Protest in 140 characters or less

The painting that has just redirected you to this website is an art project constantly in motion. Though the work of art you have just been looking at may exist in a particular space at a particular time, the physical painting is but one of the building blocks of the project as a whole. So too is the website to which it links and this particular essay you are reading. By posting various kinds of contributions to the online part of the work, different building blocks are added to the project as a whole, changing its shape and dimension. The interactive nature of the work transforms the experience of the painting from something unilateral to something that is more interactive. By making use of social media, the paintings become a social experience. In fact, this social forum opens up interesting avenues for other dimensions of the social, namely politics and protest.

There is no denying that social media are occupying an increasingly prominent place in our everyday existence. To name the two most obvious examples of social media networks, Twitter has more than 140 million users worldwide and Facebook boasts over 900 million active members. Since the advent of the Arab Spring in December 2010, the intricate links between social media and social movements have becoming increasingly overt. Though the actual role that social media like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube played in the wave of demonstrations and protests surging around the Middle East and North Africa remains a hotly debated issue, few will deny that these forums have had a significant impact. The Occupy movement made extensive use of the social media friendly "We Are The 99%"-slogan and was prominently featured on Twitter by means of the #Occupy hashtag. Closer to home, we have seen the emergence of the entirely Twitter-based social movement called "UK Uncut" (or #ukuncut), which resulted in protests across the United Kingdom.

The emergence of social media as an organising factor of social movements poses serious problems for politicians and academics alike: it makes these particular social movements hard to understand or predict, and even harder to interact with. Traditional protest organisations like Greenpeace, Amnesty International, or Oxfam exist in and through recognisable organisational structures and achieve a certain degree of integration of activity and replication of routines in pursuit of common goals. This transparency and accountability enables them to frequently interact or work together with governmental institutions and business organisations by means of lobbying and collaborative projects. Furthermore, they have identifiable leaders and spokespersons that have the authority and the knowledge to speak on behalf of the organisations.

We know where the organisation begins and ends; we know who is part of the organisation and who is not; we can reasonably predict the kinds of activity members of a particular organisation will engage in; and the (relatively) transparent hierarchical structure ensures that, if necessary, we can trace responsibility. Social movement organisations of this kind provide the kinds of organisational structures and routinised behaviour that makes it easy for academics to study them and for politicians to interact with them.

Movements like UK Uncut and the Occupy movement, however, do not conform to these rules. Because of their radically participatory nature, they offer precious little in the way of identifiable organisational structures. The series of UK Uncut protests originated in the creation of the #ukuncut: "As we sat in the doorway, chanting and handing leaflets to passers by, the hashtag began to trend around the UK and people began to talk about replicating our action. The idea was going viral." source: The organisation does not have formal membership, but instead formulates the idea of 'joining' the movement in terms of going along to an action. Actions can be organised by anyone with an Internet connection and are listed on the UK Uncut website. In addition to this list, the website also provides tools to help organise actions, as well as a brief introduction into the legal rights of protesters.

As a result, the UK Uncut movement is in a state of constant flux. As people contribute to the list of actions, organising actions of their own and attending others that happen to take place in the vicinity of where they live, the organisation, its activities, and its representatives change. The structure, content, image, reputation, participants, and perception of the movement evolve constantly.

There is a close affinity, I would argue, between the Twitter hashtag and the social movements that draw extensively, or indeed are founded on social media. UK Uncut is a concept thought up by someone and "given away" by means of the creation of #ukuncut to the public domain to do with it as they please. As a result, anyone with access to a computer or a smart phone could use this hashtag to engage in contentious politics. Though the actions are united under the banner of UK Uncut, they lack central coordination, creating either a leaderless movement, or movement solely comprised of leaders: no single protester can justifiably claim to speak on behalf of the movement. Whereas traditional social movements and their organisations provide us with texts, campaigns, press releases, policy proposals, lobbying initiatives, and spokespersons that are representative of the organisation as a whole, hashtag movements are far more fluid, making them very difficult to pin down and investigate.

Social media, thus, are having a profound impact on the emergence, development, and existence of social movements; an impact that we are struggling to fathom.

Bram Meuleman
PhD Researcher
University of Edinburgh

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