Last month Wired magazine’s cover story was “#Riot: Self-Organized, Hyper-Networked Revolts—Coming to a City Near You.” On the surface, the article (written by senior editor Bill Wasik) appeared to be yet another look at the use of social media in organizing protests, riots, etc. But rather than dwelling on the mobilization aspects of social media, Wasik emphasized the social nature and the sense of community and identity that are formed prior to actual interaction. As Clifford Stott explains in the article, mobs organized through social media are unique in the sense that they have “create[ed] the identity prior to the event.” Through a single message, the participants prepare themselves mentally for the events. However, while these gatherings have the potential for violence, they also serve a somewhat democratic function. For example, Wasik offers the “impromptu street parties” organized by the dance group, Team Nike.
Although impromptu dance parties might not seem like a very politically motivated event, these public meetings established what’s been referred to as “cosmopolitan canopies” around Philadelphia. The term–coined by a Yale sociologist–describes “places where people of difference races and class backgrounds come together… [these spaces] represent society and authority in a way that a statehouse or bank headquarters ought to but does not.” The idea of this public congregation as a representation of society is not a far cry from protest movements, like Occupy, which “represent a disconnected group getting connected… casting off its invisibility to embody itself formidably in physical space.”
What’s interesting about a movement like Occupy though, is not just the physical aspect of it; it’s that it is equally, if not more so, present online. Yes, on one hand you can argue that “it is only in the public meeting that the real voice of the people is ever heard… [as] the assembled multitude loses all sight of private interest, and every heart beats only for the genuine good.”* But even Wasik contends that it was the “virtualization” of the moment that made it possible; it was the images of “struggling Americans” on the movement’s Tumblr that established a “mediated visibility” for the movement, and gained “recognition in the public space.” With this presence in the public sphere already defined, the physical occupation became the symbolic representation of a “giant, subterranean mob of Americans struggling to get by.”
Still, I’m not saying that this is all because of the Internet–the physical occupation is still a significant displace of power. But I think the SOPA/PIPA experience has just reaffirmed that the Internet holds a special place in American society that we seem to have lost along the way.
*This quote is from T.J. Wooler (1819), “Warning to the People,” Black Dwarf, October 27, 693-99(95), found in Craig Calhoun, “Public Sphere in the Field of Power,” Social Science History, vol. 34, no. 3 (2010); 301-335, 315
[image via Wired]