The Alternative's alternative

Evgeny Morozov
29 December 2008

Whatever their impact on the domestic politics in Greece, the youth riots that have besieged Athens and other Greek cities earlier this month have also given rise to a new global phenomenon - the "networked protest". While it was not for the first time that the Internet has made the planning and the execution of the protest actions more effective, it was probably the first time that an issue of mostly local importance has triggered solidarity protests across the whole continent, some of them led by the Greek diaspora, but many of them led by disaffected youth who were sympathetic of the movement's causes.

The Internet was crucial to this whole effort, as many amateur photos and videos were shared and uploaded online instantaneously by the very participants in the protests, creating an illusion of remote participation for anyone who was following the protests on blogs and other social media. Whether the Internet has actually helped to recruit many new protesters in Greece itself is debatable; it is, after all, a national issue that is hard to miss for anyone, whether they spend most of their offline or online. The Internet's role in generating protests outside of Greece has been much more prominent, as has made it possible for protesters to form networks across borders, better coordinate campaigns and to keep international protest activities, no matter how small, in the news. Most of those networks are by all means weak and short-lived – it's even possible that the majority of 150,000 people who joined the Facebook group will leave it soon after the protests are over – yet, they were still effective in the short term, giving us a glimpse of what the transnational networked public sphere might look like.

That so many radicals have taken to the Web in seach of a global platform is not surprising; since its very early days, it has been a magnet for revolutionary forces. From the anti-Milosevic groups in Serbia in late 1990s to the Zimbabwean opposition in 2008, the democratic protest movements have been exploring and experimenting with the Internet, hoping that it could amplify their traditional methods of organizing and sustaining protest. A few such efforts – particularly those, where technology did play an important like (such as Ukraine's mobilization success in 2004)—have attracted quite significant attention from policy-makers and academics alike. For example, Patrick Meier, an affiliate of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, a think-tank at Harvard University and a PhD student at Tufts University, is currently running large-scale econometric models to observe how Internet access is correlated with political instability. Meier has found that an increase in cell-phone availability increases the likelihood (at least perceived by the public) that the government might be overthrown by violent means.

While extremely useful in analyzing the dynamics of technology-powered democratic change in authoritarian societies, models like Meier's still do not offer much insight into the role that the Internet plays in stimulating protest in countries like Greece. Elucidating its contribution to inciting and sustaining violent turmoil in well-off and well-wired democratic societies—where it usually empowers the marginalized and leftist group—is a puzzle for many scholars of the Internet. The solution to this puzzle might be particularly useful to various global movements that strive to unite the despised and the disaffected of this world in order to accomplish what Lenin and Trostky couldn't do in 1917: start a world revolution. The anti-globalization movement would for sure be one of them.

However, close observers of the riots on the Internet could not help noticing that the anti-globalists – the usual suspects of any loud public mischief – were hardly visible in the virtual space. This could have been strategic: their members may have preferred to act behind the curtains and avoid publicity. Yet another explanation is also possible: professional anti-globalists have simply been outnumbered by thousands of "freelance radicals", who have skilfully exploited the Internet, bypassing the cantankerous anti-globalist media in its entirety raising many questions about its usefulness and its future role.

Historically, the anti-globalization movement and its earlier national precursors have had a long and eventful engagement with media, old and new, always eager to embrace the latest gadgets and trends. From clandestine radio stations that empowered the liberation movement in El Salvador in the 1980s to the Zapatista's flirtation with the Internet in mid 1990s, Che Guevara's heirs were in the avant guard of media innovation.As access to the Internet became more widespread, the anti-globalization activists from all over the world found themselves connected to its giant protest grid and it seemed logical to build a  lean, fast, and cheap reporting network to take advantage of it.

The most impressive of such networks- the Independent Media Center (or Indymedia)-- sprang up in the wake of the Seattle anti-WTO protests of 1999, acquiring a cult status in the anti-globalization community overnight. Since then, Indymedia has been busy supplying their contributors with reporting equipment, organizing media trainings, and helping their stringers get their stories out to the general public. The years that followed - with a plenty of protest action around WTO and G8 summits - marked the renaissance of the alternative media.

However, by 2008 the usefulness of such initiatives seems less obvious; what looked novel in 1999 looks unnecessarily centralized and hierarchical today. In the aftermath of the protests, many Greek bloggers and citizen journalists naturally fitted the live news sections of premier American and Europe TV stations, got a chance to tell their stories, didn't need any special equipment but cellphones and laptops, and they certainly didn't need yet another platform for documenting what they saw or what they thought - they all had their own blogs and Twitter accounts, to post to.

With so much riot-related digital content generated elsewhere, the anti-globalization media faces oblivion and needs to find a new role. Curating all the numerous amateur photos, videos, and comments emerging from the riots would be one meaningful contribution they can make. Consider thousands of videos uploaded to YouTube, photos uploaded to Flickr, as well as blog and Twitter messages flying around the Web – it was virtually impossible for Greek and foreign observers alike to make sense of what was going on. And although Indymedia and several other anti-globalization outlets did try to aggregate some of this content at the outset of the riots, they attempts were short-lived, leaving the global public without the curator it needed so badly.

Indymedia's predicament is not unique. Many less radical institutions - governments, NGOs, think tanks – are struggling to address the same challenge, unable to respond to the rapidly shifting balance of power between the individual and the institution radically disrupted by the Internet. In today's ultra-networked world, an unaffiliated individual with a laptop and an Internet connection is often more influential and resourceful than an organization with a staff of twenty and a fax machine was only twenty years ago. This is a truly strange period of institutional change when an organization's vast assets also look like its greatest liabilities.

The Web's unmatched usefulness in providing access to research materials, mobilizing supporters, and raising money has already triggered protracted and painful soul-searching among many hierarchical, well-staffed and budget-driven organizations, who are getting increasingly unsure of their future role. However, just as traditional media organizations are gradually nudging towards embracing aggregation and curation as activities where they could add value, other institutions, whether anti-globalist or not, will have little choice but to follow suit and become the new networking hubs – rather than the headquarters – of social change, which would be increasingly enacted by individuals.

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