Alexander's Revision Project

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Revision proposal


For the purpose of my revision project, I will not be directing my writing towards a strictly academic audience. Rather, I will be taking a more “popular” approach by speaking to prospective activists (most likely younger people) who are interesting in creating or improving an activist community. It will be following the premise of a magazine article, blog article, or an informal newspaper article.

Three Key Questions:

What makes an activist community successful?
How does a community’s success relate to the idea of a discourse community?
How can activists utilize the ideas of direction and a discourse community in order to create a successful activist group?

Writerly challenges:

To adopt a casual, yet informed tone.
To create a “guide” which can be used to some success.
To properly argue “behind the scenes” that in order for proper discourse to take place, there must be specified goals.

Revised Midterm Draft: Defining an Activist Community

In the new decade, political awareness and activism are a rising trend. Citizens are increasingly finding fault with their government or society and are coalescing in order to multiply their voice, and the message that voice projects. Yet, in a time when there is such a need to speak clearly and project without ambiguity, it would seem as though the words that come out of the mouths of activist groups are as garbled as ever. Case in point: Occupy Wallstreet.

One of the most widespread criticisms of the Occupy movement was it’s lack of direction. At least to the public, it appeared to be a movement of generalities: general disdain for businessmen and bankers, general upset with the government, and general condemnation for the state of education and loans. And although these grievances are all justifiably significant, the demands for general change by the protesters seemed to fall short in the long term. But why? The reason is that to function (and seem worthwhile to new members) an activist community must have definition afforded to it in two ways: 1. by having a set of public goals or specific grievances that must be rectified, 2. by having some sort of backbone community (or veteran members) that can prevent in-fighting and direct new members. In the case of Occupy Wallstreet, neither of these two characteristics existed to support the community, and so the movement became increasingly amorphous.

Discourse and Activist Communities

Now, what is the basis of these two requirements for activist communities? Where do these ideas from? Well, these two tenets for a successful activist community are ostensibly taken directly from the work of the linguist, John Swales, and his work on discourse communities.

In the late eighties and early nineties, the linguistics community was experiencing a growing interest in the dynamics of how communities were affected by and effectively governed by their goals. And one of the most significant questions was how their means of communication reflected these goals. In 1990, John Swales stepped up to the plate with his book Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings, within which he established the concept of a “discourse community”. Put simply, Swales explained a discourse community as a group of people with a commonly agreed upon set of goals, where the goals of said community determine the methods of communication they adopt.

More specifically, Swales drew up a list of “six defining characteristics” typical of any group of people which could be considered a discourse community. These six characteristics are the following:

1.The community must have an agreed upon and public set of goals.

2. The community must have methods of communication between members.

3. The community must use its communication means to provide feedback and information to members.

4. The community must use at least one genre to further its goals. (A genre according to linguists is a standardized method of writing for ease of comprehension. e.g. newletter, grocery list, etc.)

5. A “lexis” (meaning technical language, jargon, or terminology) specific to the community.

6. A “reasonable ratio between [novice] and [expert members].”

It remains to be seen how a political movement of any shape or form can function without an amount of discourse and communication between its members; so it remains to be seen how a political movement of any shape or form could function outside the realm of a discourse community. Activism and discourse communities go hand in hand, for the very fact that activists mean to inform themselves and others. Activism feeds off discourse with both new members and current members: through both recruitment, and organization of activities such as protests, petitions, etc.

As discourse communities centered around political and social goals, it remains true that activist communities more than often bear Swales’ six characteristics. But perhaps the two most important features—the ones that mold the group—are the goals, and the maintenance of a veteran community. Throughout the remainder of this article, we will be focusing on how these two aspects work to maintain an informed, and directed environment. And in order to do so, we will be looking at some of the successes and downfalls of a significant activist groups on the internet (in terms of maintaining quality of discussion and direction), /r/Communism.

Into the Community

For those who don’t know, /r/Communism is a subreddit (a.k.a. forum) devoted to discussion of Marxist ideology on the social media website, reddit. Perhaps because of the ideas at hand or perhaps because of personal preference, the subreddit is run a bit more strictly than is typical. Users are banned on a regular basis for “sectarianism”, abuse of free speech, and other breaches of conduct on the forum. And though the work of the moderation team might seem overly strict and unyielding, the technique employed has worked out reasonably well. For a new community on the website (and one representing a rather small group of people), the subreddit has done remarkably well, gathering just shy of 7,000 readers as of May 2012. What has made /r/Communism so successful, however is how it addresses the ideas discussed earlier: upholding definitive goals, and maintaining a community of dedicated “experts”


Goals are important for any type of community, but especially so for one that wishes to generate some sort of change, or invite new members, such as a community of activists. And although, /r/Communism itself is a sort of meta-community, devoted to _discussion_ of Marxism rather than recruitment, the fact remains that because of transparent and specifically laid-out goals, the community is held together.

When starting a community therefore, it is an absolute necessity to have a specific goal in mind, whether it be to promote animal rights or inform people about global warming. It may seem simple, but as discussed earlier, the Occupy movement’s goals lacked a sort of specificity: it attempted to solve a bunch of vague problems within the government. One of the great things about /r/Communism is that it is fairly easy for members new and old to determine what the community is about.

