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Digital media plays an important role in the galvanisation of social movements, says social scientist Merlyna Lim, but can it ever supplant urban space?

The entanglement of digital media with social movements has become a significant force transforming societies. Recent social movements, from the Egyptian revolt in Tahrir Square to the Occupy Wall Street protest in Zuccotti Park, have incorporated digital media as one of their important dimensions. However, while the new social movements may have been ignited in social media spaces such as Facebook and Twitter, the movements themselves took form and claimed power far outside digital social networks: transpiring in public urban space, on the streets and in the squares. How, then, should we conceptualise the relationship between digital space and urban space in the making of contemporary social movements?

Digital media facilitates associations that transcend localities and nation-state boundaries for transnational and global groupings to emerge; it enables ideas, information and knowledge to penetrate spatial – local, national and regional – barriers with speed. However, the physical bodies are still very much attached to spatial reality; the very same media also brings people back to interact with physical space. Network society is not necessarily placeless. The networks connect specific places – spaces that acquire meaning through identity politics in a certain moment in time – to specific information and communication flows.

The association between urban spaces, digital media space and movements can be understood in relation to networks. Social movements, especially in the form of protests, can also be understood as networks of people who share a goal. Traditionally, social movements can be built upon existing social networks among individuals with the same/similar jobs (connected by networks of unions/organisations), or similar belief/religion (religious organisations), or similar interests (interest/hobby organisations). Such social networks are traditionally formed in physical places. However, in today’s world, where public space no longer retains its function as a dominant social space, traditional ways of social networking have been shifted to the mediated one(s). Digital media, especially social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, has become integral to the rhythms of everyday sociality.

The very reality of contemporary urban social networks is directly related to recent social movements. Protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, the US and elsewhere were kindled through social media that has become integrated into daily practices of sociality. This means that individuals were mostly connected to each other socially, not politically. The dissent and the protests were propagated to the already existing social networks – where people communicate socially and culturally and participate in collective cultural production – rather than through networks of political actors. Ironically, the importance of new/social media networks is parallel with the disappearance and deterioration of traditional social networks that are rooted in public/civic spaces from our urban settings.

Many movements are formed gradually through the everyday building and expansion of social networks, from a growing diffusion of a shared contention, to an increasingly articulated and collectively-framed claim. James C Scott in his book Dominations and the Arts of Resistance (1990) argues that even in periods of repression, people can build networks for potential social movements through the clandestine creation and nurturing of a ‘hidden transcript’, the term used for the critique of power that goes on offstage, and of which power-holders are unaware. These are stories, rumours, complaints and utopian visions that a sub/counter-culture keeps alive for the historical moment when, because of shifts in political opportunities and constraints, substantial mass liberatory action becomes possible.

Historically, religious domains such as churches (in the black movement in the US), mosques (in Iranian revolution), and temples (in Korean movements) and secular ones provide spaces for cultivating hidden transcripts. However, in the contemporary urban world, such spaces have become a rarity. And in the event that physical civic spaces are repressed and/or impossible, digital media can emerge as an alternative space for activists to nurture the hidden transcripts that are the necessary antecedent to the launching of a powerful social movement.

Even with the emergence of digital media-driven social movements, public demonstration is still very much part of social movement. Even though some feel that the public demonstration is obsolete – that public space no longer exists, or that power is now too fluid and dispersed to be contested by gathered masses of people – staging the movement in urban public space is still perceived as the most powerful way to collectively express dissent, to express the strength of the movement, and, especially, to directly challenge the power (enemy). Such public demonstration can also be a tool to grow the movement (by recruiting new members) and to define collective identity for a group/culture/movement.

Social movement effectively consolidates by its invisibility (to authority); the vast and convivial digital media provides the space for this mechanism. In contrast, it must claim its power with visibility, which can only be done by either ‘occupying’ public space and/or ‘opening’ public space. In this context, public space (to be occupied or opened) is identified through its meanings, symbols, and narratives and histories associated with the space; how power is perceived in relation to (public) space in a certain length of time is related to the identification of spaces for public demonstration.

Tech-activism is taking an increacingly prominant role in the organisation of grassroots movements. Here the a ramshackle media centre at Occupy Wall Street connected the pro-tax demonstrators with a global network of activists.

Tech-activism is taking an increacingly prominant role in the organisation of grassroots movements. Here the a ramshackle media centre at Occupy Wall Street connected the pro-tax demonstrators with a global network of activists. Photograph: David Shankbone

Digital media spaces and networks can be used to propagate new narratives, new messages and new ideas that challenge authority. However, symbolic representation of power is grounded in the memories and histories of public spaces. The existence of symbolic physical insurgence spaces is, therefore, significant to the staging process of social movement. The cultivation of the movement – especially when physical spaces are repressed – may effectively take place in the digital media spaces; however, as Paul Virilio once stated: ‘The revolutionary contingent attains its ideal form not in the place of production, but in the street …’

The mass movement is literally when people become a mass and how this moving mass can be visible in public. It is the staging of social movement in public space that translates the movement into a visual power, a spectacle of a political body. The scene of a myriad of people occupying Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Tiananmen Square of Beijing, the National Monument of Jakarta, or Serangoon Stadium in Singapore, is not only symbolically powerful but the literal spectacle of people power that in itself is a form of power.

Further, contemporary urban movements increasingly revolve around the combination of fixation and mobility. Fixed nodes of urban spatial networks in tandem with mobile ones are hybridly used for recent movements. For example, in the Tahrir revolt, taxi drivers were as important as Facebook in disseminating information about the protest, taking advantage of the fact that ‘taxi drivers cannot be silent’. In addition to the Cairo cabbies, friendly coffee shops that garnish downtown Cairo played a significant role as a point of information dissemination.

The cabs and the coffee shops are definitely among the most important urban artefacts where the social fabric of urban society finds its nexus. The combination of cabs and coffee shops also represents the preset (immobile) and the mobile modes of communications and information networks. From the cabs, the coffee shops, and other alternative hubs, the information reached many people both at the nucleus and the fringes of urban areas. Thus, the traditional network of information was awakened. The political resistance developed by a small group of young activists, the social media elites, was disseminated to a wider urban society.

In 1984 – that year loaded with meaning – Foucault observed that ‘space is fundamental in any exercise of power’. This is still the case. Since power is integral to historical processes, space necessarily becomes a factor of analysis. Successive shifts from the pre-modern approach to the modern and ultimately the post-modern in analysing social movement in relation to sociality, should not be conceived as just aesthetic or epistemological but also as material, socio-political and historical. While the principal insight of the post-modernist ‘spatial turn’ remains of central importance to urban studies, especially to urban historians, history itself is a set of social processes that require spatial as well as temporal analysis; the issues of the ownership and meanings of space are deeply embedded in historical conflicts and processes.

Studying and analysing contemporary movements cannot be detached from our understanding of the importance of both digital media and public urban spaces as social, cultural and political spaces and networks. Digital media space is a new means of providing existing social movements with a new layer of space where non-physical activities – communication and information-based – can take place and with a network of movement (especially oppositional) invisible from control and repression. However, the actual realisation of power – people power – is only visible through public staging, public demonstration in public urban spaces.

For contemporary social movements, digital media and physical urban spaces have become interdependent dimensions. Both, interchangeably and complementarily, provide ‘spaces’ for activists and people in general to socially interact for the establishment of human agency and the expansion of social ‘networks’ of the movements.

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