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One of the most puzzling aspects of new wave of digitally-fueled movements has been their boom-bust cycle. Digital technologies have empowered movements to coordinate, to puncture censorship and to publicize their own narrative. Global discontent runs high, and the number of protests globally has more than tripled, from Middle East to Turkey to Hong Kong to Occupy and Black Lives Matter in the United States. Yet, there is a paradox: Why haven’t these movements brought about policy change proportional to their size and seeming message resonance?
Zeynep argues that one of internet’s short-term benefits to protest movements—the ability of loosely organized groups to coordinate rapidly—turns out to be a long-term weakness. Groups that form quickly and that can handle logistics and coordination without deep organizational history (or tedious work like mimeographing leaflets) bypass steps critical to the formation of durable movements; they can harass and even topple powerful governments, but are considerably less adept at decision-making, tactical change and negotiation. They can scale up quickly, but are unable to take turns at their dizzying speed. This is not a technology weakness; rather it’s an outcome of widespread mistrust in institutions giving rise to a participatory, horizontalist protest culture that prefers ad-hoc organizing which then converges with technological affordances that allow them to do just that. Consequently, 21st century’s networked protests do not signal the same underlying capacity to power as their 20th century counterparts. A march of a million in 2016 is not the same as a march of a million in 1963. Zeynep traces this story through multiple examples, case studies and field work.
Zeynep Tufekci is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. Her research revolves around the social impacts of technology. She’s also
a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and a former fellow at the Center for Internet Technology Policy at Princeton University. Her areas of research include politics, civics, movements, privacy and surveillance, as well as data and algorithms. She is a 2015-2016 Andrew Carnegie Fellow who studies the policy and social impacts of computation in decision-making, which is spreading to many areas ranging from policing to corporate hiring to the public sphere. She’s a former programmer who switched to social science to study how technology and society interact. Her forthcoming book from Yale University Press is tentatively titled “Beautiful Tear Gas: The Ecstatic, Fragile Politics of Networked Protest in the 21st Century.