The Indignant Movement in Athens (new book chapter!)

square

Photo by Nikos Kazeros

Our book chapter with Orsalia Dimitriou on the Indignant Movement in Athens was recently published in the edited book ‘Protest Camps in International Context: Spaces, Infrastructures and Media of Resistance’. The title of our chapter is ‘Protest spaces online and offline: the Indignant movement in Syntagma Square‘. Collaborating with Orsalia on this was very interesting, not only because writing a chapter with a friend makes the process much more enjoyable, but also because Orsalia is an architect with a PhD in visual culture. Writing with someone from a different discipline and developing a common framework for our argument was not easy – in the end we found inspiration in Henri Lefèbvre’s analysis of space and William Sewell Jr’s discussion of ‘spatial agency’ and social movements. Many thanks to Gavin Brown, Anna Feigenbaum, Fabian Frenzel and Patrick McCurdy for editing this volume and for providing very useful feedback.

The introduction to the chapter is copied below – email me if you’d like to have a look at a pre-publication draft.

“The summer of 2011 saw the largest occupation of public space in Greece. Enraged by the government’s austerity measures and following the example of the square occupations in Spain, thousands of people flooded Syntagma Square in the centre of Athens on the 25th of May 2011. Calling themselves ‘Αγανακτισμένοι’, meaning ‘Indignants’ in Greek, protesters stayed in the square for nearly two months, turning it into a stage of dissent and a place of political fermentation. This chapter explores the characteristics, practices and agency of the movement by focusing on space, both online and offline. We examine the Indignant’s repertoire of contention (Tilly 1978) – the tactics that they employed to challenge the government, express their anger and construct alternatives – with an eye on the spatial aspects of this repertoire. In so doing, we provide a sense of the movement’s ‘spatial agency’ (Sewell, 2001), of the ways in which the movement altered the physical arrangements and symbolic associations of space. However, our inquiry also looks at how spaces – online, offline and hybrid – shape patterns of mobilization and social movement activity. To provide a basis for this research, we begin by with a framework for understanding space, both physical and mediated and its relation with contentious politics.”

Social Movements and Political Agency in the Digital Age

6226930086_4d4f416338_mI have recently published a short article on the political agency of social movements in the digital age. I’ve been trying to think of political agency in communication terms, reflecting on the power that social movements may have in their communication with the public and with their adversaries. You can find the beginnings of this argument in this short article. An article on communication power is currently in a very draft stage…

At #NuitDebout

20160501_200445

I spent two weeks in Paris, conducting some fieldwork on #NuitDebout and helping Red Pepper magazine in its coverage of the movement. I was very interested in the links between #NuitDebout and the movements of 2011: How was the movement influenced by previous ones? How is it learning from the 2011 protests and how is the model changing? You can find some excerpts of the interviews that I conducted for Red Pepper magazine here.

 

Keynote session at the ‘Political Agency in the Digital Age’ Conference in Copenhagen 9-10 October 2015

ecrea-2015_plainI’m very excited to deliver my first ever keynote speech at the ‘Political Agency in the Digital Age’ conference taking place in Copenhagen between 9-10 October 2015. The conference is organized by the ECREA section on Communication and Democracy and it is packed with great sessions and papers. You can find the programme here!

Big Data – special section for Media, Culture & Society now on online first!

11928720_951782858193470_6844706233418546722_nTogether with my colleague Aswin Punathambekar, we edited a special Crosscurrents section for Media, Culture and Society devoted to the theme of Big Data. A great lineup of contributors, including Zizi Papacharissi, Jack Qiu, Anita Chan, Nick Seaver and Andre Brock, were asked to respond to the provocations for big data research raised by Kate Crawford and danah boyd in their 2012 article for Information, Communication and Society.

You can find our editorial with Aswin here and the section is available on online first here. The articles will be available to download for free for a few more days.

Presentation of Greenpeace Survey at the E-Campaigning Forum

It was the time of the year again for the E-Campaigning Forum, one of the best gatherings of digital campaigners working for social change. Together with Sandy Schumann from Oxford University, we presented the results of our survey of Greenpeace supporters and their engagement with the organization on different social media platforms. One of our main findings: our study contests the ‘slacktivism’ thesis as what are typically considered as ‘slacktivist’ actions – like signing online petitions – are behaviours that correlated positively with our respondents’ commitment to Greenpeace and the environment. Our presentation sparked a broader discussion on how we study online engagement, the benefits and limitations of qualitative and quantitative methods, as well as the research that academic researchers would like to see. See below for a video of our talk:

Social movements as unfinished processes

Compared to other types of political actors, social movements are much more fluid, chaotic and difficult to define. It is for this reason that the Italian scholar Alberto Melucci urges us to study the process through which social movements are produced rather than consider them as a ‘finished’ product. For Melucci, social movements are never ‘finished’ –  they are diverse, open-ended and always changing. As he notes,

“Addressing the problem of how a collective actor takes shape requires recognition of the fact that, for instance, what is empirically called ‘a movement’ and which, for the sake of observational and linguistic convenience, has been attributed an essential unity, is in fact a product of multiple and heterogeneous social processes. We must therefore seek to understand how this unity is built and what different outcomes are generated by the interaction of its various components.” (Melucci 1996: 20).

