How exactly do new media shape contemporary protests?
Extract from Juris, J. S. (2012), Reflections on #Occupy Everywhere: Social media, public space, and emerging logics of aggregation. American Ethnologist, 39: 259–279. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1425.2012.01362.x
When a new mass wave of global activism breaks out, casual observers and reporters often wax eloquent about the ways new media technologies are transforming social protest. During the actions against the WTO summit meeting in Seattle in 1999, for example, news reports fixated on the innovative use of Internet-based listservs, websites, and cell phones, which were said to provide unparalleled opportunities for mobilizing large numbers of protesters in globally linked yet decentralized and largely leaderless networks of resistance. More recently, the focus has shifted to how social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook completely transform the way movements organize, whether the so-called Twitter Revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia or the outburst of protests around the globe inspired by and modeled after #Occupy Wall Street (see, e.g., Waldram 2011).5
In opposition to such techno-optimistic narratives, skeptical accounts inevitably remind us of the importance of deeply sedimented histories and politics of place for understanding the dynamics of protest in concrete locales or of the tendency for social movements to organize through decentralized, diffuse, and leaderless networks since at least the 1960s, if not long before (cf. Calhoun 1993; Gerlach and Hine 1970). Skeptics also remind us that many protesters in places like Tahrir Square did not have Internet access and were mobilized as much through face-to-face networks as through social media (see Gladwell 2011). Similarly, even though many #Occupy Everywhere participants are certainly avid users of Facebook and Twitter—hence, the widespread use of the hashtag sign as a diacritic—not every occupier and supporter uses social networking tools and smartphones. Indeed, #Occupy has also spread through the occupation of physical spaces as well as the diffusion of evocative images through traditional mass media platforms.
However, debates between techno-optimists and skeptics are rather beside the point. It is clear that new media influence how movements organize and that places, bodies, face-to-face networks, social histories, and the messiness of offline politics continue to matter, as exemplified by the resonance of the physical occupations themselves. The important questions, then, are precisely how new media matter; how particular new media tools affect emerging forms, patterns, and structures of organization; and how virtual and physical forms of protest and communication are mutually constitutive.