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<nettime> Just Like Us
d . garcia on Sun, 13 Apr 2014 11:48:01 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Just Like Us

Just Like Us: From Cyber-Separatism to the Politics of Anyone

Can the occupation of the cyber mainstream of the big social media
platforms by post 2011 political protesters be seen as the repudiation of
the "cyber separatism" of the Indymedia of the 90s and early Noughties?
Could this development be symptomatic a wider -majoritarian turn- of a new
generation of activists', encapsulated in the slogan we are the 99%?

If true, does this suggest that it may be time to take another look at
the new political economies of scale pioneered by the much maligned
clicktivists, the massive web based initiatives such as MoveOn and
Avaaz as offering important tools in harnessing that most dangerous of
all political phantoms; the public?

New Sense of the Commons - New Common Sense

Last week’s conference Digital Activism, at Kings College London
drew a large audience. High expectations of the event were generated
(I think) principally because it was convened by Paolo Gerbaudo,
whose book Tweets and the Streets, is an insightful account of
the assumptions and contradictions surrounding the new practices
of protest and politics that he found visiting the three primary
locations of protest in the 2011 yearof protest. Based on extensive
ethnographic research with extracts frommore than 80 interviews,
he structures his account through his encounters with, what he
describes as -the tortuous interaction between online communication
and on-the-ground organising which characterized the emergence of
this movement.- From this research he has made important progress
on influential contemporary narratives around horizontalism and
leaderless movements, subjecting familiar tropes to sympathetic but
critical scrutiny.

In any event the only panel (I attended) where these high expectations
were met was the panelon Social Networks and Digital Organising.
Unsurprisingly this was where Gerbaudo himself made a presentation.
His talk was preceded and complemented by a presentation from Marta
G. Franco, a journalist, researcher with the grass roots newspaper
Diagonal based in Madrid and also a activist with 15-M Movement.

On the surface Franco's talk was a basic summary of the role of
various apps andother digital tools for activist organization and
mobilization. But the core of herpresentation emphasized the way
these tools were deployed in a continuationof collective action
against evictions. The pragmatic and personal nature of this campaign,
often involving neighbors, bolstered her central argument that
from the outset the the Spanish Indignados practiceda politics she
called the ‘Politics of Anyone’. We are normal people she declaredin
Spain as elsewhere the uprisings post crash were characterized by
theheterogeneity of the protesters coming from all walks of life.

This emphasis on normality was something evident in the Spanish
national press coverage of the 2011 which in Spain departed from
the usual formulaic reporting of mass protest with its reflexive
demonizing of civil disobedience as part of a common impulse to
legitimize state violence against protestors.In 2011 the usual process
of demonization was largely absent from a broadlysympathetic media
marked a phase shift.

Franco portrayed this as part of a movement with a desire to depart
from previous stereotypes of protest movements as emphasizing
sub-cultures and tribalised difference, towards what Franco portrayed
as thethe politics of difference towards a new generation keen to
identify with "the generosity of regular people". What she called the
new commonsense. In contrast to the Unlike Us, conference on Social
Media in Amsterdam last year The these presentations suggest the
obvious inversion to this ethos to: Just Like Us.

>From Cyber Separatism to the Majoritarian Turn

Paolo Gerbaudo's presentation further developed the themes beyond
the Spanish context to what has been characterized elsewhere the
'majoritarian turn'.

Gerbaudo argues that an important distinction can be made
between between the uprisings of 2011 with its predecessor, the
anti-globalisation or anti G7 protests of the late 90s and early
Noughties and their principal media arm, Indymedia which as he puts
it -was not only the voice but also fundamental to the organizational
infrastructure- and exemplifying what Gerbaudo refers to as
'Cyber-Separatism", with its commitment to the creation autonomous
infrastructure or ‘islands on the net’ ", as THE precondition of
avoiding capture and complicity with communicative capitalism.

