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From the Networks to the Public Square: Web 2.0 and the New Wave of Global Protests1

Guiomar Rovira Sancho | Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana Unidad Xochimilco

Through the last two decades, the growth of Internet access together with new developments in the field of Information Technology (IT) have transformed the way in which political activism and protest movements arise, expand, and reverberate. The appropriation of technological instruments by extensive publics has contributed to the advent of horizontal networks revolving around social protest that interweave shared webs of meaning, action, and reflection. This article characterizes the activist network as a new type of collective actor that does not fit the traditional definitions of social movements and is endowed with a marked communicative dimension. At the same time, the article constructs a genealogy of the appropriation of IT for social causes, from the early stages of the Internet to Web 2.0 and the cycle of global action that erupted in 2011 with the Arab Spring, the Spanish Indignados, and Occupy Wall Street in the US, among others.

The Internet represents a new era for what was previously known as alternative communication.2 The Internet's network architecture favors the discursive activity of social movements since it allows them to transcend the marginality of fanzines, free radios, posters, and the very limited circulation of similar cultural objects, characterized not just by their higher economic cost, but by their limitations in reaching wider audiences.The Internet is a platform that enables activists to directly and indirectly break out of that ghetto, influencing mass communication media (Downey and Fenton 2003, 198), and thereby shaping the transformation of common sense in society.

Nancy Fraser speaks of "subaltern counterpublics" to refer to "parallel discursive arenas where the members of subordinate social groups invent and circulate counter-discourses, which in turn enables them to formulate contesting interpretations of their identities, interests and needs." Fraser claims that,

in stratified societies, subaltern counterpublics have a double character. On the one hand, they function as spaces for retreating and regrouping. On the other, they also work as training camps and bases for agitation activities directed at wider audiences. It is precisely in the dialectic between these two functions where their emancipatory potential resides. (Fraser 1997, 115-117)

Movements and activist collectives always seek to construct these spaces of opinion—spaces of alternative communication—to struggle against hegemonic ideas and to counteract the omission or simplified or distorted representation of protests projected by mass media. "Citizen journalism,"blogs, and digital social networks have grown to become competing instruments that allow these "counterpublics" to insert different discourses into the public agenda and to influence audiences far beyond a small circle of sympathizers, wresting the last word from large communications consortia.5

Technological structure, however, is not a guarantee of success. The cases in which counter-publicity erupts into the public domain (on the streets or the mass media) are few and far between, because the proliferation of subaltern counterpublics in itself does not lead to the multiplication of forces or to political transformation. A catalyst, a spark, or a symbol is needed to detonate the mobilization of bodies, their confluence in public space and the consequent incursion into mass media, which are still decisive instruments to transform society—they continue to represent, as Castells would say, "the meta-network of communications networks; the networks which process the ideational materials with which we feel, think, live, present our ideas, and struggle" (Castells 2009).

But let us proceed step by step, tracing how the relation between the Internet and contentious collective actionhas interwoven successful experiences throughout the world, in order then to attempt a characterization of this medium and the activist networks that use it as new collective actors.

From Zapatista Networks to the Cycle of Web 2.0 Global Action

In the space that follows, this article posits a sequence of periods marked by the relation that social mobilization has established with IT from the early days of the Internet until today:

1. In the early era of information technology research, between 1969 and 1992/3, many web developers and programmers advocated an open and libertarian use of computer technology. This is the origin of hacker ethics and what would be later known as hacktivism (from the fusion of hacker and activist). In this period, the first electronic networks appear within the academy; the Association for the Progress of Communications (APC) and BBSs are founded; and some NGOs make incursions in the field. The main social movements of this era, however, remain at the margins of the debate, in a stage marked by misgivings towards computers and a kind of technophobia.

2. Starting in 1994, when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation bursts onto the scene in Chiapas, Mexico, a transnational network of solidarity is gradually and spontaneously formed inaugurating the use of email and the Net (which had only been available to the general public for one year) for the purposes of social struggle. Multiple webpages and mailing lists are created and concrete activism and electronic civil disobedience tactics are implemented.7 These were the beginnings of the expansion of Internet access, when cyberspace was still a virgin territory in which Zapatista sympathizers intervened well before official institutions. It bears pointing out that the Mexican government did not create a webpage for the Presidency until September of 1996; for a long time, there was only one available version of the events unfolding in rebel indigenous communities.

3. In 1999 a cycle of global action opens up with a general techno-optimistic enthusiasm. In Seattle, the 30th of November, the anti-globalization movement arises exploiting the Web's potential. Throughout the world, Independent Media Centers (Indymedia) expand following the Seattle model, enabling open publication: the ability to upload texts, images, video, and audio files to the Web. Communicative action in its heyday gives a spin to the slogan that had until then governed social movements' relation to the communication media, calling out: "Don't hate the media, be the media!" The era presents what Matteo Pasquinelli denominates an "epochal shift in forms of publicaction and their documentation" (Pasquinelli 2002); every activist is also simultaneously a communicator of the protest, while the practice of "citizen journalism" checks the power of the mass media.

