recruited away.
We found, starting very early on, that the people we were most trying to reach were tech savvy and highly skeptical. They were critical and thoughtful, often seeing through the somewhat manipulative clickbait tactics popular at the time, and which still reign in certain digital programs. They were asking earnest questions about what it means to be Asian American – and demonstrated time and time again that they wanted a political home that could host difficult conversations about our role in movements for racial, economic, gender, and environmental justice. We upped our game because we saw those early indicators, and it means our work continues to be robust, relevant, and incisive nearly eight years on.
These five questions – which I return to on a weekly basis to inform our strategy and tactics – are necessary but not sufficient for the task of treating the internet as a true place. I hope you’ll find them useful in your organizing.
What principles guide our work online?
Developing a set of shared principles may seem straightforward, but it’s critical. There are some tensions that are worth articulating here that we’ve encountered in developing our own operating principles. While they certainly aren’t unique to the internet, the way that people use the internet often amplifies these tensions in our day-to-day work.