We’re recording the world around us. The cameras in our iPhones (et al.) make it easy.
Case in point, the protests which continue in Egypt following the events of this past year’s Arab Spring. Video of the « Girl in the Blue Bra » has ignited reactions from around the world, including comments by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, as quoted by The Daily Telegraph:
Recent events in Egypt have been particularly shocking. Women are being beaten and humiliated in the same streets where they risked their lives for the revolution only a few short months ago (…) This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonours the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform and is not worthy of a great people.
Shot by an amateur videographer from a rooftop, this footage is only one of the thousands of videos which have emerged from what has been dubbed the Arab Spring. In a country like Egypt, where mobile phone penetration is at 91%, a camera phone is a powerful communications tool which becomes a weapon in the protester’s arsenal.
While, according to YouTube’s own year-end top 10 list, most Canadians were watching videos of cats, babies and Rebecca Black in 2011, hundreds of protesters were documenting events in their cities and sharing them online. While most are viewed only by a small number, lost in the sea of YouTube videos, some, like that of the Girl in the Blue Bra, touch a particular cord and spread, much as the video of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan had during the Iranian protests of 2009.The moving image remains a powerful thing. It’s even more powerful when coupled with a platform like Facebook and its network of « friends ». Simply by clicking on a share button, we can express our outrage on our Facebook profile. And our 130 Facebook friends can hear about it.
Arab spring. The Occupy Movement. Each now with their iconic videos.
The whole world is watching.
It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.
- Henry Ford
It has taken close to a century for what could possibly be the revolution Henry Ford imagined to begin to take root, but if protesters behind the Occupy Wall Street movement that has now sprung up in cities around the world including Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver have anything to say about it, we may be alive to bear witness to it.
Politics and economics aside, this movement, like those of the Arab Spring, bear witness to another kind of revolution: a communications revolution. For the first time since Gutenberg invented the printing press, traditional media has not played any role in helping to instigate a Western country’s protest movement*. (At least I can’t think of another example). On the contrary, the Occupy Wall Street protest was ignored by mainstream media for the first weeks of its existence, including, surprisingly, left-leaning media outlets. It was on its own.
How does a movement mobilize tens of thousands of protesters in the absence of media coverage?
Easy … since the emergence of Twitter and Facebook. It relies on social media.
Social media does not create revolutions. People do. It does, however, enable those people to create ties with the like-minded. It facilitates the exchange of ideas. It means that individuals no longer need traditional media to tell them where to congregate, and at what time. They don’t need it to stir up emotion, share stories and transmit ideas. They don’t need it to show solidarity or to feel empowered.
When Blacks rose up against oppression in the Deep South, local churches played a significant role in organising opposition to the establishment. It’s no accident that Martin Luther King was a reverend. Still, media covered lynchings and church burnings. It was there for the March on Washington. It brought civil rights workers down from the North to encourage voter registration. If media hadn’t been there to expose injustice, young men and women like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner wouldn’t have boarded buses to head to segregationist states likes Mississippi to fight for social justice.
Fast forward fifty years: we don’t even need a charismatic leader anymore. No individual has stepped forward as THE face of Occupy Wall Street. This movement has no Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Fidel Castro, George Washington or Robespierre. The 99% are all equal in the eyes of social media. Quite fitting, really.
Some of the most popular social media platforms being leveraged by the Occupy Wall Street protestors:
Flickr (and other photo sharing platforms, including email)
Vibe – this mobile app allows you to chat anonymously with people in your vicinity.
Avaaz – whose mission is to help people organize – their online petition in support of Occupy Wall Street is currently at 743 448 signatures.
Is traditional media obsolete? Of course not. Now that it’s covering Occupy Wall Street, traditional media will bring the protesters’ messages to an even larger audience. But social media has become an essential part of the communications mix. There’s no ignoring it.
This begs the question: given what we’re seeing with Occupy Wall Street, can the political machine continue to operate without social media? There are still municipal, provincial and federal politicians – including aspiring party leaders - snubbing social media.
How long before they realize that times have changed and that if they don’t include social media in their communications arsenal, they’re missing out? Head-in-sand is no longer an option.
- Word cloud created by The Huffington Post based on #occupywallstreet pages on Facebook
*ed. note: In the direct sense – media exposure of the Arab spring and other revolutions around the world which inspired Occupy Wall Street organizers notwithstanding.