Although the Internet as a concept was created over 30 years ago, it’s been only two decades since we saw a true rise of this technology. The proliferation of the network, as well as its integration in the world economics, trade, culture and even politics are undeniable nowadays. The rise of the Internet provided the world with a number of new technologies, such as online banking, social networks, e-democracy, online retail etc. I already wrote about the concept of social media, which is considered to be among the most important after-effects of the Internet expansion, and today I would like to take a closer look at the implications and consequences of this phenomenon. There is a significant number of implications of social media, with grass-roots journalism, Internet activism, online marketing and viral content to be among the most notable. In this post I will focus on the online activism, and in particular social media and social movements.
Social movements and the Internet
To begin with, social movements, being a part of civil society, have always played a crucial role in resisting and carrying out a social change. Dealing with specific political, economic, cultural and, most important, social issues, these movements have always been in the forefront of struggle for justice and improvement of the existing social structures . Social movements have always adopted the very advanced technologies which helped them gain support, spread the ideas and agenda, and to raise money . The emergence of Web 2.0 and social media allowed social movements to start to actively use these new tools and improve their communication, coordination and cooperation. Thus, adding to the traditional offline activities, social movements started using the advantages which were offered by the online realm – cheap means of communication, fast information updates, comprehensive coverage of target groups and many more.
Although any Internet-related topic is relatively new and thus evolving, academia nowadays offers a wide range of concepts and explanations regarding online activism of social movements. I do not pretend to choose the most appropriate ones, especially given that it is practically impossible, given that the perception of the Internet generally, and social media in particular differs. Hence, I picked up three concepts, which in my opinion can reflect the most notable implications of the online activism with regard to social media.
Manuel Castells talks about the concept of mass self-communication which emerged due to the rise of the Internet, Web 2.0 and social media. Scientist argues that the phenomenon of mass self-communication is “self- generated in content, self-directed in emission and self-selected in reception by many that communicate with many” . The new tools offered by the Internet, primarily social media tools, were instantly adopted by social movements, as the new technologies offered these movements means “to build their autonomy and to confront the institutions of society in their own terms and around their own projects” . More than that, the diffusion of the Internet, wireless communication and social media eventually changed the very organizational structure of social movements, making them more decentralized and democratic by their nature.
Hence, the proliferation of mass self-communication and the Internet among people all over the world gave social movements a chance to “enter the public space through a variety of different channels” . More than that, social media offered social movements a range of tools and platforms to reach global audiences with minimal costs and coordinate cooperate and communicate fast and cheap.
Power and counter-power
I find Manuel Castells’ concept of power and counter-power useful when it comes to online activism. The theory implies the confrontation of elites and non-elites, which can be seen in this case as the confrontation of online activists (social movements) and established elites and systems in general.
One of the most important steps for political movement in achieving its goals has always been to be represented in media with broad audiences and significant influence . Although social media is gaining in influence and spreads all over the world, mainstream media, such as state-owned channels, still remain “the main channel of communication between the political system and citizens” . Hence, one shouldn’t overestimate the role of social media. Although the development of new technologies has diminished the role of traditional media, the latter is still influential and strong. However, social media offer social movements alternative ways to proliferate their ideas and ways to gain support without presence in mainstream media. And in this respect, the online world and social media has contributed to the rise and influence of social movements.
Christian Fuchs suggests conceptualizing social movements as self-organizing systems. This lets us look at online activism and social media from a different angle. Fuchs states that “social self- organization in a broad sense can be understood as re-creation or self-reproduction of society…Social self-organization is based on cooperation, participation, self-determination, and grassroots democracy” . Social self-organization is “the principle of bottom-up social organization that stimulates the capacity to act” . Undeniably social media offer the necessary tools for online activists to implement the principles of self-organization efficiently and advantageously for society.
Blogs, social networks and other manifestations of social media are self-organizing systems by their nature. In addition, social movements always emerged as signs of grass-roots democracy, thus the rise of social media was a natural contribution for social movements. The discussions and arrangements made on social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, are way more efficient and less time-consuming than the traditional means of socialization and planning. More than that, online activism requires fast organization and sometimes instant reaction to certain events, which can be easily achieved through the means of social media. And lastly, the Internet in general and social media in particular also affect “the relationship between groups and movements and their principal targets: government, citizens, and mainstream media” .
Occupy Wall Street
There is a huge number of social movements presented online. Occupy Wall Street is among the most recent ones, and perfectly exemplifies the advantages a movement can get using social media. Vast proliferation of the ideas, online discussions, sharing video, audio and photo content, creation of online petitions and arranging events through the means of such social media platforms as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – this is a short list of the tools used by this movement to reach its goals. Although the movement achieved practically nothing, I do believe it sets a good example for future social movements and online activists. Regardless of the outcome, the powers and influence which can be gained through the means of social media are undeniable and will eventually change the world for the better.
 Fuchs, Christian. 2008. Social theory in the Information Age. New York: Routledge. P 81
 Wejnert, Barbara. “Integrating models of diffusion of innovations: a conceptual framework.” Annual review of sociology 28.1 (2002): 297-326.
 Castells, Manuel. 2011. Communication Power: mass relationships in the network society. In Media and Society, ed. James Curran, 9. London: Bloomsbury.
 Castells, Manuel. 2011. Communication Power: mass relationships in the network society. In Media and Society, ed. James Curran, 10. London: Bloomsbury.
 Castells, Manuel. 2009. Communication power. New York: Oxford University Press. P 303
 Loader, Brian D., and Mercea, Dan. 2012. Social media and democracy: innovations in participatory politics. New York: Routledge.
 Castells, Manuel. 2011. Communication Power: mass relationships in the network society. In Media and Society, ed. James Curran, 4. London: Bloomsbury.
 Fuchs, Christian. 2008. Social theory in the Information Age. New York: Routledge. P 31
 Fuchs, Christian. 2008. Social theory in the Information Age. New York: Routledge. P 18
 Chadwick, Andrew. 2006. Internet politics: states, citizens, and new communication technologies. New York: Oxford University Press. P 118