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The mainstreaming of nerd politics and other social movement trends

February 13, 2013

I’m being interviewed over Skype by Anneli Tostar of The Harvard Crimson about social movements. Here are some quick preparatory notes for the record, although I suspect the conversation will move in other directions.

1. What are the sorts of phenomena in relation to social movements that have stood out to you in recent years, either because of their content or method of activism?

A package of four interrelated phenomena, in fact:

  1. What I call the mainstreaming of nerd/geek politics, with Wikileaks’ State Dept cables, Tunisian revolution and #Nolesvotes (Spain) as 3 apt examples, all happening in late 2010 or early 2011
  2. This mainstreaming is taking place in an age of viral reality, esp. with success of social and mobile media; by this I mean the growing importance of people’s ability to decide what current affairs items to ‘share’ (or not) with their personal networks; Since when? well, in West and other regions (SE Asia, South America, Middle East) since the joint power of Twitter and Facebook, esp post-2009
  3. The Tahrir effect in 2011 -> Puerta del Sol -> Zuccotti -> St Paul’s etc
  4. Precarised students and professionals (see Paul Mason’s latest book, Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere), most markedly post-2008 financial crash

2. How does the use of media (video, song, etc.) in the modern era compare with past methods of attempting to gain social mobility? 

I think you mean social mobilisation (not social mobility?). If that’s the case, here I would invoke 1) and 2) above, i.e. the combined effect of geeky activism and social media. For example, one striking ‘game’ that activists play these days is ‘playing the algorithm’ (Postill in press), that is working collectively so that a given hashtag (=keyword) will ‘trend’ on Twitter, thereby achieving greater visibility and mobilising potential for their cause.

3. What are the implications of using primarily global platforms, rather than local or grassroots rallies?

I don’t see such a marked contrast between the global and the local. The platform may be global (or near-global, as China and other countries ban certain web platforms) but it’s still deftly appropriated for national and subnational (regional, local) causes. That said, it *does* make a difference whether or not the whole world can ‘see’ a given campaign at the click of a link. For instance, one thing I find absolutely fascinating about Twitter – compared, say, to a local web forum – is that it is a common platform shared by millions of people from most countries in the world in which their paths cross far more often than if they were using discrete platforms. This allowed Twitter-savvy activists in southern Europe and North America to follow, interact with, learn from, and be inspired by their brethren in North Africa during the 2010-2011 uprisings.

4. What do you see as the most effective way of mobilizing young people today? Is media an integral or even necessary part?

That’s a tough question. First, it depends in part on how you define ‘young people’, i.e. in Spain a 35-year old person is often described as being young, while in England they’ll be lucky if they’re not called middle-aged! I would say that whatever the age group, mobilisation is  most likely and effective if it’s organised around a galvanising issue that affects that target group directly. To use another Spanish example (I did fieldwork in Spain in 2010-2011), in February 2012 students from the secondary school Instituto Lluís Vives in Valencia led protests against government cuts in education. These were repressed with characteristic brutality by the local police, which in turn helped to mobilise not only other high school students but the wider population. Meanwhile in Chile, mobilisations started among high school students for very much the same reasons, and later moved up to university students (in Spain it was the other way around, it was university students who mobilised first).
2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2013 8:09 am

    Interesting piece. As it happens, I was talking to a young Jordanian yesterday about the advantages and disadvantages of the Internet.
    “An advantage is quick mass communication.Look at the Egyptian revolution.” he said.
    How about the disadvantages? He paused, smiled and then said: “Well, look at the Egyptian revolution”.


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