As Gerbaudo wrote in the March 2014 edition of Occupy Times "At
the height of the anti-globalist summit protests, Indymedia became
the veritable voice of the anti-globalisation movement and it
also constituted a fundamental organizational infrastructure for
protestors, with editorial nodes often doubling as political
collectives. Besides Indymedia, alternative service providers (ISPs)
such as Riseup, Aktivist, Inventati, and Autistici catered for the
internal communication needs of the movement. Islands in a rebel
archipelago outside of the control of State and capital."

Historically he sites mass mobilizing power of the Kullena Khaled
Said Facebook <https://www.facebook.com/elshaheeed.co.uk> page that
called thousands onto the streets as a watershed moment in “occupying
of the digital mainstream”. And of this willingness to occupy the
cyber-mainstream as symptomatic of the majortarian turn. Despite
the obvious critiques particularly in this post Prism moment not to
mention the changes in the Facebook algorithm in ways that limit
the reach of activist pages. Gerbaudo continues to assert the value
replacing the culture of refusal and exodus with tactics of occupation
and engagement. Developments that mark a return to an earlier logic
of mass media in place of the homeopathic micro-logic of post-modern
cultural politics.


The Majoritarian Turn and the Phantom Public

Innevitably the conference left many unexplored questions here are a
few questions that resonate after the event.

Is it possible that the so called majoritarian turn is connected to
the need to re-ignite the concept of solidarity in a period when the
potency of the 20th century labor movement has largely evaporated?
>From the activism around evictions in Spain and Greece we see that at
moments of crisis points human solidarity Is rediscovered. But still
the term also have an archaic flavor associated with increasingly
outmoded forms of labor power. Media theorist Felix Stalder has
attempted to re-engage the concept in relationship to assemblies
and swarms seeking a language of solidarity that resonates more
effectively with more liquid conditions, in his recent publication
"Digital Solidarity".

Its as though the forms of tactical evasion (no visible leaders or
action programs) practiced by the new social movements are not simply
a refusal to play the positivist game of enlightenment rationalism,
they could also be seen as a means of harnessing that most mysterious
and volatile entity of mediatised democracy; "the public", or as
Walter Lipman called it, the "phantom public". The sociologist Noortje
Maares has described how the very potency of this phantom has far
greater agency than Lipman understood. A potency founded on the very
fact that it cannot be reduced to a single identifiable actor. In
her short her essay "How Not to Kill the Magic of the Public" Maares
described a process whereby"when something starts circulating in
public media, this brings along thepossibility, and indeed the threat,
of an open-ended set of actors steppingin to support this entity, and
to make it strong. this is what endowspublics with a dangerous kind of
agency." There is some similarity to the swarm as described by Stalder
but with some key differences.

The Long tail politics of Clicktivism

Future possibilities to conjure and harness this force might be
lurking as potential in that despised branch of cyber activism that
certainly cannot be classed as cyber seperatism. I am referring to the
forms of web based mass activism known disparagingly as clicktivism,
slacktivism or interpassivity, encompassing groups such as 38Degrees
and Change.org <http://Change.org> and largest of all Avaaz. All of
whom share the objective of leveraging millions of micro-contributions
into an effect far larger than the sum of its parts.

Though usually dismissed mainstream commentators and hard core
activists alike, I would argue, that the forms of engagement and
mobilisation that were initially developed by successful silicon
valley entrepreneurs understand the dynamics of how to build
constituencies within the attention economy of the web.

Chris Anderson described the forces at work in his article The Long
Tail in 2004 and how the disruptive advertising and retailing models
made possible by the net turned key business nostrums on their head a
model replicated across the net ad infinitum. As venture capitalist
Kevin Laws puts it taking his cue from Amazon: "The biggest money is
in the smallest sales."

What however has been less celebrated (from any point of the political
spectrum) is how the Longtail method of leveraging micro contributions
into something larger than the sum of its parts was also transformed
political activism not from radical circles but from the left leaning
majoritarian centre.

