Legitimating Crisis: Social Networks Decenter the Dominant Narrative

(flickr.com/shankbone)

Reposting, posting, commenting and liking, have emerged as an increasingly important grammar of civic discourse. As we collectively experience the rise of social network platforms, we are slowly becoming more accustomed to the devices and possibilities of this new medium. And with it, we are witnessing a corollary rise in a social movement. The synchronicity is not by chance.

While at first I was reluctant to believe it (there was something almost nauseating about the way in which the U.S. media attributed so much of the social unrest in Egypt to Twitter and Facebook), I am now convinced that the rise of OWS cannot be explained properly without appreciating the radical power and potentiality of social network platforms. It might seem like a trite epiphany by those who don’t understand the real organizing behind social movements, but bare with me as I think the case can be made. While OWS’s growth across the country and now the world has caught most everyone by surprise, it has also provided one of those exceptional moments where one can watch the main circuits of power reeling to retain relevance. There have been the poignant hiccups showing both governments and media off-balance. Michael Bloomberg balking at cleaning up Liberty Plaza and then blaming it on the supposed calls of elected officials. The New York Times rewriting their coverage of the arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge and then having their edits revealed and circulated on scale networks. The numerous Wikileaks communiqués that provide whistleblowers and the leaks in the consolidation of power a platform to spread like wildfire. These hiccups and so many others provide a first-hand view as to a condition where those in control, perhaps, are not.

There have been moments in the past months where those operating in OWS have been provided that wonderful glimpse at power revealing its hand. For everyone has had a front row seat watching the growing disconnect between what the media has reported and what the facts on the ground are. With every disconnect between major media and what people experience, faith is shaken. This part is nothing new. What is different is that now people find themselves able to construct and turn to alternative forms of media that confirm an idea of the real that conforms more readily to what they have experienced. Social networks are providing a distributed form of legitimation that has radical power.

Of course it is ludicrous to ascribe the growing discontent and popular resistance to purely a Mark Zuckerburg invention such as Facebook. Such hyperbolic claims feel like an oversimplification of vast factors such as the one most apparent: massive economic inequality. However, after numerous social movements over the years, this particular movement possesses a noticeably different texture and much of that can be attributed to the extremely important role that social networks have played.

Without question, social networks provide an entirely different platform for gathering news. What only ten years ago was considered fringe media is now circulated at a much faster rate contesting the dichotomy of mainstream and fringe. Narratives that challenge the dominant capitalist-friendly style of corporate media are simply more ubiquitous and available. To be simplistic about it, even the re-introduction of the term “capitalism” has only been an option in the United States since the power of social networks have allowed it to emerge. Without a central space of control such as the major television networks, the narrative around economic and social inequity is able to quickly take on a more radical form. This is a knife of course that cuts both ways as social networks provide a great platform for all kinds of extremism and reactionary paranoid politics. As the circulation of media begins to move through a vastly de-centered distributive network, legitimation (the like button and sharing function) takes on a velocity. It is a speed. After a few months, it develops a culture. It is a becoming machine for many people to radicalize each other. With every share, like, post, and comment, we participate in the production of each other through a rapidly developing culture.

But what is additionally amazing about Occupy Wall Street is that it is a movement that takes space seriously. The radicality of social network technologies has its most power when it mobilizes toward space across time. In looking back at the first few weeks of OWS, one recalls the clear derision it was met with not only in the large media landscape but the progressive as well. If the tools were available, it would be fascinating to watch the spread of information regarding Occupy Wall Street across the nation over time. For if it were only up to the New York Times, ABC, NBC, NPR, and Fox, and many supposedly progressive magazines and websites the first two weeks the occupations would have been remembered as a fringe display by ignorant privileged kids who know how to whine but not much else. Simple visual snapshots were taken of bongo players, women with wigs, and anarchist black clad wearing kids as visual representations of lost disaffected youth. This was the dominant story and one that most of America was hearing and seeing if they heard anything at all. But the occupation kept going, and as it did more unions joined on, more activist celebrities showed up, and more writing in support of the movement appeared. This is all to say that over time the movement gained legitimacy. And legitimacy, that increasingly important function that happens in a culture of vast symbolic production, is that tool that tells our brain that this version of the story, is the one that is important to pay attention to. The occupation itself never changed its political position. It wasn’t any strategic choice that gave it legitimacy. But instead that it gathered momentum over time as more and more people rallied to its cause.

