Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism
Reviewed by William Reber
Gerbaudo, Paolo. Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism. London: Pluto Press, 2012.
Paolo Gerbaudo’s Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism is a fascinating and evocative book that is based on the author’s grass-roots experiences during the January 2011 uprising against Mubarak in Egypt, the May 2011 indignados protest in Spain, and the September 2011 Occupy Wall Street movements. He uses his findings to challenge techno-optimists, pessimists, and contemporary social movement mainstream theories. Gerbaudo, Director of the Centre for Digital Culture, argues that techno-theorists do not consider how the use of technology differs based on geography and culture. He contends in his theory of “choreography of assembly” that social media aids in setting the foundations of the nature and type of movement where “soft” leaders emerge within social media communication to guide the emotional and physical nature of a social movement.
Gerbaudo delivers a convincing argument that the use of social media before and during social movements amplifies an activists’ ability to emotionally and physically assemble under the direction of “soft leaders,” who guide online and physical movements. Utilizing his first-hand experience from the three national-level social movements and interviews with eighty participants, he coined the phrase “choreography of assembly”: which he defines as “a process of the symbolic construction of public space which facilitates and guides the physical assembling of a highly dispersed and individualized constituency.” (pg.5) In other words, Gerbaudo asserts that social media communication takes on its own form, which can “lead” or compel individuals to assemble without having one discernible leader. For the uprising against Mubarak in Egypt, Gerbaudo emphasizes Facebook’s contribution to the initial mobilization and its decline as face-to-face communication became more influential. For the indignados protest in Spain, he stresses social media's role as recruitment, mobilization, and sustainment tools to keep activists informed, focused, and physically engaged. Lastly, for the Occupy Wall Street movement, he underscores social media use as a secondary means of communication to build and sustain a common identity.
The author makes a strong argument when referring to his methodological research approach. Gerbaudo's collection of the testimonies of eighty interviewees and his physical presence and participation in all three movements give his findings significant authenticity and legitimacy. I especially appreciate his analytical reasoning behind the selection of the three movements. Moreover, the cultural diversity of his data boosts the legitimacy of his claims and findings by demonstrating his theory is consistent across various cultural lines. This aspect of his research truly highlights a universal sub-culture that utilizes social media to mobilize, consolidate, influence, and sustain numerous independent individuals into one united, mobilized effort with “soft-leadership” or “choreographed assembly” as fashioned by Gerbaudo.
Additionally, the author’s upfront intention to challenge the widely accepted yet divergent viewpoints by leading social media theorists contributes to the educational value of his argument. Gerbaudo eloquently juxtaposes leading techno-optimist New York University Professor Clay Shirky with the leading techno-pessimist, journalist, and author Evgenyi Morozov. He builds an argument against social media’s positive effects on social movements by citing Malcolm Gladwell—a best-selling author from the New Yorker. Gerbaudo did not attempt to negate or leave out information that could harm his claims and theories. Moreover, he cited both positive and negative views of social media's impact on social movements, giving the reader the sense that the author is seeking a clearer understanding of social media's influence on popular movements.
The introduction lacked in three of its aspects making it seem complicated. First, Gerbaudo’s first-person narrative is anti-climactic. It lacks depth in introducing the book’s powerful topics and themes passionately and firmly by simply describing one individual on the outskirts of what was likely an emotionally charged social movement and a centerpiece of the book. Second, the introduction is riddled with numerous questions from the author and citations from other social scientists, impeding the flow. Lastly, Gerbaudo does a fantastic job summarizing the “Occupy” movement; but then clutters his argument by devoting several paragraphs to condemn the U.S. government for historically repressing first amendment rights, compromising his objectivity. Moreover, his tangent is out of place and interrupted his former and proceeding arguments of the “Occupy” movement.
These shortcomings notwithstanding, Tweets and the Streets was an intriguing read. The author used a unique and clever amalgamation of academic and non-academic writing, incorporating inputs from various social media, technology, and sociology fields as well as his personal experience. This blend of methods gives the author’s tone a slightly academic feel while still capturing the reader by highlighting the history and contemporary theories behind social media’s role in social mobilizations. Military audiences stand to profit from Gerbaudo’s accounts. As the world moves away from conventional tactics to unconventional ones, or conflicts below the threshold of violence, public and private services will be used as forms of influence. In turn, social media’s power to influence individuals at all levels has emerged at the forefront of modern-day conflicts. Gerbaudo does not draw direct links to these trends; however, he does highlight social media's power to support shared ideas, to aid in the commitment to a cause and assemble either violently or non-violently, which directly impacts governments.