Our online bookclub is reading Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. With this post we discuss chapters 4: “Movement Cultures” and 5: “Technology and People.”
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, Hypothes.is 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 https://bryanalexander.org/tag/tufekci/.
Last week’s reading post elicited some good comments from PF Anderson (about another reading) and Joe Murphy (about logistics and the American civil rights movement).
Meanwhile, over the past week a protest movement has broken out in France, and it might serve as a good example for our reading. According to the Economist, social media played a key role in its inception:
Two weeks ago the gilets jaunes emerged from nowhere via Facebook to block road junctions across France. The anger that started as a protest against a rise in diesel taxes has since widened into a revolt against President Emmanuel Macron.
Also, an echo of Tufekci’s take on Occupy:
The gilets jaunes are currently structureless and leaderless, which is both their strength but also a potential weakness. Internal rivalries and conflicting objectives could yet split the movement, as could a loss of public support if the movement radicalises. Unlike union-led demonstrations, the amorphous nature of the gilets jaunes protests also makes it more difficult for the government to negotiate with them.
Please feel free to address this in comments!
In Chapter 4, “Movement Cultures,” professor Tufekci explores not just how modern protests work, but why people engage in them. Her conclusion is clear: “protests are characterized by a desire for nonmarket human connections, participation, voice, agency, community, and diversity.” (112) To make this case the author describes protests building libraries, cleaning their zones with great care, and soccer fans learning not to be so homophobic through interactions with openly LGBTQ people. Assembly-style meetings appear to have problems with facilitation as a choke point and with limited groups of people tending to dominate; in support of this, Jo Freeman’s “Tyranny of Structurelessness” (1970) appears.
Chapter 5, “Technology and People,” takes a very different tack, exploring the role of technology in protest movements. Tufekci untangles multiple causes of unrest (especially 123), pulling out the digital aspect as a kind of accelerant or enabler, but not a primary cause per se. At the same time the chapter argues that “digital technologies alter the spatial and temporal architecture of society.” (129)
Tufekci continues to criticize digital dualism, this time by challenging John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (1996) (130-1). Again she argues that it makes little sense to see the virtual and the offline as separate.
Personally, I’m glad to see the book poke at the old “technology is just a tool” saw (124).
Social divides and inequalities based on race, gender, religious, sexuality, and work are rising as themes.
- Tufekci criticizes the idea of “alienating screens” (referencing Sherry Turkle), arguing that people also use screens to connect. Indeed, “in the context if rebellion and protest, digital technologies play a fundamentally communitarian role.” (110-1). Do you agree?
- Have we developed any better ways of handling mass meetings than the problematic facilitation the book describes?
Now it’s over to you! What did you make of the book so far?
Coming up next week, on December 10: Chapters 6: “Platforms and Algorithms” and 7: “Names and Connections”.