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Mobiles and protest: four areas in need of further theorisation

July 31, 2015

Extract from Monterde, A. and J. Postill 2014. Mobile ensembles: The uses of mobile phones for social protest by Spain’s indignados. In G. Goggin and L. Hjorth (eds.) Routledge Companion to Mobile Media. London: Routledge, 429-438.


This broad overview of the mobiles for activism and protest literature reveals four main areas of theorisation in need of further development. First, the specific affordances of different mobile technologies matter and should not be subsumed under general notions such as ‘new media’ or ‘digital media’. As we saw with the English riots, the low cost, speed and privacy of Blackberry made it an ideal device for rioters. By contrast, Twitter became the preferred platform for grassroots clean-up operations after the riots.

Second, we must also consider the wider, and shifting, media environments in which such affordances are played out. A manner of dynamic holism is called for in which the interactions and combinations of old and new technologies, agents and actions are integral to the analysis. A variety of working concepts are being currently tested to attain this elusive goal, e.g. Barassi’s ‘complex dialectics’, Chadwick’s ‘hybrid media system’, Tufekci and Wilson’s ‘new media ecology’, or Constanza-Chock’s ‘media cultures’.

Third, the study of new forms of mobile action is still in its infancy, with notions such as Wasik’s ‘flash mobs’, Rheingold’s ‘smart mobs’, Hardt and Negri’s ‘swarm intelligence’ and cognate terms all in urgent need of critical comparison and interrogation.

Finally, further thinking is also required on the diachronic, processual dimension of these phenomena. It is not sufficient to take ‘snapshots’ of the uses of mobile media for activism and protest at a single point in time. We must also conduct phase-by-phase analyses in order to establish which (mobile) technologies – and mobile ensembles – were particularly salient at which stages in the life course of a protest movement.

Thus, below we offer a processual account of three phases in the early development of Spain’s Indignados (15M) movement, with special reference to the uses of mobile phones in each phase and their relationship to the movement’s rapidly shifting mediascapes. By way of contextualisation, we first provide two brief overviews of the recent histories of mobile telephony and protest in Spain.


Barassi, V. “Review of Networks of Outrage and Hope, by Manuel Castells (2012)”, E-International Relations, 27 February 2013.

Chadwick, A. (2013). The hybrid media system: Politics and power. Oxford University Press.

Costanza-Chock, S. (2012). Mic check! Media cultures and the Occupy movement. Social Movement Studies, 11(3-4), 375-385.

Hardt, M., and A. Negri (2004). Multitude: War and democracy in the age of empire. New York, NY: Penguin.

Rheingold, H. (2002) Smart Mobs The Next Social Revolution, USA: Perseus Basic Books.

Tufekci, Z. and C. Wilson (2012), “Social media and the decision to participate in political protest in Egypt: Observations from Tahrir Square”, Journal of Communication 62 (2): 365.

Wasik, B.(2009). And then there’s this: How stories live and die in viral culture. New York, NY: Viking.

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