Jadaliyya, the editors of The Dawn of the Arab Uprisings (Pluto, 2012), have interviewed Paolo Gerbaudo about his new book, Tweets and the Streets (Pluto, 2012). If you go to their website you’ll be treated to a multi-sensory experience (they have embedded audio…), but we’ve reproduced the transcript of the interview here anyway. Read to the bottom of the page on the Jadaliyya site and you’ll find some juicy extracts of Paolo’s book as well. Click here to check it all out.
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Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Paolo Gerbaudo (PG): I have been involved in progressive social movements in Italy and the UK for the last twelve years, some times as a participant, other times as a journalist for il manifesto a newspaper of the Italian New Left, other times as a social movement researcher, and still other times as an organizer. Thus, the first reason for writing this book for me was a strong sense of commitment to, and solidarity with, the movements I studied, and an enthusiasm about the sense of possibility they sparked. Naturally, the position of an activist/researcher is much more problematic than this. I think it should involve some degree of detachment from the social movements one studies, and the capacity to be critical of their doings, to look not only at victories but also at defeats of these movements and at their reasons. This is what I try to do in the book, delving into the contradictions between discourses and practices, and in particular the contradiction between the emphasis on participation
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?in activist culture, on the one hand, and the continuing presence of a diffuse charismatic leadership in contemporary movements, on the other hand.
PG: There is one key debate my book is trying to address. It is the academic and pundit debate about the so-called Facebook or social media revolutions: the question of the impact of social media in contemporary movements. This debate is marked by a stark division between techno-optimists like Clay Shirky, who think social media automatically provide movements with formidable mobilizing weapons, and techno-pessimists like Malcom Gladwell and Evgeniy Morozov, who see social media as ineffective at best, dangerous at worst. My book tries to escape the narrow confines of this debate, which has gone on quite fruitlessly for some years now. This is also because my main question is not: are social media good/bad? but rather, what do activists actually do with social media? What is the content they channel through them? Pursuing these questions allows me to open up my analysis to questions of radiclal politics and collective identity, and to the insights of authors like Ernesto Laclau, Alberto Melucci, and Zygmunt Bauman.
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?
PG: My previous research focused on the anti-globalization movement; its theorizing reflected the culture of that cycle of protest, with its emphasis on difference, on autonomy, and on small-group organizing. This previous work, conducted during my PhD studies at Goldsmiths College in London, has been retrospectively useful for identifying the specificity of contemporary movements vis-a-vis the anti-globalization movement, and in particular the popular and majoritarian character of contemporary movements. While changing the object of my research, I have also come to be increasingly skeptical of a series of ideas which animated my previous research, in particular the cult of spontaneity, horizontality, and networks, which became so dogmatic in the anti-globalization movement and is still reflected in contemporary movements.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
PG: The idea of the book is to be an academic book, but an academic book that can speak to publics beyond academia, in particular to the activist community to which it is ideally addressed. My intention was to make the book not only a scholarly inquiry, but also a platform of self-reflection for activists. By discussing issues activists are constantly dealing with in their day-by-day ground operations, the book hopes to inspire and contribute to an organizational rethinking. It invites us to get to grips with some of the most burning failures of contemporary social movements, and in particular their tendency towards evanescence, which reflects the embrace of highly liquid media, such as social media.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
PG: Social movements’ communications is and will remain my main area of interest. Critical social media studies is tentatively the type of investigation I want to conduct in the future. However, I am also becoming increasingly interested in the role of social media beyond activism, and its influence on the creation of new urban subcultures, from the artificial love relationships facilitated by dating sites like Badoo, to the new forms of gendered community developing around sites like Pinterest. Studying social media indeed bears much promise for those interested in the transformation of contemporary society, if only we are capable of going beyond the fetishism with objects and technologies that has so far dominated the stage.
J: How does your book expand upon or diverge from recent scholarship on social media and popular protests across the globe?
PG: The thesis of my book goes against much of the grain of theorizing about social media, but also more general theoretical work about the information society, cognitive capitalism, etc. Authors like Manuel Castells, in his work on networks, and of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in their discussion of multitude and swarms, have depicted the contemporary digital society as one marked by irreducible multiplicity, flexibility, and horizontality; individuals do not have to be fused into collective subjects in order to act together. In my book, counter to this strand of theorizing, I emphasize the continuing importance of questions of unity in collective action. I show how social media are used by activists as emotional conduits to facilitate the coming together of an individualized constituencies around common identities, common places, common names, and formats of action. Moreover, I highlight how counter to claims about leaderlessness, social media use is not characterized by absolute horizontality, but is rather accompanied by the rise of new forms of soft leadership. Contrasting interviews, observations, and analysis of social media material I highlight the contradition betweenactivist claims to absolute spontaneity andthe actual practices of social media campaigning. Participation is always framed in a way or another, and in the case of contemporary movements it is chiefly structured by relatively small group of highly dedicated activists, reluctant leaders, or “movement choreographers.” There is no such thing as “unrestrained participation,” even in the era of social media.
J: Choreographic leadership and choreography of assembly are two recurring terms in the book. But what do these notions actually mean?
PG: The term “choreography” is a metaphor to render the idea that at the time of social media protest activity is not as spontaneous and disorganised as it might appear at first sight. Rather, by using social media, acting as Facebook admins or popular movement tweeps, contemporary digital activists come to act as choregraphers or soft leaders of sorts. Through the messages, suggestions, and instructions they disseminate, they shape the way in which movements assemble in public space. Yet animated by a libertarian critique of hierarchy shared by many contemporary movements, these leaders do not want to be recognised as such. are never visible on the stage—jJust like a choreographer whose scripts structure the movement of dancers. Secondly, the metaphor serves to express the fact that social media are not about creating “cyberspace” opposed to physical reality. To the contrary, they are about shaping our collective action in physical space, the way in which we come together and act together on the streets of Cairo, Madrid, and New York.
Social Media and Contemporary Activism
Analyses the impact of new social media on activism and political dissent, from Cairo to New York.
“Tweets and the Streets is very timely, not just in terms of addressing the impact of Web 2.0 on social movements and activism, but also in that it addresses and soberly assesses the use of technology from recent protests in North Africa and elsewhere […] I highly recommend this book.
“Tweets and the Streets offers an incisive and challenging new direction in thinking about the context and possibilities for digital media and activism. Gerbaudo embeds social media very firmly in the material politics of space, of bodies in motion and in the intensive connections that are vital in turning online affinity into wider movements. This book captures the current mood of rebellion with up to the moment case studies, built from the experiences of those who have played such a vital part in the latest waves of insurrection around the world. “ – Joss Hands, author of @ is for Activism
End of an Old Order?
Edited by Bassam Haddad, Rosie Bsheer and Ziad Abu-Rish. Foreword by Roger Owen
Leading Middle East analysts consider the causes and consequences of the Arab Spring.
“Jadaliyya has established itself as an indispensable source dealing with the contemporary Arab world. This collection of its pieces on the Arab uprisings is perhaps the best introduction to the political movements that have shaken that region since January 2011. It represents a set of intelligent commentaries on revolutionary events in almost every Arab country, and their repercussions in the area generally and beyond. Essential reading.” – Talal Asad
“The outburst of the Arab Revolutions demands imaginative and novel perspectives on the Arab world, and Jadaliyya has managed to provide a unique forum covering the region with a fresh approach to its issues and problems. Its talented contributors, from the Arab world and beyond, combine objectivity with a progressive, humanistic engagement, and never shy away from sometimes explosive topics. Necessary reading.” – Fawwaz Traboulsi, author of