Over the course of time, the mainstream media became increasingly behind in the story.  Looking across the Atlantic at the UK Guardian, one found coverage of the protests almost immediately with numerous sympathetic journalists and theorists such as Naomi Klein and Slavoz Zizek already weighing in the protest’s importance. But here stateside, the major media outlets continued their anti-intellectual Fox News/Bill O’reilly style of reportage whose slanderous approach has been their bread and butter for the last decade. As the movement grew so too did the sympathy reach out from the net to the traditional distributors of information. The progressive outlets began to realize that the people they were resenting were actually their base. They had to rapidly adjust, apologize and get on board for fear of coming across as a media platform that didn’t target their specific target market. On October 2nd, Sally Kohn from Mother Jones blogs an apology for being critical of the occupation movement. On October 5th, Keith Olberman read a statement from Occupy Wall Street. And of course on October 6th President Obama weighed in saying he understands the protest’s frustrations. Suddenly the major media was turning toward a sympathetic approach as the radical fringe became a normal part of the center, all in the manner of three weeks. The position of derision began to seem untenable as more and more movements sprung up across the country appealing a populist base. And the one thing the media can’t stand being against is populism.

But the fact of the matter is none of this would have been possible without Twitter and Facebook. The ability to spread a counter narrative not only served as a social device for legitimating reasonable complaints against power, but it allowed every person to participate in that form of legitimation from the isolated privacy of their home. The private was able to become public and thus political. This ability is something that television simply cannot do. By spreading the word of these protests and being introduced to counter-narratives, people in the social networking milieu were being radicalized from inside their home.

One could say that all this teaches is that social networking is an extremely powerful device (which is true). But there is also another lesson that may be instructive as well. And that lesson for those of us who have tried tirelessly to get this kind of movement off the ground for twenty to thirty years is that the major media has been a bigger problem than one could have ever imagined. For as much as social inequality and the control of government by the financial class is certainly at a relatively high point, the dismantling of the social welfare programs across this country have been occurring for a long time. Social inequities have been a large part of the American reality for a long time. The time to put a stop to it and place populist pressure against it is not specifically unique to this period. What is unique are the devices by which we communicate and organize around these frustrations and the manner in which sociality legitimates these concerns.

What does this mean politically? First, one must also admit a gap between those who have access to social media and those who do not. Those who have found a place to come together, and those whose lives are ever watched, controlled, and policed. For social networks also teaches us something that was known in social movements before: there is an analogue form of coming together and producing community. One can only rely on social networks so much and the movement clearly needs to pound the pavement to listen and open up dialogue across divides of difference. Clearly there is a race and class component to this that must also exist in consideration as a different subjectivity emerges.

But second, we need to appreciate just how powerful the technological tools of legitimation are in shaping the civic. The technologies of major media (namely television) have been a much more critical power tool than I think many have appreciated. The disruption of this technology with new distributed platforms has radically altered the vehicles that make us who we are. And lets be frank, most of the United States still relies on television for their news and entertainment. This obvious reality provides a major culture gap between the subjectivities of a nation as the aggregate forms of becoming a culture pile up over time. A generation grown on social networks is going to seem very strange and radical when confronting their television-watching parents.

What social networks provide is a communicative centrifugal device where the forms of meaning are shaped via people. This is certainly more democratic inherently but also provides an obvious tool for bringing sequestered conversations like capitalism to the forefront. When people’s complaints about their lives are legitimated by other people’s complaints about their lives, an inevitable velocity of subjectivity emerges that has radical potential. There is much to say regarding this, but it is important to note as we become aware that something has shifted. For of course, there are numerous concerns regarding social network technologies including the privatization of these networks, the capacity for surveillance, the race and class composition of such networks, the lack of accountability and due diligence in the spread of this new information for starters. That said, the power of this technology should not be underestimated. It is very real and very powerful and will be a critical device in shaping the subjectivities of the movements and politics to come.