The global march against the Iraq war, in which ten million people took to the streets on February 15, 2003, is characteristic of this period. The talk then was about the emergence of a global civil society, which nevertheless was unable to put a halt to the warplans of the US and its allies, Spain and the UK. The "war against terrorism" marks the decline of this cycle of techno-optimistic global action, leading activists to reconsider the importance of local struggles in relation to"global" marches.

4. So-called Web 2.0 emerges in 2008 (social networks, micro-blogging, and the P2P movement), generating the possibility of an "autonomous construction of social networks controlled and oriented bytheir users" (Castells 2012, 221).People spoke at the time about the emergence of cyber-masses, fast mobs, or "mobidas,"and intelligent multitudes.10 Some cases are emblematic of political activism: in Spain, between March 11 and 14, 2004, common citizens, using their mobile phones' SMS, invalidate the government's and the mass media's initial version imputing ETA with the responsibility for the attack against the trains of Atocha station in Madrid. This "mobile-ization" shifts the stakes in the Spanish elections. Many other examples echo throughout the world, from the Green Revolution in Iran to Obama's 2008 campaign and its use of social networks.

Towards the end of 2010, the Pentagon cables spread by the cyber-activist group Wikileaks, show that the secrets of power are not safe in the new technological age. Anonymous, the global network of hacktivists, in turn, bursts powerfully onto the scene and proliferates in different countries. It is the prelude of a global democratic cycle that kicks off with the Arab Spring in 2011 and spreads through distant places resulting in a kind of contagion effect:

Every practice of resistance is acting as a stimulus. They spread and re-adapt in apparently disconnected contexts. And they transfer, almost overnight, the center of the movement from one scenario to another: today it is Egypt, tomorrow some city in the US, the day after it is Athens... (Fernández, Sevilla and Urbán 2012)

Taking over public squares has been a key element of many of these protests: the Spanish 15M sought to invoke Cairo's Tahrir Square, Tunisia's Kasbah, and Bahrein's Manama Pearl Roundabout in the center of Madrid. In London, 200 tents were erected in front of St. Paul's Cathedral. In Greece, an anonymous call to action in social networks filled Syntagma Square in the center of Athens. The greatest mobilization in Israeli history took place in Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. Occupy Wall Street in New York spread to more than one thousand US cities. In Chile, students struggling against the privatization of education converged on the streets. The same thing happened in Mexico with #YoSoy132.

The idea of a cycle of collective action refers to the emergence of protests with identifiable common elements constituting a pattern of response to a historical period. We could also call them waves of protest. According to Sydney Tarrow, a cycle of collective action responds to a "phase of intensification of conflicts and confrontations in the social system" entailing, "an accelerated rhythm of innovation in the forms of confrontation, and new or transformed frameworks for collective action" (Tarrow 2004, 202–03). Parting from the transnationalization of conflicts, culture, and power, but also of resistance, we observe cycles of collective action that overflow national boundaries and weave common elements between geographically distant social movements. It is in this sense that we formulate the idea that there are shared elements (communicative and organizational forms) between the latest forms of protest that have taken place since the Arab Spring of 2011, which point toward the notion of a global cycle.

Activist Networks and New Forms of Collective Action

We venture to hypothesize that these protests share common characteristics: they are activist networks (that do not fit the definitions of social movement) appearing as a hive of individuals converging in a public space and in cyberspace to demand and exercise a desired model of democracy, and protest against the status quo. The notion of the network is of great import for these mobilizations in three, profoundly imbricated dimensions.11 1. The network as a lax, flexible organization as opposed to political parties, trade unions, or other hierarchical groups. 2.The network as a communications structure (through the Internet and electronic networks). 3. The network as a normative ideal, that is to say, the prefigurative quality of communication and horizontal organization is not just a form of protest but a way of enacting another possible world. The network is a "performative polity" where, as Benjamin Arditi points out, "one starts to live out the objective of one's struggle (Arditi 2012).12 Therefore, it is not unexpected that in this cycle of protests—both in demonstrations against the economic crisis as much as those against dictatorships—the demand for a "real democracy now" is expressed as a common denominator directly linked with the means of action and organization.13

The heterogeneous, diffuse, contingent quality of activist networks that use reticular communications instruments finds a favorable theorization in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who proposed the botanical metaphor of the rhizome well before the existence of the Internet: a structure where every point can connect to all others, where there is no universal linguistic translator, only jargons and dialects, and therefore, only appropriation of meanings and creation of multiple meanings. Like a colony of ants, a rhizome can be destroyed, but it immediately reconstructs itself. It is open and eccentric: there are multiple entry points, there are no central elements of organization, and it does not respond to any model. It is a map that contributes to the connection of bodies, a "performance" (Deleuze and Guattari 1997, 13-18).

