Contextualizing technology use

Contextualizing technology use: Communication practices in a local homeless movement

Amoshaun Toft, University of Washington Bothell

This paper presents a contextualized analysis of the ways that organizers did and did not use Internet enabled communication technologies in an organizing context in which material inequality was a prominent focus: a local homeless movement. Few studies on ICTs and social movements have taken seriously the very real material inequalities that structure technology use. While all movements include participants that either do not have access to ICTs, or choose not to use them based on organizing contexts, these participants have been systematically excluded from analysis in the rush to understand how a narrow technological elite think, feel, and act in relation to ICTs. I draw on a communication oriented participant observation of three overlapping campaigns to examine the communication practices employed by both housed and unhoused organizers: a campaign to ‘Stop the Sweeps’ of urban homeless encampments, a direct action tent-city project aimed at providing emergency shelter for up to 1,000 people called ‘Nickelsville,’ and a campaign to stop the construction of a new jail organized around the ‘No New Jail’ slogan. Four themes are presented that characterize the strategies organizers used in communicating within and between constituents: how organizers emphasized “relational” face-to-face communication, used ICTs to connect with housed allies, encouraged participants to move from the computer screen to street, and relied upon existing organizationally sponsored communications infrastructure in facilitating communication tasks. I propose that an analysis of communication practices broadly defined is important in understanding the role of technologies of communication more specifically.
Keywords: technology, communication, social movement, campaign, homelessness, participant observation, brokerage
Toft, A. (2011). Contextualizing technology use: Communication practices in a local homeless movement. Information, Communication & Society, 14(5), 704-725. (personal copy)

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