Occupy Movement and Social Media in Crisis Capitalism

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* Book: OccupyMedia! The Occupy Movement and Social Media in Crisis Capitalism. By Christian Fuchs. Zero Books, 2014

URL = http://fuchs.uti.at/books/occupymedia-the-occupy-movement-and-social-media-in-crisis-capitalism/


The Occupy movement has emerged in a historical crisis of global capitalism. It struggles for the reappropriation of the commodified commons. Communications are part of the commons of society. Yet contemporary social media are ridden by an antagonism between private corporate control (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and self-managed, commons-based activist media. In this work, Christian Fuchs analyses the contradictory dialectic of social media in the Occupy movement. Drawing on a political economy framework and interpretation of the results of the OccupyMedia! Survey, in which more than 400 Occupy activists reported on their social media use, OccupyMedia! The Occupy Movement and Social Media in Crisis Capitalism shows how activists confront the contradictions of capitalism and communication in the age of crisis and social media. The book discusses the contradiction between commercial and alternative social media and argues that the existence of a surveillance-industrial complex expressed in the PRISM system shows the urgent necessity to create social media beyond Facebook and Google.


1. Introduction: The Crisis of Capitalism

2. Protests in Crisis Capitalism

3. Occupy and Digital Media

4. Research Method: The OccuyMedia! Survey

5. Results of the OccupyMedia! Survey

6. Interpreting the Data: Social Movement Media in Crisis Capitalism

7. Alternatives

8.Conclusion: Activism and the Media in a World of Antagonisms


Thomas Swann:

"provides the results of the OccupyMedia! Survey carried out at the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013. Fuchs makes use of the results of the survey elsewhere (in Social Media: A Critical Introduction) but this is the first time they have been presented and analysed in full. Based on online questionnaires, the survey aims to answer research questions such as ‘What do activists perceive as the role of social media in Occupy?’ and ‘How often to activists use certain media and communications forms for trying to mobilize people for protests and occupations?’. (38-9) It deals directly, therefore, with the claims that have been made about movements like Occupy, but also the Arab Spring, the Indignados and others, that social media are central to how these uprisings and protests were organised.

Crucially, and this is one of the many strengths of OccupyMedia! and what makes it essential reading for those interested in contemporary social movements, Fuchs argues that social media were less key than authors like Manuel Castells and Paul Mason make out. While they do play a role, Fuchs’ research is able to show, importantly going beyond anecdotal evidence, that traditional, face-to-face contact and physical space played a more central role in Occupy than did online communications and virtual platforms (this is reflected in other recent studies of Occupy including Mark Bray’s Translating Anarchy (2013) which doesn’t mention social media at all in its account of Occupy Wall Street and my own research on more established activist groups which similarly highlights a reliance on face-to-face, offline communication (Swann 2014a)). OccupyMedia!, however, goes beyond this conclusion to highlight the ways in which social media were used and how activists relate to them as protest tools.

At the outset, Fuchs states the aims of the OccupyMedia! project as to analyse ‘how corporate and alternative, non-commercial digital media enable and or/limit the movement’s communication and protest capacities.’ (4) Rather than discussing how the study sheds light on the use of corporate platforms like Facebook and Twitter, I want to here focus on what it shows in relation to alternative media, social media in particular, and how these are defined by activists and can be defined in relation to the goals of contemporary social movements. " (http://www.heathwoodpress.com/demanding-defining-alternative-media/)


What Alternative Social Media?

Thomas Swann:

"First of all, what are alternative social media? Fuchs mentions a number of examples and divides them according to the sociological categories (drawn from the work of Durkheim, Weber, Marx and Tönnies) of ‘cognition’ (the knowledge processes of a single individual), ‘communication’ (exchanging knowledge between individuals; social relations) and ‘co-operation’ (‘the shared production of new qualities, new social systems, or new communities with feelings of belonging together’ (24)). These are not three unconnected spheres of human activity: as Fuchs notes (ibid.) ‘in order to co-operate you need to communicate and in order to communicate you need to cognize.’ As mainstream examples of how social media have a role in these processes, he cites Tumblr as an example of cognition, of individual reflection and knowledge-production; Twitter as an example of communication, with the use of hashtags to create conversations; and Facebook as an example of co-operation, with planning taking place online.

