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New Texts Out Now: Paolo Gerbaudo, Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism

[Cover of Paolo Gerbaudo, [Cover of Paolo Gerbaudo, "Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism"]

Paolo Gerbaudo, Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism. London and New York: Pluto Books, 2012.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Paolo Gerbaudo (PG): I have been involved in progressive social movements in Italy and the UK for the last twelve years, some times as a participant, other times as a journalist for il manifesto, a newspaper of the Italian New Left, other times as a social movement researcher, and still other times as an organizer. Thus, the first reason for writing this book for me was a strong sense of commitment to, and solidarity with, the movements I studied, and an enthusiasm about the sense of possibility they sparked. Naturally, the position of an activist/researcher is much more problematic than this. I think it should involve some degree of detachment from the social movements one studies, and the capacity to be critical of their doings, to look not only at victories but also at defeats of these movements and at their reasons. This is what I try to do in the book, delving into the contradictions between discourses and practices, and in particular the contradiction between the emphasis on participation in activist culture, on the one hand, and the continuing presence of a diffuse charismatic leadership in contemporary movements, on the other hand.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

PG: There is one key debate my book is trying to address. It is the academic and pundit debate about the so-called Facebook or social media revolutions: the question of the impact of social media in contemporary movements. This debate is marked by a stark division between techno-optimists like Clay Shirky, who think social media automatically provide movements with formidable mobilizing weapons, and techno-pessimists like Malcom Gladwell and Evgeniy Morozov, who see social media as ineffective at best, dangerous at worst. My book tries to escape the narrow confines of this debate, which has gone on quite fruitlessly for some years now. This is also because my main question is not: are social media good/bad? but rather, what do activists actually do with social media? What is the content they channel through them? Pursuing these questions allows me to open up my analysis to questions of radiclal politics and collective identity, and to the insights of authors like Ernesto Laclau, Alberto Melucci, and Zygmunt Bauman.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

PG: My previous research focused on the anti-globalization movement; its theorizing reflected the culture of that cycle of protest, with its emphasis on difference, on autonomy, and on small-group organizing. This previous work, conducted during my PhD studies at Goldsmiths College in London, has been retrospectively useful for identifying the specificity of contemporary movements vis-a-vis the anti-globalization movement, and in particular the popular and majoritarian character of contemporary movements. While changing the object of my research, I have also come to be increasingly skeptical of a series of ideas which animated my previous research, in particular the cult of spontaneity, horizontality, and networks, which became so dogmatic in the anti-globalization movement and is still reflected in contemporary movements.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

PG: The idea of the book is to be an academic book, but an academic book that can speak to publics beyond academia, in particular to the activist community to which it is ideally addressed. My intention was to make the book not only a scholarly inquiry, but also a platform of self-reflection for activists. By discussing issues activists are constantly dealing with in their day-by-day ground operations, the book hopes to inspire and contribute to an organizational rethinking. It invites us to get to grips with some of the most burning failures of contemporary social movements, and in particular their tendency towards evanescence, which reflects the embrace of highly liquid media, such as social media.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

PG: Social movements' communications is and will remain my main area of interest. Critical social media studies is tentatively the type of investigation I want to conduct in the future. However, I am also becoming increasingly interested in the role of social media beyond activism, and its influence on the creation of new urban subcultures, from the artificial love relationships facilitated by dating sites like Badoo, to the new forms of gendered community developing around sites like Pinterest. Studying social media indeed bears much promise for those interested in the transformation of contemporary society, if only we are capable of going beyond the fetishism with objects and technologies that has so far dominated the stage.

J: How does your book expand upon or diverge from recent scholarship on social media and popular protests across the globe?

PG: The thesis of my book goes against much of the grain of theorizing about social media, but also more general theoretical work about the information society, cognitive capitalism, etc. Authors like Manuel Castells, in his work on networks, and of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in their discussion of multitude and swarms, have depicted the contemporary digital society as one marked by irreducible multiplicity, flexibility, and horizontality; individuals do not have to be fused into collective subjects in order to act together. In my book, counter to this strand of theorizing, I emphasize the continuing importance of questions of unity in collective action. I show how social media are used by activists as emotional conduits to facilitate the coming together of an individualized constituencies around common identities, common places, common names, and formats of action. Moreover, I highlight how counter to claims about leaderlessness, social media use is not characterized by absolute horizontality, but is rather accompanied by the rise of new forms of soft leadership. Contrasting interviews, observations, and analysis of social media material I highlight the contradition betweenactivist claims to absolute spontaneity andthe actual practices of social media campaigning. Participation is always framed in a way or another, and in the case of contemporary movements it is chiefly structured by  relatively small group of highly dedicated activists, reluctant leaders, or "movement choreographers." There is no such thing as "unrestrained participation," even in the era of social media.

J: Choreographic leadership and choreography of assembly are two recurring terms in the book. But what do these notions actually mean?

