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Connected But Not Collective: Unsuccessful Digital Activism on Wikipedia (SIG-SM)

October 13, 2022
11:00 AM -  12:00 PM EDT


Wikipedia editors use talk pages to debate whether to include associations with marginalized social groups in biographic articles. These debates tend to splinter into competing groups of activists campaigning to include or exclude information about an individual’s group association. Theories of social activism suggest that activists’ positions are rooted in collective identity and enacted through collective action; however, digitalization appears to mitigate the importance of collectiveness in activism campaigns. We study the case of unsuccessful activism around the Wikipedia biography of Apple CEO Tim Cook and his speculated affiliation with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) community. Activist editors cocreating Cook’s biography campaigned to include or exclude information about his sexual orientation. Using a case study approach, we consider indicators of collective identity—language use, group affiliation, and position in the social network. Notably, activists’ rhetoric contained individualistic rather than collectivistic language. In addition, activists’ stances toward inclusion versus exclusion were unrelated to their group affiliations or positions in the social network. This research adds to growing evidence that digital platforms can supplant the role of collective identity and collective action in modern activism campaigns. Moreover, it reveals how activism by individuals who are connected but not collective can result in scattershot efforts that lack the organization to converge upon a winsome platform or strategic plan. Finally, this case illustrates that the digitalization of social activism may lead to wasted efforts and endless tug-of-war rather than sustained social change unless collectivity is achieved.


Amber Young is Director of the Information Systems PhD Program and Assistant professor of Information Systems at the Sam M. Walton College of Business, University of Arkansas. Her research focuses on how organizations can design and implement technology for social and organizational good. She is concerned also with the effects of technology on workers’ humanity and dignity. Dr. Young’s work has been published in MIS Quarterly, Journal of Management Information Systems, Journal of the AIS, Information Systems Journal, International Journal of Information Management, Information & Organization, Communications of the Association for Information Systems, and London School of Economics Business Review. She is on the editorial board of Information & Organization and will join as Associate Editor of MIS Quarterly in summer 2023.