As for alternative social media, Fuchs highlights the live streaming of Occupy assemblies and meetings, news blogs, online newspapers, events calendars and maps, among others as examples of cognitive media. In the category of communicative media, he mentions chat and discussion forums, mailing lists and voice chat platforms. And for co-operative media he points to social networking sites including Occupii, N-1 and Diaspora* in addition to the Occupy wiki and Occupy collaborative pads. These different media are made available to activists through websites, such as occupystreams.org or occupy.net, printed hard-copy media and online platforms like occupii.org. For Fuchs, alternative social media are specifically those that are used within social movements and not simply mainstream or commercial alternatives to the dominant platforms and companies, as Bing is an alternative to Google for online searching or as Hotmail is an alternative to Gmail. (If there is one thing missing from OccupyMedia! it’s an overview of exactly what each of the alternative social media Fuchs mentions actually do and how they contributed to the Occupy movement. Of course this lies outside the scope of reporting on the results of the OccupyMedia! Survey and it could well be a lengthy and relatively dry overview, but it is nonetheless needed if a discussion of alternative social media is to draw in those not already versed in the topic.)

Around of a third of the activists involved in the survey reported that they didn’t have any real experience of alternative social media while those who had used it pointed to the low reach when compared to mainstream platforms, the inability to connect with those not already involved in Occupy and the higher intensity of the reliance on resources of alternatives as major drawbacks. (117-20) Nonetheless, respondents reported that alternatives have the advantages that they are more private (26.4% of respondents), non-profit/commercial (15.6%) and are focussed on communication and coordination within the movement (15.2%). (114-17)

Defining Alternatives

Fuchs’ account of alternative, activist-oriented social media is a largely descriptive one: it shows what alternatives were used by Occupy activists, how they are approached and what their limitations are, according to those who used them. For those concerned with improving the communications practices of social movements, however, an account of alternative social media is needed that is both descriptive of the alternatives already in play and prescriptive of how alternatives should be developed in the future (Fuchs does this to an extent with a discussion of remuneration and material support for alternatives but confines this more prescriptive account to the economic structures surrounding alternatives and not to the architectures of the alternatives themselves). What is needed then is a concrete, descriptive-prescriptive definition of what an activist social media platform ought to look like: what it should do and what it should avoid. This is another area where OccupyMedia! can be of use as a piece of engaged scholarship.

While Fuchs doesn’t offer an explicit definition of alternative social media, one can be extrapolated from his descriptive account and, crucially, from the critique Occupy activists level against mainstream platforms. One of the clearest statements Fuchs makes along the lines of defining an alternative social media comes when he argues that alternatives often risk advancing ‘the logic of capitalism and commodification that left-wing movements want to change’ and substituting an activist logic with a ‘bureaucratic logic, which can not just result in an administered form of protest, but can also completely change the nature of political goals away from changing the system towards sustaining it.’ (141)

Alternative social media, therefore, ought to embody an activist logic that opposes both bureaucratisation of resistance and more direct logics of capitalism and commodification. In this way, alternative social media should in fact prefigure the negation of ‘the commodification of the commons’ (157) that Occupy stood for. Alternatives must therefore negate the logic of capitalism and prefigure the logic of resistance to and escape from capitalism. But what does this mean in practice?

