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Digital Rebellion

Posted by >>>>> on November 12, 2014




Lorna Garano




Digital Rebellion coverIn Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left Todd Wolfson offers the first comprehensive history of cyber activism, and draws important lessons from its successes and failures.

Social and political movements don’t only unfold on the street anymore. Today, the left has staked it claim in cyberspace and is using online tools to democratize the media, mobilize activists, and model alternative communities. In DIGITAL REBELLION: THE BIRTH OF THE CYBER LEFT (University of Illinois Press, December 2014, paperback) Todd Wolfson reveals how “indymedia,” an alternative online media source, which was born at the landmark 1999 WTO protest in Seattle, spurred citizen journalism and became “the switchboard of struggle,” connecting people and communities across space and theme. He traces its growth from a single media center and Web site to a global network, with activists from Seoul to Sao Paulo building satellite site
s around the indymedia hub. The Cyber Left, which is contrasted to the Old and New Left, drew much of its organizing philosophy from the Zapatistas, who used media as a political tool and adopted a “horizontal” or leaderless approach to organization, in which networking was paramount and hierarchy was shunned. While some techno-evangelists were quick to hail this new media as nothing short of revolutionary, Wolfson takes a more nuanced view that celebrates the spirit and successes of the Cyber Left while taking a sober look at its failures.

Here is just some of what Wolfson has to say:

  • Open to all—in theory. The goal of the Cyber Left is to provide a medium for anyone to report on a story or express a view, but the reality is that almost all of the work required to keep the online network going is unpaid. That means, by default, in the Cyber Left as in society at large the wealthier, whiter, and more educated enjoy an advantage because they can afford to devote their time and energy to an unpaid pursuit.
  • No leaders, no problem? “Horizontalism” is a guiding principle of the Cyber Left, many of whom are leery of hierarchy and leaders because of historical abuses of power. “We’re all leaders,” is a popular slogan. While this encourages broad participation, it also makes the Cyber Left unable to develop the leadership skills required for movements to be successful. As a result, those with more social and political capital, who are more likely to come with these skills, wield more power. Horizontalism also stymies proactive decision-making and long-term strategizing.
  • Lost in (cyber) space: Losing touch with real-world communities. One of the most pressing problems that Wolfson found is that the Cyber Left is rarely able to form strong ties with community groups in the real-world and the crucial activism that can only happen offline, face-to-face is neglected. 
  • Clicking our way to freedom and justice? The Web is a powerful tool, but Wolfson cautions against the kind “technological determinism” that he sees with some in the Cyber Left. “Instead of harnessing the technology as a critical element in the material struggles of everyday life, the technology itself becomes the instrument of change,” he says.
  • Cyber Left 3.0: Building on the lessons of the last decade and half. Despite his critique, Wolfson still sees tremendous potential in the Cyber Left, and he cites examples of how the network they created helped to mobilize activists and provide a space for counter-narratives. The Cyber Left continues to evolve, and Wolfson currently works with The Media Mobilizing Project, an organization he founded to address the challenges of the Cyber Left and maximize its potential.


Todd WolfsonTodd Wolfson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. Trained as a socio-cultural anthropologist, his research focuses on the convergence of new media and social movements and he is author of numerous articles on social movements. Todd is also co-founder of the Media Mobilizing Project, which uses media and communications as a strategy for building a movement of poor and working people in Philadelphia and beyond. Todd is also on the leadership team of Progressive Philly Rising and he is sits on the board of the Taxi Workers Alliance of PA. Todd’s research and community work has been supported by the Knight Foundation, Social Science Research Council, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the Dodge Foundation amongst others.


“Combining the passion of an activist and the reasoned arguments of a scholar, Wolfson wonderfully details the emergence of the Cyber Left. In Digital Rebellion he not only celebrates its political potential but also, and more importantly, provides a lucid critique of the forms it has taken thus far.”

Michael Hardt, co-author of Declaration and Empire

“The first book to chart the intellectual and technological history of the Indymedia network and to place that history within the theoretical debate about social movement organization and politics. This is an important chapter in contemporary social movement activism and Todd Wolfson does an excellent job charting the rise of the Independent Media Center and the theoretical implications of this model for left political organizing.”

Andy Opel, author of Preempting Dissent: The Politics of an Inevitable Future

“Makes an original contribution through the depth of the empirical case studies of Cyber Left organization. . . . I cannot think of another book that puts so much of the story of the U.S. left’s experiments with the creation of an ‘electronic fabric of struggle’ within a single volume. . . . The author’s knowledge, thoughtfulness, and political passion is evident.”

Nick Dyer-Witheford, author of Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games




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