Cyberactivism in HCI


Cyberactivism in HCI





  1. Overview

The ubiquity of technology around us made it urgent to create digital forms of every aspect of our life. As the need for digital artefacts grows, so does the need for understanding human. Therefore, the field of HCI has appeared to respond to both human issues and technical issues.

In this blog, I will focus on activism (as a human element) and HCI technologies (as a technical aspect). First I will review the term ‘cyberactivism’ and explore the different technologies used in cyberactivism. Secondly, I will review and discuss two types of HCI technologies: namely social computing and personal informatics by focusing on their use in the context of social justice. In social computing, I discuss two main point; the power of ‘digital storytelling’ and ‘positive activism’. Then, in personal informatics, I introduce the area of ‘soci-feedback technologies’ and current technologies that could serve as the foundation on which socio-feedback technology can be based.  Finally, I conclude by highlighting the need to leverage the use of HCI’s technologies to expand the field of cyberactivism.


Keywords: –

Cyberactivism, social justice, HCI, digital civics, social computing, personal informatics, digital storytelling, socio-feedback technologies, sousveillance




  1. Human Computer Interaction (HCI)

Throughout the last semester, we have been attempting to establish a solid understanding of what ‘Human Computer Interaction’ is. I would like to start off by comparing what I used to think this term was and what I think it is now, after finishing the HCI module. Coming from a business studies background, where “clients’ needs” were the core of establishing (designing) any business, I used to think of HCI in a similar way, as a field where the needs of the system’s users are the core of designing any system.

Now, I believe that for a design to be based on users’ needs and perceptions is fundamental in this field which could be referred to as ‘usability’ but it is not what HCI is all about, and it is not a goal but rather a mean to gain a higher level of achievements.

I have realized that there are many emerging concerns of HCI beyond finding technical solutions to usability problems. As a cross-disciplinary, area, HCI is concerned with different psychological, social and even political issues, beyond narrow technical concerns. Moreover, HCI is not only about individual use of a computer, but also about communities and cultures and the role of technology in building and improving them [14]. Table (1) summarises this comparison.

Table 1

  what why who Where when
Before Usability (merely ease of use) and the impact of cognitive and physical constraints Good Artefacts/ technologies Individual/user Computer science 

( in desktops)

At work/ specific situations
After good artefacts/ technologies Real life impacts/ Improving/ empowering in different aspects of human life, activities and experience. 

(political, social, economical)


(social and organizational computing)

Human-human interaction through computers

Every where Everyday experience




2.1. Digital Civics

Digital Civics is mainly concerned with digitally empowering citizens to allow them enhance their communities and address their emerging challenges. While developing communities has been mostly a top down process, Digital civics is concerned with using technology to make it a bottom up process. I would say that this is the main point that distinguishes Digital Civics from HCI. HCI is concerned generally about enhancing human experience and activities through technology, whereas Digital Civics is specifically concerned with enhancing/empowering the role citizens paly in their communities through the use of technology.

The core topics in Digital Civics such as democracy, collectivism, activism and social justice have been rapidly emerging in HCI research and practice. Many of these topics, however, have been covered by “Cyberactivism” which is concerned with using the cyber (digital) world to practice different types of activism for social, political and economical causes. This area, as well, is a rapidly emerging concern in HCI. [2]




  1. Cyberactivism

3.1 Activism

Activism, in its simplest definition, is the act of taking actions, either individually or collectively, to push for social changes. These changes could be related to environmental, political, social or ideological issues; or broadly classified into two categories: environmental/ecological sustainability and social justice issues [12]. The call for these changes can either be “Demanding solutions to contemporary problems” or “Creating alternatives to the dominant system” [12]. Thus the focus could be the problem or the solution (alternatives).

When such actions occur online, either they are internet-enhanced or internet-based,  that is, whether technology support or provide alternatives to on-ground activism, it is referred to as Cyberactivism. It could also be referred to as online activism, digital activism, computer-mediated activism and so on. [16]. However, in this blog I will adopt the term ‘cyberactivism’.


