'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reflections on Occupy and Social Media 

NOTE: As mentioned here last Tuesday, Jessica Hollie, also known as BellaEiko, spoke about how we need to stop segregating ourselves through fear for the benefit of the 1%. Just passing it along so that you can see what I experienced.

POST: About five weeks ago, I was stunned by the realization that e-mail is the new snail mail. It came upon me suddenly, as these things so often do when you are older like myself, while I was producing a KDVS program centered around ustreamers of Occupy Oakland. I was trying to reach a ustreamer, BellaEiko, so that I could interview her along with another ustreamer, LaurynG. I posted a message on her ustream site, nothing. There was no e-mail address. What to do?

Of course, BellaEiko has a Twitter account, as she also predictably tweets about Occupy Oakland and Occupy more generally. At this point, it began to dawn on me that Twitter is more than just a social networking site for celebraties to tell all their fans what they ate for breakfast. I had a brief encounter with such an insight previously when someone tweated their critical responses as they read Tony Blair's book, A Journey, last year, but I did not grasp the ramifications of it. Now, I was learning the hard way that it is nearly impossible to reach people involved in occupations initially through phone calls or, when available, e-mail. As far they were concerned, I may as well be living in Kazakhstan. So, I had to face reality: if I wanted to obtain guests involved in Occupy I was going to have to open a Twitter account. I begrudingly did so, and finally reached BellaEiko so that she could participate in the interview.

If you are going to attempt to engage Occupy, you cannot avoid engagement with Twitter and Ustream. Twitter is, in essence, a global chatroom where those at the scene of a general assembly or action rely information to everyone else outside of it. Occupiers also issue calls for assistance through Twitter, as they are retweeted across the Internet. As a consequence, homepages for various occupations have been rendered secondary, usually updated hours or even days after the fact. Homepages now appear to serve the purpose of providing detailed content which then, of course, gets delivered to people through Twitter. Not surprisingly, Facebook serves much the same purpose, but my impression is that Twitter has superceded Facebook as the means by which real time information is disseminated, rendering it more of a vehicle for organizing future activities.

Meanwhile, the participants of Occupy are humanized through Ustream. Ustreamers show every aspect of Occupy through video sent out over the Internet through phones and cameras. Ustreamers shatter the demonized construction of occupiers purveyed in the commercial media by showing them as they speak and act in real time. Jessica Hollie's speech, as presented at the top of this entry, is just one example among many of this phenomenon. OccupyFreedomLA, a ustreamer associated with, of course, Occupy LA, provided another compelling example when she ustreamed a group including herself preparing for a possible police assault by telling each other how to prepare for the possible use of tear gas and stenciling hearts on their hands to display to the officers as a symbol of their commitment to non-violence. One can agree or disagree with the actions of the occupiers in a specific situation, but, through Ustream, they are shown as flesh and blood people in the richness of their social and emotional diversity. The fact that the police have adopted less violent tactics towards Occupy as a consequence of these live presentations of Occupy activities is already well known.

Embedded within this embrace of the accelerated communication capacity of social media liesa number of troubling dilemmas. Practically, there is the problem that the use of social media varies with age. Hence, older people are less likely to understand Occupy because they do not use Twitter, Ustream and Facebook. If anything, I suspect that Facebook would constitute the most likely means of them receiving information about Occupy outside of the commercial media. Beyond this, there is the question as to whether Occupy runs the risk of becoming a virtualized form of reality television as people consider the movement a form of vicarious entertainment. Why go to a general assembly or action when you can stay home and watch it on Ustream? Along these lines, note that interest in police raids upon occupations, as reported through Twitter, seemed to wane if it became apparent that the police were not going to violently attack them.

More abstractly, there is the question as to the personal consequences associated with people processing so much information so rapidly. Franco Berardi, also known as Bifo, maintains that people receive information through communication technologies far beyond their ability to process it over time. Every aspect of our lives, our work, our families and our personal activities, are suffused with this virtual intrusion The result is eventually a feeling of powerlessness and depression, which is expressed either inwardly through withdrawal or self-harm, or outwardly, through violence directed against others, along with an accompanying loss of intimacy. Combined with the pre-existing psychological problems of burnout and depression connected to the exaltation of the activist, a figure encouraged to dedicate all aspects of their life to the movement, much as, paradoxically, executives subordinate their lives to the artifical needs of their corporations, there is a potentially combustible peril here. Yet Occupy is inescapably intertwined with the urgency of social media. One wonders, have the participants of Occupy and the recipients of Occupy's stream of virtual information found a way out of the cul-de-sac described by Bifo? Regardless of the answer, the creative expansion of the uses of social media by Occupy may partially illustrate the integration of the movement with contemporary socioeconomic conditions, rendering it a potentially radically transformative enterprise.

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