Upon logging on to the forum new users are bombarded by titles in the sidebar: “Please read the rules before posting,” “New or unsure? Consider /R/COMMUNISM101!”, “READ BEFORE POSTING”, and similar. If a new user were to come to the forum it would be made incredibly obvious what the community was about upon clicking “READ BEFORE POSTING”. The linked “/r/Communism Rules and Guidelines” set the stage for what new users can expect. As I said before, /r/Communism is a meta-community of sorts; coincidentally, the community is rather straightforward with this. The first sentence reads: “This specific subreddit isn't here to convert people, it is here to facilitate discussion between marxists.”
Speaking of rules, the rules and guidelines are one of the most essential parts of this community—while it may not be necessary to have the rules of a community written in stone, it certainly is useful to at least adopt some sort of social agreement between members. Rules are the code by which the goals of the community are maintained and prevent counterproductive activity. Since the goal of this particular activist community is to foster communication and discussion of Marxism, the rules of /r/Communism aim to eliminate counterproductive activities such as sectarianism, “posting entry level questions”, and posting comments of a prejudicial nature. For a more typical activist community, the rules might consist similarly of requests to respect other members, to uphold certain principles of the movement, or to maintain a focus on accomplishing the goals of the community. The rules in /r/Communism serve a more valuable purpose than just directing the community, however, they also set a standard for prospective members, setting the stage for defining characteristic 2: maintaining a community backbone.

Veterans: The Backbone of an Activist Community

/r/Communism has a constant influx of members, both those interested in learning about the tenets of Marxism, and those who might want to start a ruckus. Because of the large scale and growing size of the community, it has to deal with new or difficult members on a day-to-day basis, and in order to preserve the goals and direction of the community—to prevent it from devolving—the community must actively pick and choose between veteran and novice members. This stands true for any activist community. In order to serve its goals, activists must be properly informed on the goals, history, and motivations of their community in order to minimize projecting ambiguity both insiders and members of the general public. Veterans therefore serve a key purpose in activist circles: they act as a gate deciding which members are fit to join and they act as educators, informing new members about their new home.

/r/Communism, however, takes an overly-strict approach towards newer members: as explained in their rules, those ignorant to Marxism are generally discouraged from posting (or banned if they are misguided enough). The community and its moderation team have received a lot of flack for this type of stance toward quality-control, but the outcome has been effective. For those who are looking to start their own activist group, but wish for a more egalitarian mode of maintaining informed members, might consider two other interesting facets of /r/Communism that focus on education, instead of exclusion to maintain a solid backbone.

The second-most important technique /r/Communism employs to develop new veterans, is the use of what you might call a “kindergarten community”, /r/Communism101. /r/Communism101 essentially is a worry-free environment where newcomers can go to post any questions they have pertaining to Marxism or the /r/Communism community without fear of ban. In the real world, activist communities might similarly employ things such as orientation events to get newbies up to speed with goings-on. /r/Communism also places a strong emphasis on educating even its veteran members by encouraging the posting of informational news articles and the likes. An offline community could possibly encourage this type of further self-education by hosting a “book club” or something similar. At the end of the day, the members who are knowledgeable about what the activist community is working for, and understand the motivations of the community, are the ones who will best be able to attract and tutor newer members.

Tying up Loose Ends

Looking at /r/Communism, you can see a thriving community, one that is based on exchange and discussion, not infighting and “trolling” like much of the rest of reddit—or even similar activist communities. By making the goals of the community—the discussion of Marxism—clear, and ensuring that the community is not simply spouting conjecture, /r/Communism is able to work towards and actively accomplish this goal on a daily basis. For a more activity-oriented activist community, the goals in mind might be to promote their ideas, but for others it might be to bring about legislation to end fracking. Either way, it is necessary for any activist community to maintain a sense of definition by holding and upholding explicit goals, and by making sure a sufficient amount of its members are veterans. As we’ve seen in the past with Occupy Wall Street, even good ideas, if poorly defined, can lead to the unraveling of a movement.

Self-Evaluation Piece

I will evaluate my revision on the basis of my writerly challenges and the questions I sought to answer.

My first question was successfully answered through explaining the importance of maintaining a sense of identity in an activist community. I provided two examples of activism, /r/Communism which is able to maintain its goals and user base, and the Occupy movement, which unfortunately was unable to—and I feel this got the point across well.

My second question is addressed in the second section actually of my revision, more or less directly. Where I actually address how the two most important tenets of activist communities originate from Swales' idea of discourse. I feel that perhaps I went a little two in-depth with my discussion of discourse communities, or that it wasn't extremely relevant to the task at hand, but I think ultimately it is good for the reader to see that my ideas are not coming out of thin air—that they have some backing.

My final question is partly answered by my analysis of /r/Communism and their methods of delineating their goals, and maintaining informed members. However, I feel as though their could have been more direction given to the audience; the piece as a whole doesn't offer as much guidance as I was hoping it would, and is more or less an introduction into the dynamics of how to create a proper activist community. Nonetheless, I think readers would gain something from understanding /r/Communism's take on the two characteristics I address.

As for my tone, I realize that I often have the tendency to adopt a voice that is a bit "scholarly", so because I wanted to write a piece that was directed at more popular audiences, I sought to adopt a more informal tone. I'm not sure if this really worked out as I had hoped either. It takes a lot of skill to break away from one's natural method of writing; transitioning from the way I normally write to a kind of "discussion" voice a lot of magazines and blogs have adopted in recent times was a bit difficult. Still, I was able to be a bit more animated through my writing than I usually am.

The challenge of creating a "guide" fell short a bit as discussed above. What ultimately resulted was kind of an introductory article to creating an activist community, and not a full-fledged guide…

My final writerly challenge of argument, is tied in a bit with my discussion of veteran members of activist communities. By addressing the fact that veterans understand the goals and the motivations behind them, that they are able to drive intelligent discussion, I got this point across.

Overall, I'd say that this revision was a success in transforming a more "scientific" and analytical piece of writing into a work more fit for popular consumption. Whether or not it would be truly helpful for someone seeking to get involved in activism, I am not yet sure.

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