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2. Freedom technologists and their practices

July 24, 2014

This is the second in a series of 42 blog posts devoted to exploring the connection between freedom technologists and the new protest movements. See the first post here, the next post here, the whole series as a document or as blog posts.

In the first post of this series I defined freedom technologists as citizens who like to mix their techs with their politics, often as part of a popular protest or uprising. Some freedom technologists are techies, others are not, yet they all share a strong interest in the potential uses of new digital technologies for political change and social emancipation.

But what do freedom technologists actually do?

The Toronto-based scholar Megan Boler and colleagues offer us some tantalising clues in a recent article. Drawing from interviews with women participants of the Occupy movement in the US, these researchers single out three main digital media practices among Occupiers: adminning, documenting and connecting.

To pay my own way into this discussion I would like to add a fourth techno-political practice – mapping – and extend the geographical reach of this working model to Spain’s indignados (15M) movement.

Adminning

Boler et al define ‘admins’ as those protest participants ‘who use online social tools such as Twitter or Facebook to organize and publicize the effort of their local Occupy site’.  For these authors, ‘adminning’ is ‘a new way of performing leadership by taking responsibility for the logistics of information dissemination’ [1]. They give the example of Karla, a young Occupier with a background in journalism:

Strategizing [is important]. I focus on what we put and when. . . . Like rush hour, between 8:00 and 9:30 am, that’s the highest traffic we have. So, I always think if there’s some really good thing . . . leave it for 8:00 am. . . . I say that at noontime, people go to lunch. . . . So, I’m like, ‘Okay. People are going to be reading during this time. So, I want to give them something that . . . goes well with their food, right?’ . . . Usually political humor or critical thinking pieces could be, you know, (good) for that time. (Karla, Occupy LA) [2]

Equally important is the admin subpractice of tracking the platform metrics. Facebook statistics help freedom technologists like Karla ‘understand how to bring certain groups onto the page, and consequently, into the movement’:

We have 56,000 followers on our Facebook page. There’s people who come regularly. We have people from all over the world. Our biggest range of people coming in, reading our page, is between 25 and 30- something. . . . I noticed that the bracket of young kids . . . had 0.13%, just young kids. I’m like, hey. . . we should be targeting this end. (Karla, Occupy LA) [3]

Another crucial adminning task is curating the huge influx of digital contents related to the movement:

I call everyone to see what’s goin’ on, and I’m like, ‘If anyone knows anything . . . send us information. If you have an article, send it to us’ . . . I just pick and choose what I think is best. Sometimes we focus on certain things, like . . . the fiscal cliff, we spent a whole entire day, one day, (and) dedicated most articles to that. ‘Cause we wanted people to understand. (Karla, Occupy LA) [4].

Documenting

Boler and her associates write that Occupiers who described themselves as documentarians felt responsible not only towards other protesters but also towards ‘the general public’. They regarded information sharing about the movement as ‘an expression of civic responsibility’. Dina (Occupy LA) and many other women Occupiers learned to overcome technological hurdles through a do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic:

In January, I started livestreaming. I probably would have launched it sooner if I knew I could have. Because I had looked into it but . . . it seemed like it was expensive . . . it seemed out of my reach, and that maybe it was too technologically advanced. But then (from) watching livestream, I realized that some of the streamers were using Ustream with android phones. I learned by watching how to do live streaming. . .  (Dina, Occupy LA) [5].