PG:
The term “choreography” is a metaphor to render the idea that at the time of social media protest activity is not as spontaneous and disorganised as it might appear at first sight.  Rather, by using social media, acting as Facebook admins or popular movement tweeps, contemporary digital activists come to act as choregraphers or soft leaders of sorts. Through the messages, suggestions, and instructions they disseminate, they  shape the way in which movements assemble in public space. Yet animated by a libertarian critique of hierarchy shared by many contemporary movements, these leaders do not want to be recognised as such. are never visible on the stage—just like a choreographer whose scripts structure the movement of dancers. Secondly, the metaphor serves to express the fact that social media are not about creating "cyberspace" opposed to physical reality. To the contrary, they are about shaping our collective action in physical space, the way in which we come together and act together on the streets of Cairo, Madrid, and New York.

Excerpts from Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism

FROM THE INTRODUCTION

An Emotional Choreography

In this book I argue that social media, as utilized in contemporary social movements, have been chiefly involved in the creation of an emotional choreography of assembly, understood as the mediated “scene-setting” and “scripting” (Alexander et al., 2006: 36) of the participants’ physical assembling in public space. Contrary to those authors who see social media and new media generally as creating an alternative virtual- or cyber-space (for example McCaughey and Ayers, 2003), I adopt the term “choreography of assembly” in order to stress how social media have been used to sustain new forms of physical gathering in public space, providing participants with a common sense of unity, place, and direction in the unfolding of collective action. Countering the spatial dispersion of contemporary societies, Facebook messages and activist tweets have constructed a new sense of social centrality, focused around “occupied squares,” which are thereby transformed into trending places, or venues of magnetic gatherings, with a great power of emotional attraction.

Despite the scepticism of techno-pessimists like Gladwell and Morozov, it is undeniable that social media have had a major impact on the unfolding of collective action, although not at all in the disembodied manner celebrated by techno-optimists like Shirky. At the same time, it is also important to highlight the risk of seclusion that the use of social media can create, when their use is not accompanied by street-work and interaction with those on the other side of the digital divide, who, for instance, “do not have a Facebook account.”

The adoption of the term “choreography” also serves to indicate that the process of the symbolic construction of public space, for all the participatory character and techno-libertarian claims of protest culture, has not been entirely “spontaneous” or “leaderless”—as many pundits, journalists, activists and academics alike have suggested.[1] In a theoretical frame, my main target throughout the book is the discourse of “horizontalism” (Juris, 2008) informed by notions like “networks” (Castells, 1996, 2009) and “swarms” (Negri, Hardt, 2000, 2005), which will be discussed and criticized in the following chapter. I argue that far from inaugurating a situation of absolute “leaderlessness,” social media have in fact facilitated the rise of complex and “liquid” (Bauman, 2000) forms of leadership which exploit the interactive and participatory character of the new communication technologies. Influential Facebook admins and activist tweeps have played a crucial role in setting the scene for the movements’ gatherings in public space, by constructing common identifications and accumulating or triggering an emotional impulse towards public assembly. Just like conventional choreographers in the field of dance, these core organizers are for the most invisible on the stage itself. They are reluctant leaders or “anti-leaders”: leaders who, subscribing to the ideology of horizontalism, do not want to be seen as leaders in the first place but whose scene-setting and scripting work has been decisive in bringing a degree of coherence to people’s spontaneous and creative participation in the protest movements.

[…]

FROM CHAPTER TWO: “We Are Not People of Comment and Like: The Revolutionary Coalescence of Shabab-al-Facebook”

In the words of Ahmed Sabry, a forty-eight-year-old architect involved in the revolution, Facebook was for many young Egyptians a sort of “training ground,” which prepared the shabab-al-Facebook psychologically for the tough challenges that awaited them in the streets.[2] It allowed them to build up a confidence in their own abilities from the relatively safe cover of a computer screen. Nora Shalaby observes that the [Kullena Khaled Said] Facebook page “showed that there were many people thinking the same, and wanted the torture to stop and wanted to see a regime change.[3] The mere existence of opposition Facebook pages was for many politically inexperienced young people proof of the fact that Mubarak’s regime was less powerful than it pretended to be. Mustafa Shamaa recounts how “the first time I watched the Khaled Saeed’s page I got a bit scared. But then I saw that they didn’t arrest the admin. And I realized that there was some safety and that we could write whatever we wanted to.”[4]

If the figure of Khaled Said allowed this largely unpoliticized Egyptian middle-class youth to identify with one hero, it also allowed them to identify against a common enemy—not just the regime as a whole but more specifically the police. “Ours was first and foremost a hate for police,” explains Sally Zohney. “The police represented everything that was wrong with Egyptian society.”[5] Different categories of people had different reasons for harbouring this anger. Football “ultras”—fans of popular clubs like Zamalek and el-Ahly—hated the police because of the frequent clashes after matches.[6] Microbus drivers hated them for being constantly targeted with arbitrary road fines, with which officers were topping up their miserly salaries. Young people resented them because of random searches and harassment.

