[The following essay is just some quick thoughts about social media and protest. These ideas have been inspired by a series of ongoing discussions that a small group of faculty and graduate students, including myself, have been having about these issues in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. As such, what follows is a very rough, initial pass at getting some ideas on “paper.” I might be wrong. I might not agree with any of this a month from now…or tomorrow. But it was helpful to me to write it down; maybe it will be helpful for someone to read it.]
Even among those who acknowledge that social media has played a role (if not the determinative role) in the recent uprisings in the Middle East and the Occupy protests in the United States, there is still a tendency to see on-the-ground, embodied protest as the “real” protest and the online manifestations as mere representations or reflections of the “real.” The argument is that many important aspects of physical protest activity are inaccessible via the online rendering. The assumption is that true knowledge of the protest comes best from embodied participation and all of the sensory inputs that come with that form of participation–e.g. the experience of being tear gassed. While I do not diminish the importance of the experience of physical participation, I want to argue that the Occupy protests cannot be experienced entirely via physical participation. What’s more, they are purposefully meant to be experienced and even participated in via various forms of media, but especially Internet-based social media. Cyberspace or the larger media sphere do not just provide representations of or enable the protest, they become places of protest as well.
I want to suggest that social media is playing a role in both the “reality” and reality of the protest (Sismondo 1993). By “reality” of the protests I mean our knowledge of the protests. By reality of the protests I mean the actual action, the doing of the protest. In both senses, there has been a tendency by some to privilege the physical and by others to privilege the technological.
There are three senses in which social media contribute to constructing the “reality” and reality of Occupy.
- Social media play an increasingly important role in helping us to construct our knowledge of Occupy. Social media enables “reality” formation.
- Social media play an inreasingly important role in enabling the on-the-ground action of Occupy. Social media enables reality formation.
- Social media is a space of protest action of its own. Social media is part of the protest’s reality.
Where the “reality” of the protest is concerned, the assumption is that one who is/was “on the ground” putting his/her “body on the line” has more accurate knowledge of the event. But there are at least two problems with this view. First, Occupy is not one protest. It is a set of vastly geographically dispersed actions. Any individual physically participating will only ever have a partial view of what is happening in the movement as a whole. If knowledge of the entirety of the dispersed event is a goal, then the online obsever would seem to have a better vantage point. But that is an unattainable goal in any case because any perspective will always be limited. The key for an event like Occupy is not to privilege one type of perspective but to try to understand the multiplicity of the event via the multiple, available perspectives.
Second, this means acknowledging that if the online observer/participant is missing certain aspects of the event, so is the on-the-ground observer/participant. This is especially the case if we recognize that the protest is in some ways meant to be a social media event. Many of those who are on the ground are not able to experience the mediated version of the event. But many of them are working hard nonetheless to create the mediated version of the event–e.g. by tweeting, livestreaming, posting to Facebook, etc. In the case of Occupy, we know that certain individuals were specifically tasked (or tasked themselves) with “media operations.”
This points to the more radical argument, which is that social media is not just another way of constructing the “reality” of the event but is also an extension or addition to the reality of the event. There is a tendency to see social media as either determinative or as a “tool” that helps to enable the real, on-the-ground protest. While the latter is more correct than the former, in an attempt to avoid technological determinism it goes too far in the other direction and, in doing so, misses what is potentially the most unique development emerging from recent experiences in the Middle East and the United States. Social media does not determine or replace traditional protest. But it is also more than a tool for organizing or representing protest. Social media is an extension of the domain of protest action.
Occupy is people on the ground protesting, many of whom were recruited and organized via the use of social media. But it’s not just that. The actions and messages of Occupy are transmitted or represented to a wider audience via social media. Disparate audiences use the multiple social media fragments to observe and come to know Occupy. But that’s not all. Some online followers engage in organizing activities from afar. Some help to spread the word through retweets and “likes.” Others work to currate and archive information about Occupy so that the story can be told later. Others, like Anonymous, engage in online, direct action via hacking and “d0xing” activities.
In short, Occupy involves a flurry of decentralized and dispersed online and offline activities that make up the “reality” and reality of the protest. It is this multiplicity, hybridity, and simultaneity that is unique. This uniqueness has posed quite a challenge to authorities. To privilege either the physical act of protest out of nostalgia or the technological aspect out of a love of the new and novel is to miss what is unique about Occupy. To see social media as either determinitive or as enabling tool also misses what is truly unique about the role of social media in Occupy.
Sismondo, S. (1993) “Some social constructions.” Social Studies of Science. 23(3): 515-553.