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The Individualism of Online Social Movements

The third speaker at this ASMC14 session is Paolo Gerbaudo, whose interest is in the organisational processes of informal collaboration in social media activism. In order to understand these processes it is not enough to study the large datasets of their outputs, but to also ask the people behind such activities why and how they do this work.

Across the various cases of social media activism in recent years there has been a clear power distribution – a handful of leading accounts have been driving protests such as Occupy, Indignados, or the Arab Spring. These accounts have attracted a large number of followers and serve as movement leaders and organisers. Who is behind these accounts; who is working to keep such feeds going, and how?

Paolo conducted interviews with a number of such leading activists across a range of countries, in order to explain the internal functioning of such groups. Usually, the leadership group is limited to 2-20 people who can work together very efficiently – often even more efficiently than formal, conventional organisations. What emerges here is a flexible hierarchy which is based on personal charisma, interpersonal trust, and group-wide consensus; groups are based on a sense of friendship and comradeship.

The groups number some 4-20 members, usually male and motivated by shared views and ideals; they are very skilled in using media technologies, are often physically co-located, and met each other through involvement in earlier activist work. But they are reluctant to call themselves 'groups', in order not to alienate other potential participants.

Such groups often work very well, but can fall prey to certain self-destructive dynamics – a tendency to respond too quickly to new challenges, without fully thinking through them; personality conflicts and egomania; and the formation of new factions, sometimes along technological lines (e.g. Twitter users vs. Facebook users). Within the group there usually tends to be a super user – an admin person who has the various account logins and has the power to shut down activities altogether.

The problem here is a technopolitical one – tendencies of individualism are exacerbated by the individualism embedded in social media platforms. This adds to a confusion between the personal and political, and between individual and collective rights.