Activist networks respond to the idea of a multi-channel network, in the sense that all actors can relate to all others.14 Their characteristics correspond to the acronym SPIN (Segmented Polycentric Ideologically-integrated Networks) formulated by Luther Gerlach and Virginia Hine in their study of 1960s social movements in the US. That is, a segmented network composed of many different autonomous groups capable of taking their own initiatives; polycentric to the extent that it has many nodes and leaders without necessarily having a central hierarchical one; and integrated insofar as actors share and construct common values or concrete objectives which enable their lax and extensible integration.

Activist networks are characterized by what Castells denominates "the interactive production of meaning" integral to the "self-communication of the masses": the possibility afforded by digitalization and IT for people to be producers/receptors and combiners of their own messages, remixing codes and formats, diversifying and multiplying entry points in the communications process, and crossing borders. Network activity represents new forms of political subjectification in a multidimensional hybrid space.

The Web as Political Prefiguration: New Protest Subjectivities

The Internet differs from previously existing media because it not only combines in its core the characteristics of earlier technologies but it expands them. The Internet's network structure constitutes a novelty in relation to the broadcasting era (of mass dissemination), and especially in contrast to earlier technologies, which implied a specific logic in the production of cultural objects aimed at public distribution, and serious restrictions to access the role of content producer. As opposed to TV, radio, and the press, the Internet enables not just the consumption, but the creation, recreation, redundancy, and alteration of the message. For Poster, this new medium is an "underdetermined" [infradeterminado] cultural object (in contrast to the Althusserian notion of overdetermination), incomplete and open to re-creation. And it transforms the subject into something that is not the subject of modernity, that observes the world from a distance, but rather an I (a self) that operates with a machinic aparatus as a point in a circuit, a node in the network (Poster 1999, 16).15 

 While the printing press conceived the individual as rational, autonomous, reflexive, and ontologically separate from the object, with the development of the modes of virtualization, Poster explains, that subject is dissolved (Poster 1999, 16–17). With the onset of the era of mass media the fragmentation and disaggregation of the subject/object relation began, entering a world of simulacrum: due to their re-transmission, cultural objects are their own representation. Now, in the "second media age" we are living in the culture of underdetermination.

The Internet is not just the medium through which many activists communicate, but is also a form of action that leads to a non-isolated individualization. Being a node in a network implies a particular way of perceiving and acting.

According to Castells two cultural standards converge: individualism and communalism (Castells 2009, 471). On one hand, the cybernaut navigates in the solitude of his person, in front of his computer or mobile device screen. But on the other, he tends to form "communities of practice": groups of individuals who share interests, values, and beliefs; who define themselves by different criteria and scientific, cultural, or political projects; and who forge strong links among themselves during the practice, even if they are not preserved in the long term. Internet communities are "ephemeral but intense," they can reproduce and expand, and in cases of political nonconformity, they can become "spontaneous insurgent communities"16 that grow with great speed. Rage condensed into a strong symbolic message can be the spark that lights the fire in a context where feelings of frustration or aggravation have come to fruition. Those who feel interpellated, then, become agile multipliers of the call to mobilization, which spreads through the networks of trust that constitute the communities in which each individual participates.The speed and viral reverberation can build multitudes that unexpectedly burst onto public space and take to the streets.

The sociology of social movements—the Theory of the Mobilization of Resources, for example—posits groups, not individuals, as the actors of protests (Tascón and Quintana 2012, 25). The theory of new social movements likewise maintains its focus on the mobilization of collectives (environmentalists, feminists, anti-racists etc.) and their identities, even though it takes into account their articulation in a network. The limitations of these theoretical frameworks when it comes to observing the Web 2.0 cycle of action obliges us to look for new perspectives. In the mobilizations to which we refer, there are still organizations and collectives participating, but they have lost relevance as the articulating axes of action. We are dealing here with heterogeneous mobilizations in which most participants act individually. Everyone represents him or herself, and delegation is avoided, leading to a crisis of the very idea of representation. Just as the slogan on the streets is "they do not represent us," referring to governments and politicians, in the heart of the mobilization "representatives" are not accepted and the general demand is that no one communicate as a leader or spokesperson, but that declarations be made "in a personal capacity." And the movement thereby establishes a kind of surveillance so that no one is able to usurp anyone's voice. Everyone codifies their own appearance; class, union, party, and other conventional forms of identification fail. It is, then, a political subjectification that implies the autonomy of each node.