Research from Spain echoes these findings, and not just among women protesters. Take the example of Stéphane Grueso (aka @fanetin). Like many of his compatriots, Stéphane (b. 1973) was unemployed when Spain’s indignados (or 15M) movement took off in May 2011. Previously he had worked as a cameraman for Spain’s public TV and as a documentary film-maker. Although he was no activist, on 15 May he marched with thousands of others in Madrid demanding ‘real democracy now’. After reaching Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol, he went home to sleep. The following morning he read the tweet “We have stayed at Sol” and hurried to join the small group of campers. Unexpectedly, Stéphane found himself using his smartphone and Twitter, rather than his video camera, to report live on the unfolding events:

Something happened which I now think was sheer luck. On 16 May my video camera was being serviced and I was really annoyed because for me, because I do documentaries, my impulse is [waving his arms in the air]: “I’m going to record everything I see”. But I went from being annoyed to feeling a sense of liberation and to a new situation of being able to absorb things and have time, without having to video record [everything]. Plus I could see there were already a lot of people filming. On 16 May I, too, started making a documentary, but in a rather new form: going into details about things, absorbing them. And since then my task hasn’t changed. In fact, I’ve often thought about taking the big camera, the video camera, but no, I actually prefer to take my little phone which is a new tool. My relationship with the phone has changed, too. I go there, observe, talk to people and tell things. [6]

In a short period of time, the affable Stéphane became a Twitter sensation:

I’ve taken up the task of being a bit of a chronicler. On the 16th I think we all felt the same way, we felt like “there’s something really interesting going on here, we’re not very sure what it is, but I want to be part of it and I want to help out, what can I do?” I started off by simply telling what I saw on Twitter, which I think is a very useful [tool] because you can reach [a lot of] people very quickly, the information multiplies and it’s short, which means you don’t jabber on. At first I [improvised] a bit but a few hours or days later I started being more systematic. I became a sort of mini-autonomous medium… I took that to be my task and I’ve become a bit of a bore: there are now several thousand tweets in cyberspace to my name. [7]

In 2012 Stéphane teamed up with two friends from the free culture scene to launch the project 15m.cc, a mammoth attempt at documenting and sharing existing knowledge about the indignados movement:

[W]e’re going to somehow try to fix [these events] through some kind of medium and disseminate them. What are we doing? A book, a documentary and a website. We’re going to do it with a copyleft license. We’ll put it on the internet and let it multiply, with a view to achieving maximum dissemination… It’s not a commercial project, we’re not after profits, but we do hope to recoup our investment. We want to do it as a community, very 15M. We’re going to develop some participatory systems where people can co-produce works with us or author them, and once they are completed we’ll spend several months promoting them. You can see it at www.15m.cc.  [8]

For Stéphane, the fact that people around the world have ‘documented and shared’ their protest experiences is one of the triumphs of the new popular movements. [9]

Connecting

Connectors are those protest participants who seek ‘to keep their networked community of contacts and friends connected to the movement’. In interviews with Boler and her team they spoke about the importance of ‘following’ on Twitter or ‘friending’ on Facebook numerous people so that the movement could expand. One key subpractice for connectors is what an interviewee named LH called ‘re-reporting’, that is, using Twitter to counter mainstream media accounts of the movement:

I was doing that extreme information feed, six live feeds open at once, reading all the Twitters, reading several hash tags at once, and just watching them refresh and refresh and trying to figure out what was happening . . . I was re-reporting it in a slightly condensed (way) . . . giving more of an update and overview with links so that people could hook into that story and know what was happening. (LH, Occupy San Francisco) [10].

Another crucial task is ‘reaching out’ to populations beyond the digital divide. For example, in some cases the Santa Cruz Occupier DD had to resort to pen and paper:

I did do a lot of the Twitter feed as far as information goes and online linking and information in general. And I tried to do so in several places because there is a huge technology gap. I asked people ‘well have you seen this link?’ and they said ‘no’ and then ‘where can I see it?’. So I said ‘ok well I’ll put it up on Twitter’

‘– I don’t use Twitter’.
And then I’m like ‘okay, I’ll put it up on Facebook’
‘– well, I don’t use Facebook’.
‘OK then I’ll email it to you’.
‘– well, I don’t have an email’!

