What’s in a Square?: Imagined, Digital, and on the Move

I sometimes feel like even the word ‘technology’ is dated, timestamped, monolithic, at best. It feels like the moment it leaves your mouth, you instantaneously become older, more out of touch, and there is somehow some new, evolved, multifaceted device, service, or app, that has rendered your current technological situation archaic.

That’s all to say that talking about technology and its engagement with protest feels overwhelming because it’s almost always evolving. Tufekcki examines internet-fueled protest movements as the subjects of Twitter and Tear Gas. Broadly, Tufecki discusses how modern protest movements have been changed by the internet—and what that means for protests going forward. I was nostalgic reading this for the old days of protesting during the Bush era, a quainter, more gently terrifying time, and how we understood protest, discovered, and formed communities around the RNC protests in NYC, the Womens March in DC in 2004, and the protests around the invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s, the communal strains of which ran really deep for us, and we understood protest as a natural community.

“A protest, if nothing else, is a community.”

An interesting facet of her argument has to do with the nature of communities. Asserting that communities formed and were formed by shared identities based on a common language, region, religion, and location (think Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities), digital networks have allowed for the creation of communities centered around shared identities unhampered by distance. These digital communities, transcending traditional political, social, divisions and bringing together groups that don’t normally interact offline, congregate in virtual “town squares.” There is a broader message here about how alliances, coalitions, and partnerships are formed in an age of rapid digital networking and social media. I think about the conversations happening between BLM, Jewish activists, and Palestinian human rights organizations, the unbelievable proliferation of Kaepernick’s protest and division of allegiances in American (that continues), in a more negative lens, the Charlottesville / post Charlottesville capacity of hate groups to find each other, align, grow through networks, and protest publically.

This reminds me, quite literally, of the images of protests in squares are the MENA region during the Arab Spring that Tufekci discusses. She mentions the role that the ritual of protests plays in forming activist communities, starting with the simple act of showing up to a protest. Since digital networks have allowed activists to inform far greater numbers of people of their causes and actions with far less effort than in previous decades, thus lowering barriers to entry in social movements, there has been a marked rise in participation in such movements. One example she uses is the protests at Tahrir Square, the most visible of those of the Arab Spring—dissenting ideas that spread on Facebook, a “networked public sphere,” are linked to the high turnout at the beginning of the protest, which then engendered what she terms an “avalanche of dissent.” Tufekci quotes historian Melvin Kranzberg from 1985: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” This foreshadows her central message. For better or worse, the technologies that power the networked public sphere have changed the nature of political protest as well as government reactions to and suppressions of such protest.

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4 Responses to What’s in a Square?: Imagined, Digital, and on the Move

  1. andrewguglielmo says:

    Great blog post! Who would have thought Benedict Anderson’s book from our other class would come up almost every single week! I agree with what you’re saying though, especially about the visuals. Images play a crucial role in the success of a movement.

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  2. veronicavesnaver says:

    I was also intrigued by Tufecki’s discussion of protest communities. In particular, I loved her consideration about the construction of libraries during the occupation of parks and public spaces. Again, as I mention in my post for this week, this class has me thinking in terms of the affordances of technology. You’re right, technology has so many affordances that are never ending and constantly being changed and added to. These ideas in particular got me thinking about how you could recreate an occupy movement online. Could you build a virtual protest park? Could you build some kind of online library for your cause?

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  3. larrydurst says:

    Your post (and the replies) brought up several responses in me:

    I was thinking even before the Bush era to earlier protest movements in the 1960s and 1970s (yes, I can remember them!), and the notion of social media creating lower barriers to entry. I remember discussions/complaints about who was really at an anti-war/anti-nuke/impeach rally for the protest versus for the passed-around pot and general party atmosphere. So, perhaps once again taking the curmudgeonly long-view, those barriers were deemed pretty low even back then. Just show up in a beat-up fatigue jacket bought at the army surplus store and you were part of the community. (Mary, am I getting into “Class Acts” territory here?”)

    Your reference to the Kranzberg quote on technology had me thinking of the many notes I jotted in the book’s margins on media and technology theories–which is another way to read Tufekci (I saw a lot of McLuhan in it, for example). I was put in mind of a theory by Lewis Mumford that different technologies do have inherent politics, which is discussed in an essay by Langdon Winner, among other theories, “Do Artifacts have Politics?” Really fascinating for those interested in such stuff. Basically there are inherently authoritarian versus democratic technologies. Those requiring big centralized control–think nuclear energy–are the first, while those that can be built and managed in a more dispersed localized manner–think solar–being the second. In which case I would certainly place social media platforms in the authoritarian camp–although perhaps their community nature masks them as appearing more democratic. Here is a url to a pdf of the article:

    https://www.cc.gatech.edu/~beki/cs4001/Winner.pdf

    Finally, Andrew, that comment on Benedict Anderson made me laugh. When I took Intro to American Studies with Timothy Stewart-Winter we pretty much began each new reading with a hunt for the inevitable reference to Imagined Communities!

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  4. HistoryGrrlNJ says:

    It always seems to come back to Benedict Anderson, doesnt it? I had actually never read Imagined Communities prior to taking Intro to American Studies but it does seem like I come across a reference to it or something that reminds me of Anderson’s theories at least weekly as a history grad student since then.

    Your comments about the way the experience of protesting has changed since the Bush era resonated with me because Bush’s election was the stimulus for my getting involved in social movements. I totally agree that the Bush era seemed like a “quainter, more gently terrifying time;” I often find myself wishing nostalgically for the days before social media and other digital affordances took over our lives and changed everything, including protesting. I had just turned 18 when G.W. Bush was first elected and that was the first election I voted in. At the time, I found out about protests and other political gatherings occasionally from the Internet, but more often through word of mouth. There were definitely far fewer people at the rallies and protests back in then than the ones I attend these days, and I felt more part of the “community” Benedict Anderson talks about than I do now. I know it’s a good thing that the word is getting out and that more people are getting involved, but I do occasionally wonder how many people show up out of curiosity or so they can tag themselves on social media. Hopefully even if that is the case the experience leads to a genuine and lasting interest in social change.

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