Bennett explains that "social fragmentation and the decline of group loyalties have paved way for the boom of the era of personalized politics, in which individualized frameworks of action and personal expression displace collective frameworks..." (Bennett 2012, 21). In the view of this theorist, the more diverse a mobilization, the more personal it becomes;17 it constructs an ethos based on the diversity and tolerance of different points of view, and weaves massively inclusive frameworks of action (like "we are the 99%" or the "indignados"), much easier to disseminate and personalize than earlier mobilizations, such as "eat the Rich." Each supporter's participation in a dense network leads him to share his own stories and problems, and allows everyone to become a facilitator of the mobilization process.

It is not difficult to notice this in the protests. We can speak of the appearance of an ethos or a clear DIY style, which is characteristic of hacker ethics at the very origins of this technological development, or even punk subculture, in which everyone is free to manufacture their own participation, even their own posters, instead of marching in an organized contingent behind a broad banner.

This happened in the streets of Mexico when the #YoSoy132 movement erupted in May 11, 2012. The spontaneous initiative of multiple individualities led them to take to the streets. Groups formed in private and subsequently public universities in the country, to conform what could be conceived as a student movement. A swarm of people summoned itself: the youth, which were nonexistent and invisible until then, made an incursion into the center of the public arena in the midst of an electoral process and took the floor with unexpected effectiveness.

The multiple calls to action replicated through the network exceeded the structuring capacity of the very movement that was taking shape without a clear leadership. From the Universidad Iberoamericana, where the initial movement was triggered, it expanded to private and public universities around the country: from the protest against Televisa, it derived in mass anti-Peña Nieto marches. Even though #YoSoy132 published a declaration in which it discouraged a demonstration the Saturday after Peña Nieto's election, social networks were abuzz with hundreds of posters and calls to take to the streets. Anonymous incisively responded to #YoSoy132's backtracking with its slogan, "the march belongs to those inside it." Photojournalist Gerardo Albarrán described the July 6th protest in a crónica entitled "The revolution will not be televised":

There are no podiums or organizations waiting to deliver speeches. The march enters the immense open space of the Zócalo to find itself alone amid the multitude. People understand that each person is his or her own demonstration; they form groups around slogans they support. The  demonstration derives in a democratic happening, a political performance. It is not a unified march or meeting. Each family intones chants of its hopes and indignations, its incantations against the six years of moral misery upon us. The march is each one of the handful of universities of #YoSoy132 fused into one contingent. It is each group of friends planning to join the collective resistance. It is each individual rage that accumulates in determination for change: the change that has been denied us by so many for so long. (Albarrán 2012)

The march, like the proliferation of videos that already form part of the "132 style," presents a group in which each person assumes the collective discourse. It is not a choral chant, in which each singular voice disappears in a collective emanation, but a sequence of individualized close-ups or a sum of voices in which each person affirms their own identity and enfranchisement (to be counted as a vote even in an imperfect democracy such as the Mexican one) and says what she thinks. Everyone is enchained with fragments of everyone else, as in a patchwork, to demand democracy and equality. They all show their faces, exposing themselves to the risk of repression (with the exception of Anonymous), and thereby enacting a democracy that is to come, and recounting (in the numerical and narrative senses) the same story: each person with his own face and his own voice saying the same thing. Coinciding. Zero delegation.

The prefigurative, non-programmatic quality of these networks representing waves in a cycle of global collective action is evident in the fact that their horizontal nature is considered a starting point and not just a means to an end. "When we are together, we are an assembly, when we separate, we are a network." Castells describes this repeatedly replicated assembly in these terms: "what seems to be an ineffective way to deliberate and take decisions is, in fact, the necessary basis to generate trust, without which no collective common action could be undertaken in the face of a cultural policy characterized by competition and cynicism" (Castells 2012, 215).

Trust, as a basis for political mobilization is key, and is constructed in electronic social networks as much as it is in public squares. But it is, above all, symbolic, and it is woven in virtual and face-to-face discourses, in the self-reflexivity of those implicated and in their high interactivity.

The Detonating Symbols of Collective Action

Let us return to the characteristics of the medium. The principal form of the distribution of messages in electronic networks is dissemination: "the infinite proliferation and dispersion of communications without a guarantee of productive exchange," which,  moreover,  transcends national borders (DeLuca and Peeples 2002, 130-131).18 Re-mediation is another key characteristic of this new form of communication, as McLuhan had much earlier expressed: the content of each medium is itself a medium. This had never been as true as in the Internet, where all media and platforms converge, which is why we can no longer trace a clear dividing line between the Internet and other mass media. Hypermediation as a new dimension of information remits us to this heterogeneous space where representation is not a window onto the world, but a window onto other media's representations, multiplying the signs of mediation.