3.2 Cyberactivism

 From its earliest days, cyberspace has been about networking and communication among different groups of people with shared aspects. Activists as well, have made use of this cyber space to practice their activism and mobilize people around specific causes. Thus, researchers and practitioners, either intentionally or not, have been developing more tools and techniques for Cyberactivism spanning from its most peaceful (passive) tool “slacktivism”, to the most violent one, “hacktivism”.

To categorize these techniques, I will use Vegh’s classification of online activism [16]. Vegh has classified forms of online activism into three forms. First, awareness and advocacy, which is about drawing public attention and support on specific issues. Second, organization and mobilization, which is about the call and organization for collective offline actions and movements. Third, action and reaction, which is about initiating an action or reacting to one, such as the online attacks “Hacktivism”.

Adopting this classification, I developed a model by which I could categorize the different HCI technologies used in Cyberactivism as presented in Table 2.

Table 2

classification of activism awareness and advocacy organization and mobilization action and reaction
Type of activism


Personal informatics 


Social computing 

(Slactivism and social media)


Social justice 


Social computingDigital storytelling 


Signing petitions


Providing Alternative (e.g. alternative media)Hacktivism 



From the table above, it is evident that the dominant form of activism in all areas is “awareness and advocacy”. This form however, should be the first step for any other form of activism, as it is crucial to raise awareness and gain advocacy before, during and after mobilizing people and taking actions. On the other hand, the techniques used for the “organization and mobilization” and “action and reaction” could also be deemed as raising awareness techniques. For instance, hacktivism can be used as a tool to raise awareness around a specific cause. Thus, in this blog, my focus will be around “raising awareness” as a form of activism in cyberspace. I will discuss the dominant tool in each type of activism; which are: social computing and personal informatics, focusing on how to leverage them in social justice context.



  1. Social computing as a tool for Cyberactivism

The roots of social computing appeared in the 1960’s, when computers were not only used for computation but also for communications. However, it was not until the late 1990s and early 2000s when the modern forms of social computing started to emerge by processing user-generated content and producing new functionalities and values out of this content. [5]

When we use the term social computing we do not necessarily refer to direct online interaction; such as instant messaging, exchanging email, collaborative workspaces, , social networking, online forums and online groups and communities; The term could also refer to any collective and collaborative activities; such as wikis, blogs, social bookmarking and tagging services, media spaces, recommender and collaborative filtering systems, online auctions, reputation systems, soft sensors, following someone on Twitter and crowd sourcing. [5]

When it comes to cyberactivism, due to the lack of technologies made to support activism, cyberactivism has resided mostly in social media, which has been used widely to mobilize people to take actions against various causes [19]. Although social media has been successfully used as a tool for cyberactivism, the use of other emerging technologies could not only support the use of social media but also generate new independent tools for cyberactivism.

Thus, in the next section, I would like to explore the power of ‘digital storytelling’ as an element of social computing which is increasingly used in cyberactivism. Then, I would like to highlight the need for a positive cyberactivism and a focus on a half full glass rather than a half empty one.



4.1 Cyberactivism through storytelling

Digital storytelling is essentially about telling and sharing stories that are either personal or recounting of historical events, through the use of computer-based tools including a variety of multimedia such as text, photos, audio, videos or a combination of some or all of them [23]. It is also referred to as digital documentaries, computer-based narratives, digital essays, electronic memoirs, and interactive storytelling [23].

Digital storytelling has been widely used as an effective technique in education [8]. Since activism usually aims at raising awareness, which is a part of “educating people” about a cause, digital storytelling could be used as well as a cyberactivism technique. Thus, it has been an emerging tool in cyberactivism and has been used in different forms such as signing online petitions (e.g. [22], location-based reports and reviews(e.g harassment map) [9], text stories (e.g. Hollaback!) [3] and personal informatics [7].

The power of storytelling lies in the fact that it is directly related to people’ real life. And according to Iriberri and Leroy, relating online communities to real-life events plays a significant role in creating self-sustaining community [13], and thus more likely to create a sustained cyberactivism in online communities. Additionally, we practice listening to and telling storytelling everyday even if we are not aware of it by watching movies, reading novels, following friends’ stories on Snapchat and texting gossips to friends and so on [11]. Kelly Sawyers explains this in her Ted Talk in the video below:

“How Young Women Change the World Through Digital Storytelling”.



