Beyond Celebration: Toward a More Nuanced Assessment of Facebook’s Role in Occupy Wall Street

As in many other mobilizations, Occupy Wall Street campsites and protests are intertwined with a broad range of mediation processes. In Pittsburgh, the media tent was one of the first to be constructed at the campsite. But the development of a broad set of activist media practices rendered the campsite just one of many spaces where Occupy Pittsburgh was present and visible. Mixing analogic and digital media channels, combining low tech and high tech media materials, using fixed and mobile media supports, activists developed a rich “repertoire of communication” (Mattoni 2012), especially with regard to media practices that served to sustain interactions and discussions with other protest organizers, participants, supporters, and sympathetic audiences, often bypassing the presence of mainstream and corporate journalists.

In what follows, I focus on how activist media practices intersected with communicative practices sustaining different forms of participation in Occupy Pittsburgh. The following reflections are based on observations during general assemblies, time spent at the campsite, informal chats with activists, and participation in Occupy Pittsburgh actions during the first two months of mobilization from the end of September to the end of November 2011. These reflections are far from conclusive and emerged from the field as a set of ideas that deserve further exploration and discussion.

The communicative practices sustaining participation in Occupy Pittsburgh took place in three settings: informal chats at the campsite and in its immediate surroundings; working group gatherings within and/or outside of the campsite; and general assemblies within and/or outside of the campsite. Communicative practices occurred face-to-face in the three settings. But they were also intertwined with media practices resting on different technological infrastructures. Informal chats at the campsite and in its immediate surroundings were supplemented by phone calls and email exchanges. Especially when it came to face-to-face communication between activists and potential supporters visiting the campsite more low-tech media were also used to engage in conversation, such as the "debt wall," a cardboard in the middle of the campsite where everyone could declare her loan. Face-to-face communication in working groups was complemented with the use of online organizational tools like google groups and, only in one case, the use of activist-run mailing list services. Many of the working groups continued their face-to-face conversations in the online space, which also became an essential tool for drafting proposals and documents to be discussed in general assemblies. Finally, general assemblies were frequently complemented with live-stream technologies so those not physically present at the campsite could also participate in the discussions and intervene through the live-stream chat channel.

The campsite was an important site of struggle, but certainly not the only one in which different levels of participation were made possible through involvement in diverse mediation processes. Among the different technological infrastructures used for media practices that intersected with face-to-face communication, the use of social media networking sites was especially pervasive. Facebook, in particular, quickly emerged as a tool for interfacing with informal chats at the campsite, working group activities, and the general assembly. Late in September, Pittsburgh activists first created a group on Facebook that gained about 2000 members in roughly a week. As in other recent mobilizations, including the Egyptian revolution and the Spanish Indignados (Gerbaudo forthcoming), Facebook proved a useful tool for coalescing people around Occupy Pittsburgh. Group discussions were quickly followed by an initial general assembly during which, participants began to discuss where and when to occupy. From that moment on discussions took place both online and offline. Activists posted a diverse range of materials on the Facebook group: information about forthcoming meetings, minutes of general assemblies, working group proposals, updates about the campsite, and announcements of protest actions. Moreover, many working groups began to create their own Facebook pages or groups to organize their activists, particularly after October, when activists began the Pittsburgh occupation in a downtown public park managed by the Mellon Bank of New York.

Facebook was useful in many respects, but it also created tensions. Activists living in the campsite often referred to discussions on the social networking site as "the Facebook drama." These harsh conversations usually revolved around three general themes. First, activists clashed because they had different points of view on the very meaning of Occupy Pittsburgh and its underlying values and beliefs. Occupy Wall Street, indeed, brought together people with different activist experiences and political cultures that were sometimes difficult to reconcile. Second, activists clashed because they had different interpretations of specific episodes that occurred at the campsite or in the course of protest actions. In this case the discussions revolved around the daily life of Occupy Pittsburgh rather than the meaning of Occupy Wall Street writ large. Here, the framing of events differed according to activists' political experiences and cultures, which were difficult to negotiate, at least on a Facebook wall. Finally, activists clashed because of the manner in which the administrators of the Facebook group employed their power (or not) to intervene when passions escalated. In this case, clashes were related to the very use of the social networking site and revealed the existence of informal hierarchies, since some activists had more power than others to regulate discussions by deleting comments and banning users.

Facebook, in short, was much more than a platform for diffusing information about the occupation. Clashes among activists created a conflictual space of discussion through which individuals engaged in the discursive construction of contested meanings around Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Pittsburgh, and the Occupy Pittsburgh Facebook group itself. This discursive construction, however, developed along with strong emotions on the part of activists participating in the online discussions. Moreover, it was clear that the Facebook clashes facilitated activist burn-out and disengagement. Even activists who did not use the social networking site were forced to deal with Facebook-generated tensions because the campsite often reverberated with the fall out of online clashes.

Beyond the celebration of Facebook as a tool for information and organization, these preliminary observations demand a more careful analysis of (1) the position of Facebook within the broader repertoire of communication displayed during mobilizations and (2) the multiple and often contradictory roles of Facebook with respect to contemporary mobilization.

References

Mattoni, Alice. 2012. Media Practices and Protest Politics: How Precarious Workers Mobilize. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Gerbaudo, Paolo. Forthcoming. Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism. London: Pluto Press.

Alice Mattoni is a Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Media Practices and Protest Politics: How Precarious Workers Mobilize (Ashgate, 2012), the editor of Mediation in Protest Movements, with Patrick McCurdy and Bart Cammaerts (Intellect, 2012 in press) and an editor of Interface: A Journal for and about Social Movements. Her research interests include social movements, media practices, and precarious workers.