Throughout history, the use of media has been crucial for political and social struggles

Contribution 1: Steve Sherman

Excerpted from Steve Sherman :

“I think the general point that social media, and other forms of media, are trivial sideshows to the ‘real’ element of struggle is completely untenable and wrongheaded. In fact, I would go quite a bit farther than remarking that they are important, or that they facilitate some struggles that might be otherwise impossible. The growth and development of media has long been intertwined with struggles – struggles help produce media innovations, use media innovations as part of their strategies, and further expand the reach of media. As much as ‘the market,’ which may be the more visible factor in the world today, social struggles are crucial to the entire story of media itself, just as media is crucial to their stories. This has been going on for a very long time. The fact that the Jewish people produced five scrolls to tell their story to themselves was crucial in their liberation struggle, and has long been recognized as such by Jews. The scroll media was useful in that it could be easily transported, and, although it is not so easy, reproduced. How many kingdoms at the time had scrolls that documented their history and laws? I’m betting few; possibly none. The achievement of this written story was a central achievement of the Jewish people, profoundly coloring their survival and reproduction up to the present.

Moving closer to the present, the printing press was crucial to two waves of struggle, which were both important to expanding the reach of printing. The first, when printing was just getting off the ground, was the Protestant Reformation, and assorted struggles, including the more ‘communist’ Peasant revolts. Printing greatly eased spreading the message of these various rebels. The Protestants made reading the bible an imperative, creating a new market for printers (Luther’s pamphlets were also hugely popular) and transforming the role of reading in everyday life. A couple centuries later, printing was also crucial to the wave of Republican revolutions including those in France, the British colonies of North America (which became the U.S.) and Latin America. Printing had created a reading public which was less deferential to the authority of kings and aristocrats. And once the revolutions got going, they embraced printing as a way to spread the word. Furthermore the new forms of government that emerged were heavily dependent on printing for any number of purposes – since the category of citizen was much wider, communicating with citizens was more complex. Also, the concept of citizens, as opposed to subjects, involved the ability to communicate with each other as, roughly speaking, equals, rather than being subject to decrees from those with superior stature (of course, it did not always work out like this, and new centers that monopolized printing–including governments, newspapers, universities, publishers – emerged soon enough). Printing was crucial to the production of the national space the revolutionaries wished to produce. Right through the twentieth century this was the case. Revolutionary governments always seemed to carry out the best literacy programs because, depending on one’s perspective, they were more eager to include everyone or they were more eager to weave all citizens into a web of control transmitted through state propaganda.

The recent integration of media and social movements hardly began with the use of Twitter in Iran, as one might think from the way the current debate is being framed. I can think of at least three earlier instances which are worth noting. First, in 1994, when ‘the internet’ was still something of a ‘cutting edge’ phrase in the United States, the Zapatistas initiated their revolt in Chiapas Mexico. Subcommadante Marcos began communicating with the world through communiques posted to email by supporters. These communiques galvanized literally a global network of supporters. They in turn created something of a worldwide set of eyes on Chiapas, which undermined the prospect of a military assault. In terms of sheer firepower, the Mexican government could have destroyed the rebels (as Chase Manhattan bank famously encouraged them to) but awareness that ‘the whole world was watching’ probably helped constrain them. The Zapatistas were nowhere near strong enough to overthrow the central government in Mexico, yet they made a huge impact worldwide, inspiring numerous struggles which eventually metamorphosed into the ‘global justice movement.’ This would not have been possible without email that could quickly deliver their message worldwide, and facilitated the creation of many networks of activists.

The coming out party of the global justice movement, the protests in Seattle at the WTO meetings, were the occasion for the next key moment I reference. To get the word out on what was happening on the streets of Seattle, activists created the indymedia network, whose content was provided by users simply uploading their own writings. Indymedia quickly turned into a global network of such sites, typically devoted to activists’ news in particular cities. This was about eight years before talk of ‘Web 2.0? or ‘user-generated content’ sites became widespread. As the global justice movement launched protests at one meeting site after another (Prague, Genoa, Quebec City, etc) email lists framed around the date for the protests – J16 (June 16), etc. became something of a trademark, as well as a site for coordination and debate (although David Graber notes, not for decision making). This was close to ten years before the now famous January 25 Facebook page and Twitter hash tags. Indymedia feels a little winded these days, rather like the global justice movement itself, which has not yet found a way to meaningfully synthesize its ideas with the millions of protesters and strikers around the world (including not only the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia but also protests in Western Europe, strikes in China and many other places, etc). But it very well may sooner or later, and new ways of creating global networks through the internet will probably be one element.

The next thing worth calling attention to is the use of SMS text messaging at the Republican national convention protests in NYC in 2004. These made it easier for protesters to quickly communicate with each other and for everyone to see each others messages. This also influenced the design and functioning of Twitter, which was developed soon after.

I find the attitude of many on the left towards the internet and social media to be strangely masochistic. Many on the left use these media with a great deal of urgency. This isn’t surprising, given that we often feel our stories aren’t being told elsewhere. We share our opinions and links to articles, either to share or criticize, with friends or wider circles through Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc in the hopes that they will produce alternative ways of understanding the world. And then we get online and complain about Facebook activism, as if there is some ‘real’ form of activism that doesn’t involve communicating with people.”

Contribution 2: Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd perspicuously explains the radical potential of social media through the notion of ‘social density’.

“Ideas spread more rapidly in densely connected social networks. So tools that increase the density of social connection are instrumental to the changes that spread.”

“When people are connected to a large number of other people through a real-time social medium like Twitter, information and ideas will travel faster across the population than when people are connected to a smaller number of people. And, more importantly, increased density of information flow (the number of times that people hear things) and of the emotional density (as individuals experience others’ perceptions about events, or ‘social contextualization’) leads to a increased likelihood of radicalization: when people decide to join the revolution instead of watching it.”

Contribution 3: Clay Shirky

“Digital [and social] networks have acted as a massive positive supply shock to the cost and spread of information, to the ease and range of public speech by citizens, and to the speed and scale of group coordination.” Social media helps “…synchronize the behavior of groups quickly, cheaply, and publicly, in ways that were unavailable as recently as a decade ago…” thereby allowing “…insurgents to play by different rules than incumbents.”

For another in-depth treatment, from which we sourced the two last citations above, see here.

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