Moreover, the fact that it is ‘digital’ storytelling implies that it is supported with visual means such as photos and films. Thus, it is a ripe opportunity in cyberactivism to explore the digital storytelling in photography, drawings and film making.


4.2 Positive Cyberactivism

Generally, social justice activists rarely speak of love in the context of their activism [27]. A quick review on current cyberactivism shows that it is mostly an “angry activism” driven by anger or even hate, which could not be an effective and sustainable way in the long term [21]. Therefore, there is a need for a positive activism that is filled with love and positive energy and based on constructive engagement rather than negative criticism [24][27].

Similarly, Fuller has described this notion in his popular quote:



Thus when fighting the system to change we are actually wasting time we could spend inventing other models [17]. Another element we should also take in consideration is the non-violent approach of activism which focuses on what we have in common with our opponents rather than what we do not [12].




  1. Personal informatics as a tool for Cyberactivism

Personal informatics is a term that refers to the type of technology by which users can collect information about their personal behaviour, habits, and thoughts in order to gain self-reflection and self-monitoring. It is also referred to as ‘living by numbers’, ‘quantified self’, ‘personal analytics’ and ‘self-tracking’ [18]. Personal informatics technology has been widely used in different areas and purposes such as health, education, energy consumptions, finance and social web. Although it has been used as well in activism context but it seems to be exclusive in environmental activism (or environmentalism), thus, a sub-area appeared which is ‘Eco-feedback technology’ which is a class of technology that capture users’ activities in order to raise their awareness about their behavioural impacts on environment [6].


5.1 Eco-feedback technology 

Personal informatics as an environmentalist tool has an increasingly high profile. It has been used to raise awareness of various environmental issues such as air pollution, water usage, gas consumption, waste disposal practices, transportations and recycling [4]. The design of these technologies departs from one of two models; first, rational choice model, which suggests that self-interests are the main factor that drives environmental behaviour, second, norm-activation model which suggests that the collective community goods drive individuals’ behaviour towards environment even if that is not the same as their own interests [6]. Thus, a successful design might consider both models to achieve wider impacts. Moreover, these philosophies might be applicable as well to different areas of activism such ‘social justice’. Thus, in the next section, I will introduce the area of ‘socio-feedback technology’ for ‘social justice’ as an analogy for Eco-feedback technology for environment.


 5.2 Socio-feedback technology

The effective use of personal informatics in environmentalism made me think whether we can use these tools in different area of activism or not? Before attempting to answer this question, I will start by adopting the previous definition of ‘eco-feedback technology’ to define the socio-feedback technology. Thus, socio-feedback technology is a type of technology that aims at raising users’ awareness about their social behavioural impacts on their community. Now, to answer the question, we need to consider the technologies that enable us to capture our social behaviour either manually or automatically.

Taking this consideration into account, In the next section I will discuss two emerging topics I have found in HCI that could possibly play a significant role as ‘Socio-feedback technology’. The first one, is a manual way which relies on user’s inputs and reflection on their social behaviour, which makes it both like ‘personal informatics’ and ‘storytelling’ at the same time, thus I will refer to it in this blog as ‘narrating personal informatics’ [10]. The second one is automatic, by employing wearable technology to capture and record (or mentor) user’s activities, which is referred to as ‘Sousveillance’ [1].


  • Narrating personal informatics (NPI)

As discussed in section (4), some personal informatics technologies rely on the user’s manual input, especially when it requires writing extended descriptions or diaries, which means it could use storytelling as well. This notion has been used in a few technologies in environmentalism context (eco-feedback technologies) such as ‘Food Waste Diary’. However, it seems to be possible to use similar techniques in social context. Actually, according to Hilviu and Rapp [10], it is suggested that the use of digital storytelling is a more effective way to present data than numbers and graphics due to the fact that some

users might not be comfortable reading and interpreting this type of data. Moreover, Hilviu and Rapp [10] argue that although in the field of Big Data, there has been some attempts to present data as natural language in order to make them easier to read, this is not enough for gaining more insights as in narration.

Another powerful aspect of NPI is that it is more likely to be interpersonal informatics technique at the same time. The term ‘term personal informatics’ was introduced by Bales and Griswold [26] which refers to a class of tools that allows the collective use, share, aggregation and analytics of personal informatics among different groups of users. Bales and Griswold [26] based their argument in favour of these tools to the fact that people’s behaviour is affected by those around them. This role, as discussed in section (4) can well be played by digital storytelling.