As we pointed out in the beginning of this article about counterpublics, the voluntarism that has characterized the history of alternative communication is not the necessary condition for its success; the dissemination of messages does not imply their active reception. Having access to the Internet, publishing a blog or tweeting is not a guarantee for having one's voice heard. The decentralization and autonomous production that characterizes networks also implies an overproduction of information and, therefore, the dissipation of the power and intensity of any message in this virtual space. Only a minute fraction of the cultural products on the Web attracts the sufficient attention to impact a wide spectrum of users; public opinion is only heard in exceptional moments of counter publicity. As Tang and Yang demonstrate, "It is an illusion to believe that the Internet distributes symbolic power among common people. It would be more correct to say that the Internet offers common people the potential of symbolic power" (Tang and Yang 2011, 677). Castells claims,

Anyone can reach everyone to share rage. If that rage is indeed a purely individual feeling, that SMS will harmlessly drift in the ocean of digital communication. But if there are many who open the bottle cast onto the ocean, the genie will come out and an insurgent community will grow through the connection of different minds beyond a solitary revolt. (Castells 2009, 473)

Sometimes a fact sparks a forest fire, or, to use Scott's metaphor, the "electric grid" is switched on (Scott 2000, 263): an autopoietic network—that did not exist before that moment or only existed in the potential connections of each person as a node—becomes a performance. An event-symbol is thus unexpectedly constructed, disseminated, and extended immediately, in a viral and unforeseeable way, shaping an uncontainable activist network.

How does this process unfold? How does one foresee it? Studies on social movements have already faced the impossibility of foreseeing and identifying the determinants of political action; there is no efficient cause that explains the revolt. Hannah Arendt argues that the unforeseeable nature of action means that every act is "a plot in human relations that is, so to speak, conspired by the acts and the words of innumerable people, dead and alive." (Arendt 1995, 106). Nothing can guarantee its effects. Nevertheless, Arendt claims that, "the smallest act in the most limited circumstances contains the seed of boundlessness and unpredictability: an act, a gesture, a word are enough to change any constellation" (Arendt 1995, 105).

The processes and symbols that have detonated the mobilizations in this cycle of protests have been acts that have ignited networks of indignation in an unforeseeable way. In every case, they are the fruit of extreme or exemplary moments that have found their quality of mobilizing symbols in the speed of dissemination.

Mohammed Bouazizi, the sole provider for his family after his father's death, sold vegetables and fruits in the streets of Sidi Bouazid, in the south of Tunisia. The authorities confiscated his produce because he did not have a license and they refused to return it. He got a gallon of gasoline and set himself on fire. He died on January  4th, 2011, in a hospital at the age of 26. Floods of people took to the streets, at first in the city of Sidi Bouazid, where the tragedy unfolded, and soon after, all over the country. The banzai-style self-immolation became a "modular practice": just a few days later, Abdelfateh Ahmer, 44 years old, set himself on fire in Gasfa. Ayub Alhammi, 17 years old, organized a meeting in his institute to publicize these events and denounce their causes, and the school authorities expelled him. Immediately afterwards, Alhammi sprayed fuel on himself, and set himself on fire in his school (Mergier 2011, 41). More than 50,000 high school teachers called a strike as a sign of mourning.19Demonstrations shook various cities, defying the violent repression to which they were submitted.

During the Tunisian revolts, videos of demonstrations and calls to action flooded Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and wireless networks. The revolution stemmed from discontent and long-suffered repression. In that combustible hot bed, the message of Bouazizi's suicide was the spark that lit the fire: it spread virally through multiple modes, through every conceivable communications platform, including human voices, nearly in realtime. And people took to the streets and took over public squares. Communication enabled the coordination and the self-awareness of the mobilization's growing dimensions.

Within this communicative environment, Al Jazeera—theTV network based in Qatar, founded in 1996—allowed the entire Arab world to follow events in Tunisia in real time (Meneses 2011). In addition to its briefs and newscasts, Al Jazeera constantly updated its Twitter and Facebook accounts. From the outset, this news network devoted aspecial coverage to the story of Mohammed Bouazizi and transmitted user-generated images, including low-quality videos recorded with mobile phones. This suicide thus became a symbol from Mauritania to Jordan. The symbol, which is easily recognizable, embodies a latent collective feeling that suddenly bursts into day-to-day experience, generating rapid, expansive solidarity, and offering people the possibility to divulge and transform the symbol in a way that is hard to control. It spawns networks and actions; it is the revolt itself. It spreads like a virus not just in a local context, but also traversing national borders. Beyond cell phones and mobile devices, it leaps onto the mass media and the global agenda.

In New York, on September 17, 2011, police occupied Wall Street as a "preventive measure against a call by the Canadian magazine Adbusters, supported by Anonymous, to take over the financial district," as David Brooks reported in his column in the daily La Jornada, on December 31, 2011. That day, several hundred protesters arrived. But three months later, the Occupy Wall Street movement had spread to "more than a thousand cities and towns" in the US, shaping public debate in the terms of the famous slogan, "We are the 99%."

