Tweets and the Streets: Social Media, Protest Mobilisation and Revolutionary Transformation

On Thursday, Dr Tim Jordan from the Department of Culture, Media and the Creative Industries will chair an exciting and topical discussion about the role of social media in contemporary activism. He will be joined by Dr Paolo Gerbaudo, who joined King’s in September and whose whose book, Tweets and the Streets, was published this month.

Tweets and the Streets book cover

❝ The concept of transformation that constitutes the main theme for this year’s Arts and Humanities festival at King’s is one which I have had the chance to reflect much about during my recent research into the use of social media in the recent wave of protest movements from the Arab Spring, to the indignados and Occupy, which has constituted the basis for my book Tweets and the Streets (2012). Studying the doings of this new wave of digital activists, from Facebook page admins, to activist tweeps, have made me think of the nature of protest mobilisation precisely as a process of transformation of those who are involved rather than simply their coordination across time and space.

People who take to the streets in protest events as part of emerging social movements are not simply a set of individuals mobilized one by one. Rather they can take to the streets only insofar as they are more than simply a collection of individuals, but have rather been fused together into something bigger than themselves and their sum, into a collective actor, capable of acting as one, while remaining many. At this level social media have become the channels through to create the collective identity and emotional motivations, which are crucial for facilitating such process of transformation of individualized internet users into members of a collective protest movement.

In Egypt, digital activists have mobilised the members of that cultural grouping which in Egyptian popular discourse has come to be known as shabab-al-Facebook or Facebook youth. This grouping had been often publicly stygmatised for its incapacity to publicly voice its concerns beyond the limits of internet forums. In order to politicize it, the shabab-al-Facebook needed to turned into something different than what it already was. The process of mobilisation of this section of society came to revolve aroud the metamorphosis of this Facebook into a “street youth”. Indicatively the slogan posted by the Facebook page admin Wael Ghonim on the eve of the revolution was “We are not guys of comment and like” as to express the necessity of a collective transformation which involved the abandoment of individualised passivitiy and the joining together into a social movement capable of facing up to Mubarak´s regime.

Similar processes have taken place both in the case of the indignados in Spain and of Occupy in the US. In these movements social media have not been simply channels to “inform” the already converted and coordinate their collective action. Rather they have been stages through which to construct a sense of togetherness, and an emotional impetus towards participation in public space, as exemplified by one of the slogan of the indignados “we are not on Facebook we are on the streets!”.

Facebook pages and movement Twitter feeds have constituted channels in which individual sentiments of anger, indignation, hope could be transformed into political passions, capable of driving the process of mobilisation.

Thus, if we are to understand the way in which the use of social media changes contemporary protest culture, it is precisely this emotional and transformative dimension the one to which we need to dedicate our attention. ❞

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