In one of my favourite Occupy Wall Street tweets, we can see the same attitude of questioning, the same openness to the fact that a movement like Occupy may be constantly changing:

occupy tweet

Focusing on communication can help us understand the ‘multiple and heterogeneous social processes’ through which social movements are produced. This is because viewing social movements as communication phenomena focuses our attention on the interactions and communication practices with which activists organize, coordinate and create the identity of the collective. But how can we study social movements from a communication perspective? This post offers some ideas…

References

Melucci, Alberto (1996) Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age. Cambridge University Press.

Some broad research questions

Question Mark Graffiti, a photo by Bilal Kamoon on Flickr.

Question Mark Graffiti, a photo by Bilal Kamoon on Flickr.

The key question at the heart of this project concerns whether and how the use of certain technologies shapes the characteristics and effectiveness of social movements. As discussed in another post, this approach can be considered as part of a paradigm shift in the study of media and social movements, where the media are no longer viewed only as spaces for the representation of protest, but also as tools for organizing and coordinating.

To address this key concern, the project focuses on four broad research questions with regards to the role of the internet in the Occupy movement and networks/campaigns that emerged from it:

  • How is the activists’ internet use contributing to processes of organizing, diffusion and participation?
  • What are the implications for the power relationships both within the movement, as well as between movements and their targets or the mainstream media?
  • How do activist cultures with regards to the internet, strategy and organizing affect the activists’ use of these technologies?
  • How does the design and proprietary or non-proprietary nature of these technologies affect their use and implications for social movements?

In other words, the project is looking at the role of the internet in different activities of the movement and what it means for power – both power within the movement and the power of the movement (to effect change, to influence public discourse etc.). Conceptualizing these power relationships is difficult as it necessitates an understanding of how leadership works in social movements, as well as a clear framework for studying movement outcomes. It also requires a definition of power that not only captures the multiplicity of its meanings but is also empirically workable (this will be the topic of a future blog post…).

However, to forge a better understanding of the role of new technologies in protest, we need to take into account the activists’ experiences, expertise and attitudes towards the internet. Activist cultures with regards to strategy and organizing are also important as they affect how activists perceive and organize the communication process – who they think is authorized to speak, about what and to whom and through which tools. I talked about the intersection between internet and strategic/organizing cultures in a chapter for the book Mediation and Protest Movements (edited by Bart Cammaerts, Alice Mattoni and Patrick McCurdy). The chapter derives from earlier work on the Global Justice Movement and the European Social Forum in particular. Based on interviews with European Social Forum organizers, I identified two ideal-types of internet cultures with regards to the use of web and email: a broadcasting culture and an interactive one. The current project builds on and enriches these ideas, looking for instance at the impact of the cultures of tech activists – of people who have links with the hacker or the FLOSS communities – on the creation and use of online tools.

Finally, the design and proprietary or non-proprietary nature of the online platforms also shapes their role in protest. Internet platforms and services offer ‘online structures for action’ as Foot and Schneider put it. Proprietary platforms like Facebook and Twitter were not designed with protest in mind, but are commercial operations, profiting from users’ data. The ways in which they are designed, the applications they offer, the rules encoded in the software and their implied governance mechanisms influence the use of these technologies by protesters. The same is true for the platforms created by protesters themselves to coordinate their activity.

Yet in this project platforms are conceptualized in a more expansive terms. Although the focus is on online platforms and applications, physical spaces – the squares where encampments were set up or the rooms where meetings took place –  are also considered as platforms whose norms of use, architectural characteristics, ownership, accessibility and state regulation affect the types of communication and coordination that they facilitate. Movement activities transcend different spaces that are at once and at the same time both online and offline: we access the internet from physical places that are in turn always mediated in one way or another. Investigating the role of specific technologies in protest movements needs to involve a better understanding of their placement within the communication ecology of the movement.

References

Foot, A. K. and Schneider, S. M. (2006) Web Campaigning. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press.

Kavada, A. (2013) ‘Internet cultures and protest movements: the cultural links between strategy, organizing and online communication’ in B. Cammaerts, P. McCurdy and A. Mattoni (eds) Mediation and Social Movements, London: Intellect.