[…]

The Kullena Khaled Said Facebook page progressively came to function as a sort of megaphone through which, from its safe base in Dubai, Ghonim would relay to a broad and diffuse public the decisions taken by activists on the ground in Cairo and Alexandria. The Facebook page became a platform from which to share and streamline information, but more importantly to create a sense of anticipation about the upcoming event. A Facebook event was created titled “January 25: Revolution against Torture, Poverty, Corruption, and Unemployement.” On Friday the 21st, four days before the protest, the page counted 100,000 confirmed attendees and many others would join in the following days.

But would all those appearing under the “attending” list actually turn out? Or would the Facebook youth remain just a Facebook youth? These were the questions many people asked themselves on the eve of the demonstration, in a testament to the difficulty of constructing a sense of trust online (Tarrow, 1998). Previous protest events had already acquainted participants with the gulf between a Facebook count of attendees and the actual street count. Scepticism was thus unsurprisingly rife: “I saw that people were saying they would take part in the protests but I didn’t believe they would,” recounts Reda a photographer and member of the ultras of el-Ahly who took to the streets on the 25th.[7] Sally Zohney came to realise that many of her friends who had confirmed their attendance were not actually intending to participate:

Before the 25th OK we had the event on Facebook of the 25th of January revolution, and you have many people saying attending, attending, attending and you say: “alright, whatever.” And you see how many of those you know and you ask them are you guys really going? And they would say: no! Then why are you saying that you are going to attend on Facebook? Because we are supportive! And then you start realizing that only one or two are actually going out of twenty people who said yes![8]

Fear of police of repression, and mutual distrust among Facebook users, constituted two formidable obstacles on the way to achieving a huge turnout on the day. Ghonim was aware of the risk. During the final days before the demonstration he put much effort into updating his status messages in an effort to counter the defeatism of many users, well exemplified in a comment posted by one user: “no one will do anything and you’ll see. All we do is post on Facebook. We are the Facebook generation. Period” (Ghonim, 2012: 135).

To counter this impression, Ghonim focused on positive messages emphasizing the people’s determination to take to the streets, exemplified by the statement: “we won’t stand and watch other people on Facebook.” The motivational work done by Ghonim in preparation for the protests was summed up in a message published on the 24th, which appealed to people’s sense of pride:

A person decided not to participate tomorrow, he is sitting in front of his computer and writes comments on Facebook saying: the people are cowards and nobody is really going to participate...like I said before there is a phenomenon in psychology called projection...you have a certain problem, in order to avoid pangs of your conscience you are saying to yourself that all the people are cowards...Unfortunately my friend...I am not a coward, I am demonstrating on the 25th Jan.

The same urge to dispel people’s fear and uncertainty underscored the action of young activist Asmaa Mafhouz, who in anticipation of the protest posted a now-famous YouTube video in which she incited people to join the protests: 

If you think yourself a man, come with me on 25 January. Whoever says women shouldn’t go to protests because they will get beaten, let him have some honor and manhood and come with me on 25 January. Whoever says it is not worth it because there will only be a handful of people, I want to tell him, “You are the reason behind this, and you are a traitor, just like the president or any security cop who beats us in the streets.”[9]

This call to heroism cleverly used the machismo prevalent in large sectors of Egyptian society as a channel through which to mobilize young men, who would fear being ridiculed for having been surpassed in bravery by a young girl. On the eve of the protest similar videos and status messages confirmed the impression that “it was going to be big”—as Ahmed Sharqaui, an Egyptian activist from the town of Zagazig, reflects.[10] The last status message published on the Kullena Khaled Said page on the morning of the 25th, a few hours before the time set for the public gathering, took the tone of a generational challenge: “today we are going to prove that we are not guys of ‘Comment and like’ as they claim. We are REALITY on Earth we are demanding our rights and we are all participating.”

NOTES

[1] Expressions like “spontaneous” and “leaderless” to describe the popular movements of 2011 abound in many media articles and reports across the different countries considered in this study. See for example H. Gautney, “What is Occupy Wall Street? Story of a Leaderless Movement,” Washington Post, 10 October 2011.

[2] Interview with Ahmed Sabry—Cairo

[3] Interview with Nora Shalaby—Cairo

[4] Interview with Mustafa Shamaa—Cairo

[5] Interview with Sally Zohney—Cairo

[6] The “ultras”—fans of the Cairo football teams el-Ahly and Zamalek—played a crucial role in the revolution against Mubarak. See for example J. Montague, “Egypt’s Revolutionary Soccer Ultras: How Football Fans Toppled Mubarak,” CNN, 29 June 2011.

[7] Interview with Reda—Cairo

[8] Interview with Sally Zohney—Cairo

[9] A. Mafhouz, “Asmaa Mahfouz and the YouTube Video that Helped Spark the Egyptian Uprising,” Democracy Now!, 19 January 2012.

[10] Ahmed Sharqaui—Cairo

[Excerpted from Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism, by Paolo Gerbaudo, by permission of the author. © 2012 Paolo Gerbaudo. For more information, or to order the book, click here or here.]

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