Up from Facebook: #Occupy—(Re)Building and Empowering Communities

Posted on October 22, 2011

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#OWS (occupy Wall Street and the “Occupy” movement) have been widely discussed but not as yet in the context of a broader understanding of an evolving Digital/Information Society.

Castells and Wellman and his colleagues have argued that the Digital or Information Society (or in their term the “networked society”) results in social relationships characterized by what they call “networked individualism”

…It is the move from densely-knit and tightly-bounded groups to sparsely-knit and loosely-bounded networks. 

Each person is a switchboard, between ties and networks. People remain connected, but as individuals, rather than being rooted in the home bases of work unit and household. Each person operates a separate personal community network, and switches rapidly among multiple sub-networks. 

For them, the organic and multi-dimensional relationships of communities are being transformed into narrow digitally-enabled, highly individualized, networked relationships; perhaps most widely recognizable as Facebook “friend”-ings accompanied by Facebook “like”-ings as a possible substitute for shared community values and norms. Regrettably their analysis nowhere points out how these changes reduce the capacity for individuals to protect themselves from the on-going encroachments of an impersonal neo-liberal marketplace and particularly how it undermines the possibility of solidarity which in the past has proven to be the most effective basis for effective resistance.

According to Wellman and his colleagues there is a parallel transformation in the political sphere with

civic involvement … increasingly … taking the form of e-citizenship, networked rather than group-based, hidden indoors rather than visibly outdoors.

and

This move to networked societies has profound implications for how people mobilize and how people and governments relate to each other …  But such e-citizenship also facilitates, and to some extent reinforces, mass society, with the individual in direct relationship with the state without the intermediary of local and even central groups. … the turn away from solidary, local, hierarchical groups and towards fragmented, partial, heavily-communicating social networks.  

Certainly politics in the Information Society seems to have taken the shape prescribed for it by the marketplace—fragmented, concerned with short-term individualized interest maximization, personality-obsessed media saturation and so on. These changes in turn have been propelled by the forces of technology and the breakdown of established employment structures, education patterns, industry-based physical communities, even family and friendship ties under the avalanche of neo-liberal induced corporate and governmental restructuring, outsourcing, downsizing and so on.

Elsewhere I have critiqued this position as one that is profoundly pessimistic and depoliticizing and that it ignored the possibilities for community-based ICT-enabled resistance arising within the Information Society. I pointed out that while applications such as Facebook manifested these types of alienated and alienating individualized relationships (where individuals interacted with each other as fragmented and depersonalized “profiles” linked through these social media); I also suggested that such social frameworks could and would be countered through community informatics – digitally enabled communities networked both internally (as community networks) and externally (as networked communities).

It is not I think an accident that the Occupy Movement overall is characterized by processes of community formation enabled by Information and Communications Technologies both locally – site by site – and as a movement wide, mega-community rhyzomatically linking the individual sites electronically and through shared values.  Tis emergent resistance is a result of the fusion of the local and global – interacting and being enabled both by face-to-face connections and electronic media – Facebook and Twitter certainly, but perhaps most significantly through technologies of presence in distance such as skype, online chat and streaming video.

What can be seen in individual sites are communities being formed – the articulation of common core values; the emergence of behavioral norms governing conduct within the community and between the community and its external environment; and the creation of systems for knowledge gathering, opinion sharing, decision-making and boundary setting; among others.

These emergent communities are internally networked – linking individuals via mobile phone, iPads, netbooks etc. to each other and into broader personal networks which aren’t permanent parts of the sites but which weave in and out following the vagaries of personal schedules and inclinations.  As well, the individual sites are directly and more or less continuously digitally networked into other sites and sympathizers both locally and globally allowing for both physical absence and virtual presence.

For the Occupy-ers there is a very strong emphasis on both place and continuity.  Rather than (as for previous such movements) focusing on individual events such as demonstrations is on the continuing occupation of a focal point of territory – a site.  Individuals can thus find and integrate themselves into the evolving Occupy community allowing for very many individuals to come and go, achieving through slectronic means some degree of identification with the movement while still living their daily lives.

This focusing on the physical presence of a site is a significant step beyond the virtuality and externally imposed structuring of the set of digital connections of social media(ted) networks e.g. Facebook and allows for a face to face connection to support and deepen involvement with the overall movement. Thus the virtual connections (the “networked individualism” of a Facebook or an email connection) is superseded or even transformed into a more organic and deeper connection of shared values and norms through physical interaction at the site.  This transformed connection can then be more easily maintained and where necessary mobilized through the much shallower and more fragile but continuous and distance-spanning technical capacities of electronic networks and social media.

A couple of other elements might be noted. Rather than focusing on specific events or demonstrations which are transient and ephemeral, the occupation of a specific site requires the creation of a variety of structures of internal management and governance all of which are the on-going elements of a community – food provision, waste management, security, education, governance and decision making, external relations/diplomacy, even in Vancouver – a lending library. All these are as necessary for a continuous occupation as they are for any other community. Notably one of the constant themes of the discussions and the placards is this process of community creation/recreation – often as in opposition to the imposed alienation of the contractual relations of work or formal education which participants experience as characterizing life in the modern era – a deft fusion of means and ends.

Another effect is the internal emphasis on continuity and even permanency.  Thus the communities have the time, even the leisure to work through their internal processes in a relatively unhurried manner without the pressure of fast approaching crucial events. This allows the sites to take their time to be more democratic, inclusive and tolerant – allowing for broader group collaborative norms to hold sway while reducing the pressure for rapid (and thus almost inevitably) top-down decision making.  This overall has the effect of preventing the emergence of a leadership cadre whose function is to move events along at a pace determined not by internal processes but rather by external exigencies.

Facebook or Twitter in this context become tools for organizing and making connections rather than being fundamental infrastructures of linkage and networks/networking as many have suggested (incorrectly I believe) underlay the events in Tunisia and Egypt. But importantly the social media create initial linkages towards community relationships. Once face to face connections have been established the social media remain useful for maintaining connections/networks beyond physical presence allowing vast numbers to remain “attached” even though the presence is mostly virtual but who nevertheless are available to participate as might be necessary or possible as events unfold.

These developments are perhaps the next step “up from Facebook”—integrating and using the social media tools that Facebook and the like provide but as elements in the re-construction of normative communities within urban environments and most importantly perhaps as a foundation for broader social action and transformation.  The characteristic of place-based communities as resilient and persistent locales for education and nurturing become dynamic opportunities for the recreation of personalities not as fragmented profiles but as whole beings linked both organically and technologically with their fellows as well as into the larger world and most importantly being able to work outwards from the strength that such communities provide in a process of remaking and refiguring the world in their image.

Precisely what this emergent future might look like is not clear. But that this process has unquestionably begun, that it is globally dispersed but rhyzomatically linked, and that there is the rise of community as a step beyond networked individualism and as the basis for resistance and ultimately transformation in the corporate structures and exploitative processes of a neo-liberal dominated society now appears possible. And overall there is the need to recognize that the Information Society is not condemned to be a place of alienation, fragmentation, distancing and powerlessness but rather a more democratic and economically and socially egalitarian society can be constructed on a foundation of digitally enabled and empowered communities.

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