As OccupyMedia! makes clear, what activists criticise in mainstream social media are often what they praise in alternatives, reinforcing this idea of negation. Surveillance is negated by increased privacy, corporate control by running by activists, commercial exploitation of data by a rejection of profit. In these ways, alternatives are negations in the sense of turning the logic of mainstream social media on its head. But of course there are features of mainstream social media that alternatives in fact need to mimic. Importantly, alternatives need to have the wide reach and usability that characterise mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

While this may seem obvious it is worth focussing on as it problematises Fuchs’ use of negation. Indeed, it may be better to speak of a dialectical relationship between mainstream and alternative social media not just in terms of how activists use both in their social movement activism (as he discusses (131-2)) but also in terms of a prescriptive definition of alternative social media. Alternative, activist-oriented social media must not only negate those aspects of the mainstream that social movements are opposed to but also incorporate those aspects of the mainstream that are conducive to anti-capitalist media practices. In Marxist terms, alternative social media shouldn’t simply negate mainstream social media but transcend the opposition through synthesis.

While this isn’t explicit in OccupyMedia!, it is a strand of thought that is present in activists’ desire to take alternative social media further by incorporating features which, at present, only mainstream social media have. With this in mind, there are two features of this dialectical opposition that are missing in the results of the OccupyMedia! Survey but which have emerged in my own empirical research on how radical left activists use and relate to social media (this shouldn’t be seen as a criticism of Fuchs’ book but as an attempt to move the concept of alternative social media beyond how the activists who took part in the survey view it).

In terms of an aspect of mainstream social media that alternatives may well require but which they are currently lacking, something that has come up in my discussions with activists is procrastination. We might chastise ourselves for wasting hours at a time on Facebook and Twitter and curse their invention when we realise we’ve done so, but this is a feature of mainstream social media that make them so useful to activists. In stark contrast to the often clunky and functional virtual space of platforms like Crabgrass and N-1, Facebook is fun to spend time on, and while a lot of this time is well and truly wasted, it does allow us to ‘hang-out’ on the platform, chat with others, find interesting posts and articles and contribute towards the kind of communication and co-operation that more functional, activist-oriented platforms make difficult except in explicitly demarcated circumstances, such as online assemblies. So far from negating the time-suck of mainstream social media, this is in fact something that alternatives could do well to replicate, at least to an extent. Among the endless stream of kittens and memes are genuinely important nuggets of information and opportunities for interaction which might otherwise not occur.

Coming from the other direction, one feature of mainstream social media that alternatives need to negate is that aspect of their architecture that reinforces a liberal individualism. Mark Bray (2014) has shown how disruptive individualist ideas were to Occupy Wall Street and in countering these aspects of contemporary capitalism, alternative social media must refuse to reproduce them. This is written into the architecture of platforms like Facebook and Twitter which are based on the user as individual and notions of self-promotion and a network of otherwise unconnected persons. As Tad Hirsch (2011) highlights, Crabgrass, an alternative social networking platform that interestingly doesn’t come up in OccupyMedia! despite being popular among the activists I’ve interviewed, is based on groups and individual users can’t really do much without being part of a group, within which a host of functions are available to enable communication and co-operation. So while the ability to procrastinate and have fun on social media should be maintained in an alternative, an architecture that reinforces individuals should be replaced.

Defining alternative social media, beyond the descriptive account provided by activists in OccupyMedia!, is crucial for social movements. This is where social science and political philosophy can contribute to and collaborate in processes of software development. Alternative social media are progressing as the needs of activists on the ground progress and change, and taking a dialectical approach to how alternatives are defined can help in identifying what should be rejected and what should be appropriated and repurposed. OccupyMedia! is an invaluable and wide-ranging study of media and communications within the Occupy movement and enables activist voices to contribute to the debates around alternative social media. As Fuchs writes in closing the book, ‘Another media system is possible because it is needed. A public service and commons-based Internet is possible because it is needed. Such an Internet communializes the ownership of platforms and thereby helps establishing truly social media that benefit not just an elite, but can advance the public good and the common interests of all.’ (161)" (http://www.heathwoodpress.com/demanding-defining-alternative-media/)