What is the role of social media in the organization, unfolding, and diffusion of the #occupy protests? Here I argue that, as a result of the diffusion of social media, we have now entered the age of cloud protesting, where individuals and networked collective action have taken central stage.

In computing, “cloud” indicates the delivery of services such as software over the Internet. Services can be customized with reduction of costs for the end user. Similarly, the #occupy protests can be seen as a cloud where a set of “soft resources” enabling mobilization coexist: identities, narratives, and know-how. These resources can be customized by and for individuals, who can in this way tailor their participation. Anyone can join anytime, bringing along her identity, political background, and grievances; anyone fits in the broad narrative of the cloud, anyone can contribute. Identities, resources, narratives are negotiated on and offline, but they mostly “live” online, mediated by the web interface of social media.

The cloud has an impact on organizational patterns, too. If we look back at how Western movements organized since the 1960s, we can identify three phases. First came social movement organizations such as students, anti-war and women’s groups, which had organizational and symbolic control over the movement. In the 1990s informal groups and networks characterized by multiple and flexible identities and horizontal leadership originated networked movements, whereby the different decentralized nodes would participate in the creation of a narrative for the movement. In the recent Arab Spring uprisings and in the #occupy protests we have seen yet another organizational pattern at play, where many of the nodes are networked individuals connected through social media (“the cloud”).

The cloud reduces the costs of mobilization by offering resources that can be accessed and enjoyed independently by individual activists: solidarity networks, relaxed affiliations, occasions for self-expression, and the possibility to customize one’s own participation and narrative. The cloud is also the platform where the cultural and symbolic production of the movement takes place. There is no need for (and no means of) organizational control over the collective narrative of the protest, as the cloud collectively determines what fits and what does not. The cloud is the group: it provides a sense of belonging but less responsibility: the cloud comes with no strings attached.
Social media enable cloud protesting in four ways. First, they support speed in protest organization and diffusion: rallies are organized through Twitter and Facebook, and unfold on these same platforms as much as they take place in real life. Second, the cloud is grounded on everyday technology that any of the digital natives have right in their pockets, allowing also resource-poor activists to organize a grand protest. Third, the cloud influences the tactics adopted by activists, allowing for low profile sit-ins that nonetheless make the news (also thanks to the current news media fascination for social media stories).

But the main contribution of social media to the protests is to be found in the creation of a customizable narrative and a tailored collective identity that virtually fit all. By taking part in the protests and making it visible via Twitter, each individual becomes the hero of the story. She defines herself, and by extension “us”, by means of posts, tweets, links, videos. She selects other similar material posted on the web and passes on (e.g., re-tweets) what she believes is appropriate to the collective representation of “who we are”. Furthermore, social media give voice and visibility to personalized yet universal narratives, whereby everyone participates in building the collective plot. This hashtag-style collective narrative is flexible, real-time, and crowd-controlled. It connects individual stories into a broader context that gives them meaning. This is not very different from the role played by “real-life” groups in relation to individual participation in a movement. In turn, it scores very low in organizational control – thus, the cloud leaves little room for “classical” social movement organizations.

Stefania Milan is a member of The Citizen Lab, and a postdoctoral fellow at the Canada Center for Global Security Studies, Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. A more detailed version of this post was published by The Citizen Lab on October 18, 2011. For more information visit the Canada Center for Global Security Studies or Stefania Milan’s homepage.