Occupy Wall Street is like Twitter
In the aftermath of the rebellions of the sixties, efforts to produce enduring left structures proved frustrating. Reformist efforts tended to disappear into the bowels of the Democratic Party or similar parties elsewhere. Revolutionary groups quickly turned into sectarian cults. Numerous organizations and individuals continued to struggle, often around single issues, but the creation of something greater than the sum of its parts proved elusive. Over the last fifteen years, new forms of organization have begun to congeal that overcome these limits. These new forms are characterized by their use of the new communicative technologies opened up by the internet. Not only that; they themselves resemble in crucial aspect the new communication forms.
Not long after the protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1999, journalist Naomi Klein wrote that the coalition of groups present there resembled the World Wide Web. They were linked together by their opposition to the WTO, but they retained their individual identities. They were not marching under a single banner with three or four slogans. Instead, every group brought their own grievances and demands. Furthermore, groups retained their own style and ways of doing things. It did not seem like a problem that direct action affinity groups that use consensus principles to make decisions were protesting alongside bureaucratically organized trade unions, anymore than it is a problem that liberal blog Daily Kos looks and feels different than independent news show Democracy Now! The protests seemed to bring to life the diversity of voices on the internet.
If the Seattle protests, and others in the same vein, such as the protest against the International Monetary Fund (IMF)/World Bank in Prague, or against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas in Quebec City were like the world wide web come to life, the social forums that emerged beginning with the World Social Forum in 2003 were like Facebook. Facebook differs from blogs and other forms of Internet publishing in that it is more private. Only those you want to be part of the conversation can comment. While social forums are usually accessible to anyone and open to the media, the focus is on discussion among activists, rather than between activists and the public. However, just as it only takes the acceptance of a friend request to join a conversation on Facebook, so it is fairly easy to enter into the world of the social forum. Groups and individuals just send ideas for panels, or show up and pay a registration fee. Both on Facebook and at the social forum, the boundaries of those participating are fluid, particularly when compared to traditional associations or even ‘real’ groups of friends. Networking is a key activity of both Facebook and social forums, as people explore the prospects that friends of friends might be worth getting to know.
And if the social forums parallel the appeal of Facebook, then the Occupy movement is surely Twitter. How does Twitter differ from Facebook? For starters, you can only publish messages of 140 characters or less on Twitter (actually, there is a feature called longer twitter that allows bigger messages, but it hasn’t caught on). Short and to the point. Anyone can follow anyone; you don’t need to wait to have a friend request accepted. Strangers interested in the same topic read each others’ tweets by searching for hashtags, pithy summaries of topics preceded by “#”. The sheer cacophony of Twitter can be quite alienating for beginners, as can its unusual grammar. I remember the first time I looked at Twitter, I was frustrated and puzzled by messages like this: “Redstatefan: Not only banks RT: Leftlucy: Stop bailing out banks! #socialism #p2.” Fairly quickly I learned that “RT” means “retweet”, i.e. the message is being repeated by someone else. In the example above, Redstatefan is “retweeting” LeftLucy’s tweet, with the addition “not only banks” to the original tweet. And all of those hashtags at the end are searchable terms that thrust this comment into longer discussions. In the same way, the hand gestures and the “human microphone” of General Assemblies nationwide can seem alienating at first, but fairly quickly people learn that they are useful in including a wide variety of voices in discussion. Whereas the Seattle-style anti-globalization protests brought together a coalition, even a cacophony, of different groups unified by their anger at particular targets such as the IMF or the WTO, the center of gravity of the Occupy movement is much more a loose and shifting group of individuals. The archetypal prop of this movement is a cardboard sign with a handpainted slogan on it. This makes Occupy feel a lot more like Twitter. Not surprisingly, Occupy Wall Street has used Twitter extensively, and #occupywallstreet and #ows are both popular hashtags to join the conservation. Although Twitter at first seemed primarily a site for individuals to say their piece, often about trivial matters, most organizations, large and small, have adjusted their communication strategies and now use it. By the same token, there are few left-leaning conventional organizations entirely uninterested in the Occupy movement by this time, although Occupy Wall Street only began two months ago.
So what can we learn by analogizing these emerging social movement practices with social media and the Internet? Perhaps it is worth thinking a little more about social media and its relation to the wider world. Social media and the Internet have dramatically reduced the costs associated with publishing and distributing material, as well as connecting with people. Anyone with an Internet hook-up can enter global conversations on Facebook or Twitter, or by posting on a blog, so long as these services are not blocked by an unfriendly government. Nevertheless, this does not change everything, at least not all at once. Hierarchies that predate this development persist, and may even get stronger. For example, while the Internet and social media have created many new celebrities, big “old media” celebrities have sometimes strengthened their position. For one thing, many people trying to attract traffic on the Internet write about celebrities, reinforcing their popularity. Additionally, some celebrities, like Lady Gaga, have been able to increase their popularity through the use of Twitter and Facebook. While the utopia implicit in social media–that everyone is talking to everyone as equals–is alluring, to date the more traditional institutions have not crumbled. To the contrary, corporations, universities, government at every level are all learning how to position themselves in this new world and use the new media for their own purposes. Similarly, people are still producing the “old” forms–songs, novels, movies, etc.–and distributing them through “old” media like radio, newspapers, and television. However alluring updates on Facebook or Twitter are, they are not a substitute for a well-crafted song or novel. Different forms can communicate different things. For now, a show like “Mad Men” is likely to be produced by a traditional television network, and a major work of literature will be published by a major publishing house, even though online chatter has transformed the context for reception.
Finally, the new social media have come with a “visible hand”–Twitter and Facebook are for-profit corporations. They did not spontaneously emerge out of the mire and potential of online communication. All of the major corporations involved in social media (Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Google, among others) are engaged in a complicated dance. On the one hand, they want to control what is happening in their worlds, sometimes to minimize conflicts with governments, more often to maximize their appeal to corporate advertisers. Both Google and Facebook clearly dream of being able to tell advertisers everything about everyone. At the same time, this control impulse runs afoul of the democratic spirit inherent in the media. For now, these are extremely profitable corporations. But take two steps too far in the direction of trying to control things, and they may wipe out and find themselves replaced by others who can better address users’ concerns.
Now let’s reconsider the new forms of political organization–the alter-globalization mobilizations, the social forums, the Occupy movement–in light of the last couple of paragraphs. Here are what I think are the relevant lessons. First, just because new forms of organization are being consolidated, and may strike participants as far more democratic than older forms, does not mean that older institutions and hierarchies will just go away. Governments, banks, corporations and such may be taken aback by the popularity of the Occupy movement, but they won’t simply crumble. Rather, they will reposition themselves. They may even be able to appropriate some of the energy of new forms for their own purposes. The same is true of social structures like racism and sexism. The awesome prospects of horizontal organizations open to all doesn’t eliminate these inequalities, unfortunately. Second, the emergence of new forms doesn’t render old forms entirely irrelevant. Organizations like labor unions, community groups, and left wing parties will soldier on. All will have to learn how to work in the new environment in order to survive and thrive. But there are still good reasons for their separate existence, in the same way that the existence of Twitter doesn’t render the production of good television shows irrelevant. Finally, just as the large corporations that presently enable social media run the risk of losing their position if they push the agenda of advertising oriented information too far, so the “visible hand” behind the Occupy movement and social forums must simultaneously walk a line between pushing forward their agendas and preferred strategies and tactics and maintaining the democratic orientation of the forms themselves.
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