It began in 1998 with the launch of MoveOn.org <http://MoveOn.org>.
This project was founded by two successful silicon valley
entrepreneurs, Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, who after selling their
software company, Berkeley Systems for a close to $14 million, went
on to found the web based campaigning and advocacy network MoveOn.org
<http://MoveOn.org>. MoveOn developed the techniques later adopted
and adapted by numerous imitators that represent a key development in
nature of how to do political activism and enact democracy through the

This professionalization or (as some would claim) corporatization
of activism has spawned numerous imitators including 38Degrees and
Change.org <http://Change.org> and most significantly, the MoveOn spin
off Avaaz, which means “voice” in a number of languages, founded in
2007. At the time of writing Avaaz is about to pass the threshold of
35 million members, making it the world’s largest activist network,
giving it a global reach and scale that has taken the concept of
web-based activism to the next level. However the decision to situate
Avaaz on the international stage is not only a question of scale, it
also follows extends an important aspect of neo-pragmatist logic which
is that appealing to a global constituency aspires to short circuit
the power games that bedevil national politics.

The key characteristic of all of these groups is the low threshold
of commitment required for membership. Low-thresholdism was present
from the outset in 1998 with MoveOn where to be a “member” required
no subscription, in fact nothing other than a single action, which
could be as little as clicking an on-line petition or joining a forum
discussion. It is this ease of entry that enables these organizations
to accumulate such vast memberships. Their critics, many of whom see
activism in terms of the demands of traditional models of solidarity,
point to this fact as being their greatest weakness. But could it be
that their understanding of how the web enables the aggregation of
millions of small contributions into large effects that represents an
insight that could be appropriated or occupied. In an interview with
BBC’s ‘Hardtalk’ just a year after it was founded, Avaaz’s co-founder
and director Ricken Patel described his core demographic as“the Mum
with not a lot of time to spare [who] appreciates a service where she
can use the small amount of money or time that she has to give…”

When challenged on the blandness of his corporate image Patel is
unapologetic and made what I would argue is the core claim of the
neo-pragmatists of the web, “In order to bring about radical change in
the world you don’t need to be controversial. You can stand squarely
with the vast majority of people and still have a revolutionary agenda
for change”. This statement captures the essence of the majoritarian
turn as seen through the lens of American Pragmatism. As Clay Shirkey
put it in a book aptly named for the majoritarian era, Here Comes
Everybody: ‘Communication tools don't get socially interesting until
they get technologically boring.’

At the beginning of 2013 Avaaz extended their experimental approach to
democracy through an enhanced enactment of their annual consultation
process, a large-scale experiment in democratic consultation. It
combined a detailed polling exercise involving millions of its
members, in 14 languages and in excess of a hundred countries,
combined with intense online discussions covering numerous issues. The
poll and accompanying on-line discussions covered questions of detail
involving the identification of which specific campaigns to support.
But it also looked at meta questions relating to the governance of
Avaaz. For example it looked at how the permanent staff should respond
to the results of the poll itself, asking whether it should be seen as
a guide or a binding mandate. A large majority came out in favor of
using the data as a guide rather than a binding mandate.

The fact that the organization is entirely financed by contributions
from members leads Avaaz to claim that its members are the bosses and
it has compared the role of Patel and his staff as that of informed
civil servants briefing the president or prime minister. Perhaps
someone should send them a DVD of Yes Minister if they want to know
who the real boss is in this kind of arrangement as many questions
remain as to how campaigns are selected and promoted is part of the
key issue of governance and the balance between how nudges from
the Avaaz staff in one direction or another is tricky and can all
to easily lead to charges of bias. These are just some of the many
questions that make these organisations objects of suspicion that
should not however prevent us from learning from them. After all if
the disruptive technologies of the Internet have transformed all
sectors from commerce to education and journalism why should activism
and the radical avant garde of media politics be the exception? And
above all why should we let the devil have all the best tunes

A alternative version of this paper can be found at:


d a v i d  g a r c i a
new-tactical-research.co.uk <http://new-tactical-research.co.uk>

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