In Mexico, in May of 2012, the then presidential candidate for the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party], Enrique Peña Nieto, visited the Universidad Iberoamericana. Young people jeering at him were represented in television news not as university students but as professional agitators. In order to demand their right to reply, 131 of them made a video in which they showed their face and their University ID. In the space of twenty minutes, this audiovisual product became a trending topic on Twitter and grew into a detonating symbol for action. Who decided to call the #MarchaYoSoy132 [#IAmthe132thMarch]? Who came up with the#YoSoy132 hashtag? Who was the first to re-tweet or spread the indignation? Authorship is diluted because it is collective and coincidental; it is a fruit of coincidence, just as a long-expected but unforeseen encounter. It is not important to determine who sent it out, but how many people spread it. To make politically effective pronouncements on the Web is not to invent but to coincide. And when a multitude coincides it arrives at the same place, on the basis of waves of cascading and intertwined messages that transcend the virtual network to become a physical network and a gathering on a public square. What type of place and space are we dealing with?

Virtual Settlements, Street Mobilizations

Studies of new media have already formulated the concept of "spatiality" on the Internet as a symbolic construction devoid of a physical referent. Jones speaks of "virtual settlements" as places online where a series of cultural codes are constructed—sometimes ephemeral and sometimes lasting—and where people locate themselves and generate processes that influence life offline (Jones 1997, 35–49). Swedish sociologists Lindgren and Lundström apply the "virtual settlement" category to the #WikiLeaks hashtag on Twitter and analyze how a series of discourses and practices characteristic of a symbolic community are interwoven to it (Lindgren and Lundström 2011).

The notion of a place of deliberation without a physical referent also has liminal characteristics, which reveal how common frameworks of signification of action are generated, refracted, and transformed. A group of Catalan activists explain that "blogs, Facebook, Twitter, n-1, Flickr, YouTube, etc. have not limited themselves to an explanation of unfolding events, but have constituted engines for mobilizations, and a place where we can recognize as sense of belonging to something larger; they are the place where we have passed from individual annoyance to collective and organized indignation, a launching pad to take to the streets and the public squares. It is the place where we conspire, that is, the place where we breathe together" (@galapita y @hibai_, 2011, 53).

It is evident that in given moments, hashtags become "places" of concentration and gathering inextricably linked to gatherings on the streets; they generate an extension of that "public space" of the square and serve to refine proposals, engender mobilizations, reflect, and imbue meaning into action. But the street and cyberspace are not detachable spaces, even in analytical terms: facts processed by networks are linked to events within marches, assemblies, and encampments and vice versa. That is where the protest is symbolically assembled, and where the events are processed activating a future response. In Valencia in 2012, after a wave of political repression against student indignados struggling against cuts in public education, the hashtag #YoTambiénSoyElEnemigo [#IAmAlsoTheEnemy] became a trending topic. The Madrilonia collective made the following reflection:

#YoTambiénSoyelEnemigo, that magnificent hashtag used massively on Twitter to respond to the incitement to division promoted by those who speak of enemies, allowed us to recover the language of majorities that want to stay together. It is not something we are speaking to "power," but something we are speaking among ourselves. It is an ironic phrase that keeps us from retreating into isolation. It is a gesture of complicity that links us all together. It is a form of communication that allows us to look out after ourselves, not to attack others. "I am also the enemy" is pure communication from and for the 99%. The enemy, in the eyes of this sad chief of police, hence becomes anyone and everyone. That is how the outlines of the scene of the confrontation, of the battle between sides, blur out; that is how even the importance that the Government invests in the police is dissolved. Let's saythat in the Valencian Spring, the Police was an obstacle because being in the streets allowed people to demonstrate their will to struggle, to show that the youth was not going to give in.20

Places of Indignations: On the Streets and on the Web

Sometimes, expressions of techno-determinism promoted by big media lead to sterile debates: neither Twitter nor Facebook make revolutions. The fact that it is people who rise up and demonstrate is never put into doubt. Moreover, it is an empirical fact that people use electronic networks more intensely and politically on the basis of their participation inmobilizations and not the other way around. After 15M (May 15, 2011) in Spain, the electronic networks were abuzz and many activists decided then to open their Facebook or Twitter account. Many of them had no such intention before camping out. In an informal survey, people asserted that it was in the moments of effervescence on the streets when the Internet was used the most, confirming once more the following theory: "given activism, more cyber-activism." Whoever wants to participate in protests needs to know how, where, and when they should go to a public square. They also seek to project their own participation, upload their pictures—to be an individual protagonist in the indignation of the collectivity. It is the need to communicate that leads people to technology as an extension of their power.

