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Cloud Protesting through Social Media

The final (no, really) session at AoIR 2016 starts with a paper by Stefania Milan, whose interest is in online protest. She begins by noting that semiotechnologies now play an important role as brokers. The emerging protest/media configurations affect the materiality of the process of meaning construction.

This may be seen as a somewhat techno-determinist argument: the algorithmically mediated environment of social media certainly has the power to restructure the dynamics of social action, and social media perform a function in political socialisation and within groups. Collective action as a social construct is the result of interactions between social actors, and sense-making activities are crucial in this context. Such meaning-making is embedded in the socio-politico-technological context.

Media technologies and the Internet are not just tools, then, but metaphors and enablers of a new configuration of collective action, which Stefania describes as 'cloud protesting'. This impacts on collective identity, too. The cloud is an imagined online space where resources are stored; such resources can be used as the ingredients of mobilisation; and the online environment gives these soft resources an immaterial body. The cloud thus makes these resources available to anyone, and this enables a customisation and personalisation of participation.

The cloud is further also a metaphor for organisational forms. We have moved from the social movement organisations of the 1960s through the networks of the 1990s to the networked individuals of the present; the cloud is an analogy for such individualisation, as well as a platform where cultural and symbolic production takes place – the cloud is therefore a reimagining of the group with no strings attached.

The cloud is an enabler of collective identity (and of identity as both 'we' and 'them'); through social media everyone can participate in identity building, but the politics of identity here are also politics of visibility, and identity is often built around lower common denominator elements. Performance is central here – it's not enough to be, but identity must be expressed and shown. But social media also make such performance of social action more easily reproducible.

Social media act as intermediaries in this, enabling greater speed in protest organisation and diffusion, as well as shaping protest action in significant ways. The cloud is grounded in everyday technology that is widely available to a broad range of users; this deeply influences the nature and tactics of protest, enabling the creation of a customisable narrative and a tailored collective intelligence.