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On Tuesday June 4, 2013 the History and Archives group will be presenting the paper "Digital Activism and the Digital Humanities" at Congress in Victoria, Canada



At the close of every year TIME magazine awards a person or group of persons the honourific ‘Person of the Year’. In 2011 this title was awarded to The Protestor. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement activists worked to gather support, to connect to each other, and to bring about change. In addition to massive mobilizations The Protestor had an arsenal of digital technologies at their disposal and terms such as Twitter Revolution, Revolution 2.0 and #__________ became ubiquitous.

Shortly before the unrest of 2011 a collective of digital humanities scholars and practitioners in the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Australia came together to found 4Humanities. In response to alarming funding cuts to many universities and education programs these advocates believe it is their responsibility to act in defense of the humanities; “The humanities are in trouble today, and digital methods have an important role to play in effectively showing the public why the humanities need to be part of any vision of a future society.”[1]

This paper will discuss the potential for digital activism in humanities advocacy from within the walls of academia:

• First we will define the term digital activism discuss its history and some tactics.

• Next we will describe the international 4Humanities Initiative, its goals and activities.

• Finally we will outline one activity undertaken at the University of Alberta to assist in this grassroots endeavour - the creation of an Advocacy Guide for digital humanists.

The Advocacy Guide is composed of five sections:

1. What’s at Stake - describes the funding and support issues prevalent in the Humanities.

2. Brief History of the Humanities - describes the historical ‘splitting’ of the Arts of Sciences.

3. Arguments FOR and AGAINST - covers the arguments both in support of the Humanities as well as those with a negative view.

4. Preparing for Advocacy - describes the important factors to consider when developing an advocacy campaign for the Humanities.

5. Tactics - discusses appropriate digital advocacy tactics drawn from the literature on digital activism.

Alan Liu writes that:

"Truly to contribute, I believe, the digital humanities will need to show that it can also take a leadership role. The obvious leadership role at present is service for the cause of the humanities. Now that the humanities are being systematically or catastrophically defunded by nations, states, and universities, the digital humanities can best serve the humanities by helping it communicate in the new arena of networked and social public knowledge, helping it showcase its unique value, and helping it partner across disciplines with the STEM sciences in “grand challenge” projects deemed valuable by the public and its leaders." [2]

The digital humanities have an advantage and even a responsibility to make use of the improved analytical and communicative methods afforded to us today. This paper will show some of the ways we can.


In 2011 TIME magazine awarded the honourific 'Person of the Year' to The Protestor. “No one could have known that when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in a public square, it would incite protests that would topple dictators and start a global wave of dissent. In 2011, protesters didn't just voice their complaints; they changed the world.” Indeed from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement activists worked to gather support, to connect to each other, and to bring about change. In addition to massive mobilizations The Protestor had an arsenal of digital technologies at their disposal and terms such as Twitter Revolution, Revolution 2.0 and hashtag 'insert slogan here' became ubiquitous.

The role of digital technologies in activist causes is widely championed and contested but our purpose here isn't to focus on this debate. Rather our point in this paper is to show how we, as digital humanists, can use these technologies in defense of the humanities. In this paper we will:

  • Define digital activism;
  • Outline the need for our community to act in defense of the humanities; and
  • Introduce the 4Humanities initiative, "a platform and resource for advocacy of the humanities, drawing on the technologies, new-media expertise, and ideas of the international digital humanities community."

Introduction to Digital Activism

Digital activism is one of many possible appellations referring to the the use of digital technology towards the advancement of political and social goals. Others include but are not limited to: cyberactivism, internet activism, networked activism, liberation technologies, or electronic civil disobedience. Following in the steps of Mary Joyce in Digital Activism Decoded: the New Mechanics of Change the term digital activism is chosen because of its exhaustiveness and exclusivity: “Exhaustive in that it encompasses all social and political campaigning practices that use digital network infrastructure; exclusive in that it excludes practices that are not examples of this type of practice.” For example, electronic civil disobedience is not exclusive as it could refer to any use of electronics in activism and such activities have long been in practice. The cassette tape was integral to the 1979 Iranian Revolution by allowing the Ayatollah Khomeini to distribute his taped speeches (Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, "The Digital Disruption", Foreign affairs, November/December 2010). On the other hand the terms cyber- and internet activism are not exhaustive as they omit Short Message Service (SMS) one of the most commonly used features on mobile phones. In 2001 when corrupt Philippine President Joseph Estrada was on trial and it appeared that Congress was going to dismiss evidence against him and allow him to remain in power, thousands of Filipinos took to the streets of Manila armed with cell phones. Coordination by text messaging allowed for rapid mobilization and ultimately helped to force Estrada out of office (Clay Shirkey, "The Political Power of Social Media". Foreign Affairs, January/February 2011).

The universality of binary code, 0s and 1s, is the strength of the digital network. By using 0s and 1s to store and process information, and to exchange this information using the standardized language ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Exchange), computers around the world are able to communicate with each other.

In defense of the humanities

The Humanist Listserve is likely well known to many in this room today. In operation since 1987 it is described as "an international online seminar devoted to all aspects of the digital humanities."

The 4Humanities Initiative

4Humanities is a collaboration of scholars in the field of digital humanities, the goal of which is towards an advocacy of the future of humanities in a society where the importance of the humanities is increasingly neglected. Recognizing the advantageous position of digital technologies in the humanities, 4Humanities capitalizes on the opportunity to further the cause for humanities through popular and widely distributed information streams. The initiative focuses on the use of Digital Humanities technologies and experience, comprising an international-wide collective. Using multi-media and scholarly experience, 4Humanities advocates on numerous levels, both through the 4Humanities online platform and through the collection of networked initiatives of similar design such as blogs, newsletters, audio-visual formats, and more. Resources utilized include digital technologies founded in best-practices.

Due to the failing support of government and private funding for the traditional humanities as well as a general societal attitude of apathy towards the humanities, those concerned with the survival and understanding of its value to society have recognized a need for active intervention. As the humanities plays an important role in all sectors of society, including those portions of society that would see its demise, those concerned have began to collaborate in an effort to spread an understanding of its importance, whether for business initiatives, scientific endeavors, or just a basic understanding of human nature as represented through culture and history. 4Humanities understands that society will be better equipped with a humanities background, and likewise, worse off without it.

The 4Humanities initiative employs multiple mediums in order to reach the widest possible audience, using every means, from newspaper to social media. As stated in their Mission, found on the website, 4Humanities:

“is both a platform and a resource for humanities advocacy. As a platform 4Humanities stages the efforts of humanities advocates to reach out to the public. We are a combination newspaper, magazine, channel, blog, wiki, and social network. We solicit well-reasoned or creative demonstrations, examples, testimonials, arguments, opinion pieces, open letters, press releases, print posters, video “advertisements,” write-in campaigns, social-media campaigns, short films, and other innovative forms of humanities advocacy, along with accessibly-written scholarly works grounding the whole in research or reflection about the state of the humanities.”

4Humanities is an ongoing and evolving project, originally founded in 2010 by scholars from Canada, the United States, Australia, and the U.K. With increasing interest in the initiative and an ever-growing partnership of digital humanities communities from around the world, 4Humanities is establishing itself as a critical and authoritative center in digital activism for the value of traditional humanities. Already partnered with groups such as the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations, centerNet, HASTAC, and SDH/SEMI, 4Humanities is quickly rising to prominence on a global scale.

For More information about 4Humanities, contact any of the 4Humanities coordinators: Christine Henseler, Alan Liu, Geoffrey Rockwell, Stéfan Sinclair, Melissa Terras. Contact:

Back to 4Humanities

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