Twitter and Tear Gas: part one of our book club’s reading

Our online bookclub is reading Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.  With this post we discuss the Preface, Introduction, and chapter 1, “A Networked Public.

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In this post I’ll briefly summarize the text, then add some reflections and questions.  You can participate by writing comments here, or through whichever other means you like (Twitter comments, annotations, etc.).

If you’d like to check out other moments of our discussion of this book, you can find all blog posts and their associated comments filed under


Professor Tufekci begins by outlining the recent history of global protest, from the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, Zapatistas, Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring, Geri Park protests.  Also mentioned are Sanders and Trump supporters in 2016, as well as protests from Ukraine to Hong Kong.  These constitute the terrain she will explore, based in part on her personal interactions with many of these events and their participants.  Tufekci signals that she will contrast these movements with the American civil rights movement (xviii).

The opening section also lays out come key concepts for the book, including social movement capacities (“social movements’ abilities”) and signals (“their repertoire of protest, like marches, rallies, and occupations as signals of those capacities”) (xi), as well as the problem of tactical freeze (“the inability of these movements to adjust tactics, negotiate demands, and push for tangible policy changes”) (xvi).

Chapter 1, “A Networked Public,” dives into the role of digital technology in enabling protest and dissenting organization in the Middle East, with Egypt as a focal point.  Here Tufekci invokes Habermas’ notion of the public sphere, the American Tea Party movement, Al Jazeera, the Tunisian revolution of 2011, Wael Ghonim, and the excellent Global Voices organization.

Technologies: blogging looms large, but Facebook ends up becoming the biggest force for connectivity and organizing (19ff).  People use television (Al Jazeera) and mobile devices (ah, Blackberries) as well in a media ecology.

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Ultimately protestors and dissidents are able to wrangle these emerging technologies to express themselves and organize:

For perhaps the first time, dissidents in the Mideast were able to quasi-broadcast their views, at least to their Facebook friends (and the friends of their Facebook friends, who could easily number in the tens of thousands). (22)


One key argument Tufekci makes criticizes digital dualism, the notion that the digital and offline worlds constitute clearly separate domains.  In practice we blend and intertwine the two.

Twitter and Tear Gas clearly sympathizes with protestors and dissidents, and celebrates their achievements.  Yet we know from the start that many of their efforts will stall, fail, or be reversed.


  1. The book intertwines social theory with personal stories.  What do you make of that approach?
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  2. Tufekci takes issue with the charge of clicktivism, perhaps most famously issued by Evgeny Morozov (26-7), the idea that online forms of activism actually disable offline political action.  Instead, she sees social movements using digital networks to mobilize.  Let’s assume both of these models have been true at different times and places.
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      What makes the difference between them, when technology dissuades organization and when it enables action?

  3. The opening section compares digitally-enabled movements with Everest climbers relying on Sherpas: able to do great deeds, but their achievements are fragile and inflexible, due to reliance on that support (xii).  Have we surfaced ways of stabilizing such movements, or are they still so fragile?

Now it’s over to you!  What did you make of the book so far?

Coming up next week, on November 26: Chapters 2: “Censorship and Attention” and 3: “Leading the Leaderless”.

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6 Responses to Twitter and Tear Gas: part one of our book club’s reading

  1. DrSturg says:

    I really liked this book, in part because I’m working on a similar one about the AltGov, so I am getting both concepts and a writing model from it. I thought her thesis about social media-based movements lacking infrastructure to persist through challenge was an intriguing one. I think the need to deal with challenge is highly situational, though, and the way that the larger world/folks in power respond is a significant factor. The interspersing of personal story and social theory worked for me – I think it was necessary to make this kind of crossover book.

    • Bryan Alexander says:


      Great point about the contexts for movements, and the way powers respond. I suspect we’ll get into that soon.

      PS: say more about AltGov?

  2. Joe Murphy says:

    My big thought in reading this book is becoming to what extent these movement-supporting skills need to be thought of as core skills for citizenship. And if they are, where and when and how should they show up in the curriculum? (And what happens to an institution which teaches its members to organize for effective resistance to power?)

    Your questions:

    1) In theory I like the mixing of personal stories and theoretical work. In practice, I’m not finding the rhythm easy to follow.

    2) I feel like, particularly over the last 2 years (and maybe 2 more before that) I see a lot more general calls on social media which include that call to 3-d-world action. (I suppose “call your congressperson” or “make a donation” is still kind of electronic activism, but I see it as different from signing an online petition or just hitting “share”.) It seems like that call to an individual action outside the digital platform where he call is issued is one defining feature of Tufekci’s model.

    It seems another feature in Tufekci’s model might be in media which routes around genuine information asymmetry (censorship or under-reported stories) and media which primarily serves as an alternate filter. (Saying “media” and not “social media” intentionally here – I think journalists know this even though the current formats may actively discourage it.) My thought here is that there may be an affordance to action generated by eyewitness testimony which is different from commentary/analysis.

    And of course the spread of online productivity tools (mostly Google suite in Tufekci so far) is a sea change in the ability to organize with a geographically dispersed group.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Fantastic thoughts, Joe.
      I’m fascinated by the idea of including Tufekci’s model in an undergraduate curriculum.

      Very good point about the call for 3d action. I’ve seen that all over the digital political world.

  3. Amanda Sturgill says:

    More about AltGov. I’m working on a book. Here’s the preface. It’s a SUPER interesting project.

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