"I" encountering another "I": Identity formation and emotions in technology-based activism
Political and Social Sciences European University Institute San Domenico di Fiesole (FI), Italy
This paper looks at the sector of cyberspace activists ("radical techies") who set up independent digital infrastructures (internet servers) in order to provide other activists with Internet-based communication tools that are free, secure and do not operate according to market-driven principles. Examples include Italian server Autistici, Riseup in the USA, Sindominio in Spain, Nadir in Germany. They provide email accounts, web space, and mailing-lists to fellow activists. The paper explores the process of creation of a collective identity, and the emotional side of this peculiar cyberspace activism, where technical expertise plays such an important role. It suggests a reversal of the very same definition of collective identity, no longer based on a preponderance of the "we", but on the centrality of the private experience at the individual level.
Collective action in the field of radical techies emphasises the individual dimension: expertise is owned at the individual level (even if the knowledge becomes meaningful in relation to the group), and actions are usually performed individually (see programming and hacking, which gain meaning in interaction with the community of peers, but are individual actions). The resulting collective identity is the synthesis of individuals' private experiences: it is realised in the experience of difference and affinity of the encounter between the "I" with another "I", and not in the collapsing of the "I" in the "we". The "we" does not cease to exist, but it is experienced through the "I", and not vice versa. Individual action assumes a performative valence of the "I", partly losing the representative function of the "we".
In this process, emotions do play an important role, performing both a normative and an expressive function in collective identity building. Radical techies mobilise largely in response to the perception of a sense of structural injustice in the contemporary communication and technology sphere. "Negative" emotions such as anger, frustration, and moral outrage perform a normative function. On the contrary, a sense of togetherness, fun, leisure ("positive" emotions) speak to the expressive dimension of collective identity.