(laughing) You know, so, there’s that gap of trying to get it to different people and sometimes that even means just writing it down on a piece of paper and them looking it up on like the local library. [11]

The Spanish indignado Stéphane Grueso, who we met earlier, can also be aptly described as a connector:

That’s what I did [when chronicling the 15M protests via Twitter]. I said to myself: “I’m not going to join a committee or a discussion group, I’m not going to help carry bits of wood, I’m going to tell what’s happening”. And that was my task. Someone told me that I was doing a great job as a bridge between people who were and weren’t there. [12]

Mapping

Finally, some protesters possess rare skills that may be useful to other participants. This was the case, for instance, with Ingrid Burrington and her data mapping skills:

 I was one of those people who just kept showing up and eventually realised that I might be useful. I think it started with me just asking as we were planning an action: “Has anyone made a map of where we’re going, or of the route, or the framework?” Nobody had, no one knew how, and I did.

…I made a map. We joked throughout that I was the ‘Tactical Cartography Department’ of Occupy Wall Street. I was responsible for making a lot of the maps that helped people figure out how to do actions. If you had a lot of people showing up at an event, they wouldn’t necessarily know what the plan was going to be, where we were going, or what would be safe or not safe.  [13]

Ingrid’s map-making has two main dimensions: educational and tactical.

One way that I use information specifically has been looking at financial information and trying to make sense of it, as a way to understand the corruption or inequalities in the system and visualise that inequality using numbers.

On a tactical level it’s usually information about interconnections that institutions have with each other, and that individuals at institutions have with each other, then using that to find weak points in a network or spaces that can be exploited. It might be looking at who’s on the board of a large financial institution and what other boards they are on. [14]

Storytelling is an essential part of her data work:

 What I feel like I’m doing with these existing datasets that makes them more meaningful is shaping them into a story that people can understand and understand themselves as actors within…All information is just an abstraction, it’s not necessarily fact. Information is the result of the collection and interpretation of a lot of things, so I think that if you just hand someone raw data (although there’s no such thing as raw data), they’re not necessarily going to understand how they themselves are implicated in those numbers, or it’s going to overwhelm them. [15]

The fate of practices

At this point the reader may be wondering what these techno-political practices actually tell us about the new protest movements, especially given that most of these movements appear to rise and fall within a matter of months. What happens to these practices after the protest ecosystems where they co-evolved decline and dissipate? Do they ‘live on’ in other social domains or simply disappear along with the protests? What impact do they have, if any, on the political cultures where they are embedded? And what about the countless other practices not covered here?

These challenging questions will have to await future posts.

Go to next post: How Spain’s indignados movement was born

Go to previous post: The year of the freedom technologist

Notes

[1] See Boler, M., A. Macdonald, C. Nitsou and A. Harris 2014. Connective labor and social media: women’s key roles in the “leaderless” movement of Occupy Wall Street. Special issue of Convergence journal, “New Media, Global Activism and Politics” Vol. 20, no. 3, p. 8.

[2] ibid, p. 8.

[3] ibid, p. 9.

[4] ibid, p. 9.

[5] ibid, p. 10.

[6] Romanos, E. (2012). “Esta revolución es muy copyleft”: Entrevista a Stéphane M. Grueso a propósito del 15M, Interface 4 (1) 183-206. http://www.interfacejournal.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Issue-4-1-Full-PDF.pdf (NB. all translations are mine)

[7] Romanos, ibid.

[8] Romanos, ibid.

[9] Stéphane Grueso: “Para mí, la persona del año son todos los que han estado en Sol” 20 Minutos, 14 Dec 2011, http://www.20minutos.es/noticia/1249570/0/stephane-grueso/personaje-time/15m/

[10] Boler et al, ibid, p. 12.

[11] Boler et al, ibid, p. 13.

[12] Romanos, idib, p. 184.

[13] Exposing the Invisible. Chapter 7: Ingrid, Building Better Problems, https://exposingtheinvisible.org/sketches-in-depth/ingrid-building-better-problems/

[14] Exposing the Invisible, ibid.

[15] Exposing the Invisible, ibid.

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