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Colloquium Series: Zeynep Tufekci, UNC School of Information and Library Science
March 2, 2016 @ 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm
The Puzzling Boom-Bust Cycle of Digitally-Fueled Movements: Organizational Consequences of Digital Technology
One of the most puzzling aspects of new digitally-fueled movements has been their boom-bust cycle. Thanks to digital technologies, it has probably never been easier for dissidents to puncture censorship, coordinate protests, organize logistics, frame their own narrative and reach like-minded citizens. At the same time, global discontent runs high, as inequality, corporate power, and authoritarian rule compound grievances. It’s hardly surprising that, between 2006 and 2013, the number of protests globally has almost tripled. Yet, in a seeming paradox, most of the protested policies and the governments behind them have survived, even after millions have taken to the streets. Why have the protests not been more effective in bringing actual change?
One argument I develop in my forthcoming book is that one of the internet’s short-term benefits to protest movements—the ability of loosely organized groups to coordinate rapidly—turns out to be a long-term weakness. Groups that form quickly bypass steps critical to the formation of durable movements; they can harass and even topple powerful governments, but are considerably less adept at building movements that can replace governments or force them to change their policies by signaling underlying political capacity. Despite having similar outward forms—demonstrations, marches, meetings, and crowds facing police repression—21st century networked protests don’t signal the same underlying capacity of 20th century movements with same manifestations. A march of a million in 2016 is not the same as a march of a million in 1963 in terms of movement capacity it signals to power. This outcome is not due to weaknesses of technology, but the opposite: technology is empowering protesters to follow desires that have been shaped by profound alienation from representative democracy and institutions. Leaderlessness, adhocracy and other forms of organizing have been enabled by technology but have been desired by many movement participants for decades. Current moment is a convergence of the way the new social movements choose to organize and way they can organize using the new technologies. I trace this story through multiple examples, case studies and field work.