How can networked protest movements hold power while staying flexible and inclusive?

Zeynep Tufekci (previously) is one of the most consistently astute, nuanced commenters on networked politics and revolutions, someone who's been literally on the front lines around the world. In a new book called Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, she sets out a thesis that (as the title suggests) explores the trade offs that political movements make when they use fluid, improvisational networks to organize themselves, instead of hierarchical, traditional organizations.

The upsides are all about flexibility and spontaneity — oppressive governments have a hard time getting into the decision-making loops of opposition groups that don't have decision-making loops! But the downside is about follow-through, cohesion and decision-making efficiency. Given that these two seem to be two sides of the same coin, how can networked political movements overcome the deficits of networks without giving up their strengths?

This is literally the question I have been thinking about since I was a kid, and chronicling here for more than 15 years, and organizing for, and writing novels about. In an era in which networked insurgencies are destroying old political institutions from the major US political parties to the EU — and also threatening some of the world's most-entrenched autocracies — Tufekci's book could not be more timely.

For example, the ability to use digital tools to rapidly amass large numbers of protesters with a common goal empowers movements. Once this large group is formed, however, it struggles because it has sidestepped some of the traditional tasks of organizing. Besides taking care of tasks, the drudgery of traditional organizing helps create collective decision-making capabilities, sometimes through formal and informal leadership structures, and builds a collective capacity among movement participants through shared experience and tribulation. The expressive, often humorous style of networked protests attracts many participants and thrives both online and offline, but movements falter in the long term unless they create the capacity to navigate the inevitable challenges.

These movements rely heavily on online platforms and digital tools for organizing and publicity and proclaim that they are leaderless although their practice is almost always muddier. The open participation afforded by social media does not always mean equal participation, and it certainly does not mean a smooth process. Although online media are indeed more open and participatory, over time a few people consistently emerge as informal but persistent spokespersons—with large followings on social media. These people often have great influence, though they lack the formal legitimacy that an open and recognized process of selecting leaders would generate. The result is often a conflict-ridden, drawn-out struggle between those who find themselves running things (or being treated as de facto leaders) and other people in the movement who can also express themselves online. These others may challenge the de facto spokespersons, but the movements have few means to resolve their issues or make decisions. In some ways, digital technologies deepen the ever-existing tension between collective will and individual expression within movements, and between expressive moments of rebellion and the longer-term strategies requiring instrumental and tactical shifts.


[Zeynep Tufekci/Wired]

Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest [Zeynep Tufekci/Yale]