Therefore, digital storytelling can be used through personal informatics technologies to serve as tool for cyberactivism, however I would emphasize the need to explore its potentials and impacts in the context of social justice activism.




  • Sousveillance (and inverse-surveillance)

The ubiquity of technologies has resulted in a ubiquitous surveillance [28]. Although this ubiquity of surveillance is usually justified by being applied for moral and decent organizational purposes, anti-surveillance activists, however, have reacted to it by calling for both stopping mass surveillance, and developing technologies that work as “counter surveillance” to prevent surveillance [25].

As this type of activism might not be pragmatic due to the increasing need for surveillance as a national security strategy, another reaction to surveillance has emerged with more social justice oriented purposes, which is the so called “sousveillance”.

Sousveillance is the use of wearable technologies for the purpose of collecting data for inverse-surveillance as a opposed to organizational surveillance [28]. Steve Mann [15] has coined and derived this term from ‘surveillance’ which he summarised as follow:

 “sur.veillance: French, from surveiller to watch over, 

from sur- + veiller to watch, from vigil from Latin, wakefulness, watch, from vigil awake, watchful; akin to Latin vigEre to be vigorous, vegEre to enliven

2 : the act of keeping awake at times when sleep is customary;

3 : an act or period of watching or surveillance : WATCH

Thus, loosely speaking, sousveillance is watchful vigilance from underneath.”


Unlike anti-surveillance activism, sousveillance does not seek stopping surveillance but rather making use of it to ensure social justice by not only applying it on mass but also on those in power (authorities). The latter is referred to by Mann et. al. [28] as: Surveilling the Surveillers.

It is believed that sousveillance evokes counter-performance, particularly by those whose jobs involves direct surveillance with people [28]. For instance, the Rialto study [20] aimed at examining the effectiveness of cameras worn by police officers when interacting with civilians [figure 1]. The study yielded in striking results, as there was an 88% decline in the number of complaints against officers compared with the previous 12 months [20].

Figure 1 : A police officer wearing the cameras on his sunglasses [20]

Thus The juxtaposition of sousveillance with surveillance may play a significant role in enhancing the surveillance experience to all involved parties [28]

This combination can be used (or imposed on) by authorities in order to ensure both their safety and civilians’ safety when interacting with each another. Yet, we still need to expand the use of sousveillance in the ubiquitous computing world to examine its impacts in different contexts of democracy and social justice.

6. Conclusion

In this blog, I synthesized my knowledge in HCI, digital civics and cyberactivism to discuss the technical potentials we have in order to expand the field of cyberactivism. I have found that there are mainly three technical approaches for cyberactivism which are: ‘personal informatics’, ‘social computing’ and ‘hacktivism’. Thus, I have attempted to elaborate on the first two approaches by discussing how to leverage them. However, I have not discussed leveraging ‘hacktivism’ as it conflicts with the underlying philosophy behind my approach which is “positive activism”. In both ‘personal informatics’ and ‘social computing’, I found that digital storytelling can be a good technique to combine both technologies so we could have “narrating interpersonal informatics” on which “socio-feedback technology” could be based. Finally, another technique I suggested to be used in “socio-feedback technology” is “sousveillance” which I believe it could replace a previous type of activism which is “anti-surveillance activism”.


To sum up, first, I would like to highlight the need to expand the field of cyberactivism in HCI by conducting further investigation of the effectiveness of “socio-feedback technology” as a cyberactivism tool, particularly, combined with the use of digital storytelling, and leveraging sousveillance in cyberactivism context.

Second, I would like to raise a couple of questions for further research:

  • Apart from ‘personal informatics’, ‘social computing’ and ‘hacktivism’, what other technologies do we have we could use in cyberactivism?
  • What are the potential alternatives to social media that can serve as platforms for activists? What advantages and disadvantages social media have as a cyberactivism platforms and do we really need alternatives?
  • How could we develop the area of “socio-feedback technologies”, apart from the use of digital storytelling and sousveillance technologies?
  • How to leverage sousveillance in cyberactivism context?

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