Technology by itself, without the will of the people, cannot do anything. That is not the issue, but rather, how the Internet becomes a constitutive force in the way that people experience the world and the cultural forms that arise from it (Ester and Vinken 2003, 669).

Some interesting facts: during the Arab Spring, the use of Facebook grew more than 30% in the first quarter of 2011, according to a study by the Arab Social Media Report. Egypt is the [Arab] country with the most Facebook users, and the one that most increased its numbers in the first four months of 2011, with almost two million new users between January and April.21 Was this a coincidence, or was it Tahrir Square that led so many people to open an account on Facebook?

One cannot speak of a "virtual" experience as something marginal or separate from "real" life. Both are absolutely imbricated.22 I propose we consider Klaus Bruhn Jensen's analysis of the mass media, in which he formulates a difference between "time-in" and "time-out" of daily life. (Jensen 1995, 57–58) This denomination is taken from hockey in which the coach, during "time-out", discusses tactics while his team rests. What is significant about "time-out" is that it always takes place during "time-in." The contrast between "time-in," which supposes an integrated practice, and time-out—more uncommon and related with aesthetic practice and representation than with action and reproduction—implies that the latter owes much to the former. Without forcing things, I want to use the same metaphor to speak of the activity of physical protests on the streets as "time-in" and to consider the time spent online as a "time-out" of sorts, where the protests are influenced, interpellated, and extended in their liminal, creative, reflexive, sometimes leisurely, and irreverent condition.

Taking to the streets then has the quality of an open-ended interface bursting from the periphery onto the center, a message that transforms itself into bodies converging, counterpublics becoming public, people congregating in hives on the streets and then retreating but leaving a pulsating, indelible mark on the Web.


The multi-modal quality of the "self-communication of the masses" (Castells 2009, 88)23 today, supplies unprecedented opportunities for the circulation of messages and alternative values enabling the emergence of spontaneous protests and extensible activist networks without a need for organizing hierarchies. Information technologies are powerful tools that reinforce practices of participation and facilitate the creation of a more horizontal activist culture, operating as a swarm of mosquitoes (Klein 2001) or a hive (Kelly 1994), without need for organized centralized structures.

When the struggle takes over public squares, the mass media have to open their newscasts to the events unfolding through the networks and even have to include activists' own videos and eye witness accounts. One cannot understand the hacktivism of Anonymous without taking into account the coverage devoted to it by the media, which has launched its fame and facilitates its growth. The Indignadas of the 15th of May in Madrid infected the entire Spanish State not just through networks, but also through television newsprograms, which could not stop covering what was happening. Occupy Wall Streetin the US or #YoSoy132 in Mexico have burst onto the streets and onto the media's agenda, as they grew in the form of a network. We have already commented on the role played by Al Jazeera in the Arab revolts. In the Mexican case, the protest of young people against Televisa has to be re-transmitted by the network itself. The multi-modal and multi-channel quality of activist networks, then, implies a hybridity between media and modalities, in which it is impossible to disaggregate what is happening in cyberspace from what is happening in the public square or the assembly because they form part of the same experience of a complex struggle. There is no clear dividing line, but a complex combination between what is transmitted through networks and the content transmitted through mass media; Internet use does not mean that the old forms of alternative media—pasquinades, street art, graffiti, performance, etc.— are no longer necessary.

The global cycle of protest unfolding in the last two years faces different enemies in different places: while in Arab countries revolutions arise against local dictatorship, the Occupy movement in the US and the 15M-Indignadas in Spain distill a rejection against an economic model in crisis. In Chile the new generations struggle against the disappearance of education as a right, while in Mexico the battle is against the imposition of a televised candidate and for the democratization of the communication media. Nevertheless, these social insurgencies share the intensive usage of electronic social networks—so-called Web 2.0—by hives of people who decide to act in an individual capacity, without mediations, demanding and enacting a "real democracy."

Translation by Miguel Winograd


Guiomar Rovira Sancho es Profesora-Investigadora de la Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México y de la Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana Unidad Xochimilco. 
Doctora en Ciencias Sociales, con especialidad en Comunicación y Política por la Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, México. Maestra en Comunicación y Política. Licenciada en Ciencias de la Información por la Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona. Como periodista ha cubierto el conflicto de Chiapas desde 1994 a 1999 para el periódico español El Mundo y para Radio Exterior de España.


