Countless journalists and social theorists have postulated a link between Twitter and democracy, ever since Bouzazi sparked the flame which burned him to death while igniting a wave of protest which quickly engulfed the Middle East in early 2011. Revolutions obviously aren’t new, they have occured throughout the course of human history, but never has the contagion been as quick as 2011, with movements spreading across populations in months, sometimes even a couple of days. Theorists like Lotad, Boyd, and others explored the information flows of these short-form messages networked to the twitterverse via mentions and hashtags, and hyperlinked to a multitude of other locations on the world Wide Web. They examine who was tweeting with the #tunisia and #egypt hashtags as the revolution spread, and demonstrate how these messages and articles flowed throughout the world in minutes.
This spread of communication across long distances can certainly have a positive effect on democracy. individuals have the ability to seek a dizzying range of information quicker than ever before, as decentralized Web 2.0 technologies facilitate the bottom-up production of information with a much lower participation cost. A television studio, millions of dollars, and a contract with a cable network are no longer required for producing content which has the ability to go viral and spread through global networks. As Castells wrote in “Networks of Outrage and Hope”, virtual social networks facilitate spaces of autonomy which are “largely beyond the control of governments and corporations that had monopolized the channels of communication as the foundation of their power, throughout history.” The increased ability of marginalized populations to communicate instantly, with only an Internet connection can subvert governments, as state control of media discourse becomes much more difficult to maintain. Social movements which used to be suppressed by the state-controlled media now have participants chanting ‘the Whole World is Watching’. We live in a global village, and social networks such as Twitter cam be seen as facilitating a new global democracy, beyond the traditional structures of state and corporate media.
We are in a time period where the hope for social change burns more intensely than ever before. Even as we see economic conditions worsening in many parts of the world, with austerity measures and corporate welfare dominating the policy decisions of many nations, there remains a hope that the virtual spaces which foster instantaneous connectivity will raise the possibility of social action to enact meaningful change. As communities are formed through the togetherness of sharing ideas and goals in urban spaces, they are supported and intensely linked with virtual communities formed on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social networking sites.
The internet is a space of autonomy, which lowers barriers of expression and social movement participation. In “Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age”, Castells defines autonomy as “the capacity of a social actor to become a subject by defining its action around projects constructed independently of the institutions of society, according to the values and interests of the social actor”. (229) He then proceeds to link this concept with networked social movements as the transition from individuation to autonomy is “operated through networking, which allows individual actors to build their autonomy with like-minded people in the networks of their choice…the Internet provides the organizational communication platform to translate the culture of freedom into the practice of autonomy.” (230)
This weekend, I began reading the “Strategy of Social Protest” by William Gamson. He analyzes a random sample of 53 American social movements between 1800 and 1945 that fit into what he defines as an “opposing group.” He seems to be focusing on mainly the outcomes, and has distinct categories for measuring when a group can be considered “successful” in their challenge of a defined antagonist. While this work certainly provides a foundational backbone for the sociological study of social movements, it needs to be complemented by an interactional study of the micro-processes that comprise a social movement, including the role of culture and the frames of the individual protesters.
There are few processes in human life that are more fascinating to explore than the expansion of ideas and concepts over time as a result of research and brainstorming. We are gifted as animals with the innate ability to recognize the patterns that exist around us and it’s refreshing to witness this process occur, especially from a first-person perspective.
Since initiating an academic exploration into our current networked social movements only ten days ago, many ideas have bloomed and evolved, including a wide range of theories, research plans, and expectations of what will be found. I have been collecting a plethora of academic research which will be useful for analyzing the current mobilizations for social and economic justice in America, including frame alignment processes studied by Snow, Benford, and other colleagues, the networked theory of power presented in “Communication Power”, and “Networks of Hope and Outrage” by Manuel Castells, the resource mobilization perspective popularized by Gamson in “The Strategy of Social Protest”, and the theory of networked publics formulated in the research of danah boyd. While resource mobilization theory and frame alignment provide two completely different methods for studying the processes of new social movements, their interrelations must be understood for better analyzing how offline and online action coexist to build movements like 15 Now in Seattle.