Wednesday, December 14, 2011


It has been a commonplace reaction to draw a connection between the Occupy movement and social media. It is a connection that resonates and seems logical. The common sense is that it empowers people to organise and communicate more effectively. 

What I propose is that the connection between protesting and social media is a rather different one: what we are looking at in the Occupy movement is a protest movement that can take a position of legitimacy by engaging in practice that mirrors the now dominant notions of "work".

Prior to the internet, protest consisted of congregating dissidents who inevitably could be portrayed as marginal hippies: their clothes are dirty, their pamphlets are ugly and their methods for gaining attention are intrusive. The "work" of protest thereby would engage in seeking and stretching scant resources and media channels by stealth and force. This could be contrasted with traditional work practices at the time which involved doing "work" that is concrete, materially productive and "actually makes a difference".

Now this has changed. Western economies are nearly wholly in the business of selling lifestyle, creating spectacle and capitalising on social networks. In other words, marketing. And most interestingly, the channels for such marketing has become homogeneous - law firms accountants and marketers spend time building their business on facebook and twitter.  All of a sudden what was once the same ragtag bunch of hippies can now be presented alongside "legitimate" business on both the plane of spectacle (they look the same) and practice.

Hence, I am looking at the Occupy Melbourne Facebook page and their feed is just as slick as any other, it is full of videos and considered opinion articles. They are engaged in full time work of self promotion that can now not be dismissed as an illegitimate practice. Their "work" now consists of exactly the same productive process as any other western business practice. 

In this context I would suggest that the mere fact that protesters and their adversaries play off through the same media channels in itself is the cause for the resurgence in protest and that the similarity in work practice provides them with necessary legitimacy. 


  1. I would agree with your central premise that current protest movements have gained a certain currency as a result of mirroring forms of work but I see it perhaps as a less auspicious development. I think the concept of 'legitimacy' is the one which needs to be contested in these terms, because isn't the concept of 'protest' manifestly structured as an illegitimate act? A legitimate protest is one codified within the bi-partisan constitutional politics, and real protest only arises when no party seems to address the issues that need to be addressed. A kind of legitimized protest is what happens in Korea a lot, there are designated times and places for protests and you need to apply for a license from the government-and these are completely ineffective protests obviously because they challenge nothing.
    So what about the premise that the protesters are using these technologies in an illegitimate way which subverts it, which is why as we saw in Egypt and many other places the first reaction of the government was to order that social networking services terminate their services in a kind of commandeering of the platforms. At the same time in Egypt, I read somewhere that one of the first rules which the protesters organized around was to not use facebook or twitter to communicate important information because it was common knowledge that they were being monitored by the government.

    All in all, I agree with Zuckerman that in some way, the media impression that the government encourages is that these protests are 'twitter' revolutions because a twitter revolution is located on a platform that they can control and its a form of co-opting of the movement.

  2. It is precisely that protest itself is mediated now such that it is able to represent itself as a legitimate act and that it is less dependent on governmentality for its mode of representation.

    I do not think that anyone really considered the use of twitter to be "illegitimate" and I think that is essentially the point.

    I don't think the reference to governmentality is crucial here rather it is the reception of the public consciousness that matters.

    With Occupy it is less perceptible that they are a protest movement as opposed to a business or lobby group or thinktank because all these institutions are now selling the same product.