1 This article is being published in Spanish by Acta Sociológica, UNAM México

2 For a characterization of "alternative" media, also called "citizen" or "radical" media, see Downing, John. 2001. Radical Media: rebellious Communications and social movements. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

3 The Internet, however, does not entail the end of other previously existing forms of alternative communication: it actually strengthens them. For example, a pamphlet is distributed through the Internet, but it is also printed and handed out in a march, much the same as an Internet meme can become a poster convoking a protest, or an image of a campesino demonstration spreads virally through cyberspace. The combination of all these forms and genres leads to a greater efficiency in local contexts and is able to broach the digital gap: it is not necessary to have individual access to the Internet in order to take part in an activist network, which sometimes has members specialized in acting as a go-between by reading Web-generated documents or information from social networks in an assembly, for example, in a permanent two-way hybridization, which feeds into the process of the movement.

4 Bowman, Shayne and Chris Willis.2003. "Nosotros, el medio. Cómo las audiencias están modelando el futuro de las noticias y de la información." The Media Center of the American Press Institute. accessed June 8, 2010.

5 The unchallenged omnipotence of television has come to an end. As Todd Giltlin pointed out in his book about the relation between the media and the student movements of the sixties: "The whole world is watching." Nowadays, every activist is also a first-hand broadcaster of information. See: Giltlin 1980.

6 "Contentious forms of collective action stand out from market relations, political pressure groups, and representative politics because they generate a confrontation between common people and their adversaries, the elites or the authorities. They are powerful because they confront opponents, awaken solidarity, and acquire meaning within specific situations, population groups, and political cultures." (Sidney 2004, 25)

7 See: Rovira 2009

8 Castells writes, "...the Internet's deepest social transformation was produced in the first decade of the twenty first century, with the shift from individual and corporate interaction on the Web (the use of email, for example) to the autonomous construction of social networks controlled and oriented by their users...Therefore, the most important activity on the Internet currently flows through Social Network Services (SNS), and SNS have become platforms for all sorts ofactivities, not just personal friendship and chatting, but marketing, e-commerce,education, cultural creativity, news and entertainment media distribution, health applications, and of course, sociopolitical activism. SNS are livingspaces that link up all the dimensions of people's lives. (Castells 2012, 221.)

9 See: Lasen and Martínez 2008.

10 See: Rheingold 2004

11 See: Juris 2008.

12 In the complete quote Arditiwrites: "insurgencies are passageways or bridges between worlds, between an actual and a possible one; they are ways of enacting a promise of something different that is to come. This leads one to think of insurgencies as performative polities in asmuch as, inside them, one starts living out what one is struggling for." 146-169.

13 DRY, Democracia Real Ya [Real Democracy Now] is the name of one of the networks that organized the 15M in Madrid, Spain.

14 See: Ronfeldt and Arquilla 1998.

15 There are various characteristicsto the new medium: 1) it permits the communication of the many to the many, 2)it provides the simultaneous reception, alteration, and redistribution of cultural objects, 3) it dislocates communicative action from the sphere of the nation and the territorialized relations of modernity, 4) it enables instant global contact, and 5) it inserts the subject of modernity in a machine –like apparatus that is a network. Poster 1999, 15-16

16 "... explosions of individual rage can generate an insurgent community through the immediate connection of many individuals joined by their frustration, though not necessarily joined around a political position or a common solution in the face of a source of domination the community considers unjust. Since wireless communication is based in shared practical networks, this is the most adequate technology for the spontaneous formation of communities practicing resistance to domination, that is, spontaneous insurgent communities." Castells 2009, 472.

17 Bennet points out that we are in an age of personalization, referring to the fact that Time magazine's 2006 person of the year was "You" (a mirror), while the chosen one in 2011 was "the protester," an image of a demonstrator with his face covered, that could be anyone, alone in the multitude. Bennett 2012, 22

18 These authors also conceivepublic screens not as critiques of the spectacle but as critiques through the spectacle. Social movements play within this field, and wager on dissemination campaigns: they seek to intervene in mass media using their own logic, while looking to submit corporations like Wal-Mart, Gap, or Nike to consequential smear campaigns.

19 See: EFE 2009.

20 accessed December 10, 2012.

21 70% of social network users in Arab countries are young people between 15 and 29 and only 32% are women. Regarding Twitter, the most popular hashtags in the Arab world from January to April 2011 were #egypt, #jan24, #lybia, #bahrain, and #protest. See: Arab Social Media Report

22 Alba Rico claims that "the Web is also a territory and its territorial condition determines, in its turn, its instrumental condition. Precisely because it is a territory, open to all interventions, its internal composition reproduces with minimal variations, the relationships of force that exist in the outer world, where conditions are without a doubt, unfavorable towards alternative media. Rico 2012, 56-57.

23 "It is mass communication because it can potentially reach a global audience, for example, when a video is uploaded to YouTube, a blog linked via RSS feeds to a series of networks, or a message sentto an enormous list of email addresses. At the same, it is self-communication because it is someone who generates the message, who defines the possible recipients and selects the concrete messages and contents from the Web and the communication networks that she wants to retrieve." Castells 2009, 88.

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