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From social movements to cloud protesting: the evolution of collective identity

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This article develops a conceptual framework for understanding collective action in the age of social media, focusing on the role of collective identity and the process of its making. It is grounded on an interactionist approach that considers organized collective action as a social construct with communicative action at its core [Melucci, A. 199659. Melucci, A. (1996). Challenging codes: Collective action in the information age. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.View all references. Challenging codes: Collective action in the information age. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press]. It explains how micromobilization is mediated by social media, and argues that social media play a novel broker role in the activists' meaning construction processes. Social media impose precise material constraints on their social affordances, which have profound implications in both the symbolic production and organizational dynamics of social action. The materiality of social media deeply affects identity building, in two ways: firstly, it amplifies the ‘interactive and shared’ elements of collective identity (Melucci, 199659. Melucci, A. (1996). Challenging codes: Collective action in the information age. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.View all references), and secondly, it sets in motion a politics of visibility characterized by individuality, performance, visibility, and juxtaposition. The politics of visibility, at the heart of what I call ‘cloud protesting’, exacerbates the centrality of the subjective and private experience of the individual in contemporary mobilizations, and has partially replaced the politics of identity typical of social movements. The politics of visibility creates individuals-in-the-group, whereby the ‘collective’ is experienced through the ‘individual’ and the group is the means of collective action, rather than its end.
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From social movements to cloud
protesting: the evolution of collective
identity
Stefania Milana
a Department of Media Studies, University of Amsterdam,
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Published online: 21 May 2015.
To cite this article: Stefania Milan (2015): From social movements to cloud protesting:
the evolution of collective identity, Information, Communication & Society, DOI:
10.1080/1369118X.2015.1043135
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2015.1043135
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From social movements to cloud protesting: the evolution of collective
identity
Stefania Milan*
Department of Media Studies, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
(Received 4 December 2014; accepted 14 April 2015)
This article develops a conceptual framework for understanding collective action in the age of
social media, focusing on the role of collective identity and the process of its making. It is
grounded on an interactionist approach that considers organized collective action as a social
construct with communicative action at its core [Melucci, A. 1996.Challenging codes:
Collective action in the information age. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press]. It
explains how micromobilization is mediated by social media, and argues that social media
play a novel broker role in the activistsmeaning construction processes. Social media
impose precise material constraints on their social affordances, which have profound
implications in both the symbolic production and organizational dynamics of social action.
The materiality of social media deeply affects identity building, in two ways: rstly, it
amplies the interactive and sharedelements of collective identity (Melucci, 1996), and
secondly, it sets in motion a politics of visibility characterized by individuality, performance,
visibility, and juxtaposition. The politics of visibility, at the heart of what I call cloud
protesting, exacerbates the centrality of the subjective and private experience of the
individual in contemporary mobilizations, and has partially replaced the politics of identity
typical of social movements. The politics of visibility creates individuals-in-the-group,
whereby the collectiveis experienced through the individualand the group is the means
of collective action, rather than its end.
Keywords: social movements; social media; computer-mediated-communication; collective
identity; politics of visibility
Make a sign. Write your circumstance at the top, no longer than a single sentence. Then, take a
picture of yourself holding the sign and submit it to us, read the inaugural post of a blog titled
We Are the 99 Percent, hosted on the Tumblr microblogging platform. Were all ghting. Its
time we recognize our common struggles, our common cause. Be part of the 99 percent and let the
1% know youre out there(We Are the 99 Percent, 2011). The Tumblr began low-key (activists
had not yet begun camping out in the Zuccotti Park, in the heart of Wall Street in downtown
New York), but a month later it was already collecting some 100 posts a day, featuring the
self-service historyof a struggling America (Rosen, 2011). Popular culture experts equalled
it to a collaborative confessional, a new genre of user-generated content similar to a bath-
room-door grafti, a place where you could write, anonymously or not, whom you liked,
© 2015 Taylor & Francis
*Email: s.milan@uva.nl
Information, Communication & Society, 2015
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2015.1043135
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whom you couldnt stand, or what you feared. You could respond to the grafti of others, and,
over time, see responses to your own(2011). Students of social movements would more prosai-
cally consider it collective identity in action.
Collective identity indicates the esprit de corps(Blumer, 1939) that supports collective
action. The notion gained popularity in the 1970s, as the advent of new social movements
emphasizing symbolic production and cultural claims (Melucci, 1989) brought to attention a
novel empirical object, which quickly evolved into an epistemological project of its own.
A complex, multiple and multilayered phenomenon (Gamson, 1991; Klandermans, 2014;
Snow, 2001), collective identity bears a strong connection with the formation and enactment of
collective agency. It has been associated with the creation of connectedness(Diani & Bison,
2004, p. 284) and of relationships of trustamong social actors (Della Porta & Diani, 2006,
p. 94), but also with commitment (Gamson, 1991), solidarity (Hirsch, 1986) and emotions
(Goodwin, Jasper, & Polletta, 2001; Milan, 2008). Notwithstanding the already vast literature
on the subject matter, to date collective identity remains a scholarly relevant problem for research
on social movements, one where the debate has not yet settled (Flesher Fominaya, 2010; Holland,
Fox, & Daro, 2008; McDonald, 2002). It is particularly so in light of the rapid evolution of the
digital technology that supports present-day collective action, expanding the possibilities for
social actors to engage in symbolic production.
This article revisits the notion of collective identity and the process(es) of its making in the
context of digitally mediated protest. In particular, it looks at social media, asking whether and
how these contribute to change the way individuals and groups create collective identity and gen-
erate group solidarity. In recognition of the fact that identities are rooted in the requisite con-
ditions for social interactions(Snow, 2001, p. 2212), this piece contends that collective
identity is at the heart of contemporary mobilizations, contrary to what others have suggested
when, for example, putting incentives to participation before symbolic interaction (cf. Bennett
& Segerberg, 2013). Rather than making collective identity redundant, the media logic
(Altheide, 2004) specic to social media extends and reshapes the processes through which a col-
lective identity is created, reproduced and maintained affecting also collective action dynamics
more in general. Not only is this social media logic responsible for a specic morphology for
constructing messages within a particular medium(2004, p. 294) but it also indicates distinc-
tive socialdirections that the medium constrains collective action into.
The idea that media and mediated processes are critical agents in the construction of identities,
and public identities in particular, is not new in social movement studies (see, e.g. Gamson, 1992;
Mattoni, 2012). After all, collective identities are talked into existence(Hunt & Benford, 2004,
p. 445). From leaets to websites, from mainstream to movement media(Downing, 2011),
media have historically provided material and symbolic support for a movements elaboration
of who we are. Similarly, the We Are the 99 PercentTumblr allowed individuals to bear some-
thing private and maybe nd someone else carrying around the same weight(Rosen, 2011),
letting people know that they are not alonein a time of economic hardship (Weinstein,
2011). But Tumblr did not just offer a stage like any other to the self-reexive ability of
social actors(Melucci, 1996, p. 73). On the contrary, it extended a communication logic that
has the power to drive social action. No longer mere platforms, social media have become
actors in their own right, intervening in the meaning-making process of social actors by means
of their algorithmic power.
In order to explore meaning production in the context of software-mediated interactions and
illuminate the relation between collective and communicative action, this article straddles two lit-
eratures, namely social movement studies and media studies. It adopts an interactionist perspec-
tive that views collective action as a social construct with communicative action at its core. It
explores the processes which enable actors to dene a situationas a eld of shared action
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(Melucci, 1996, p. 16) that is to say, how social actors make sense of what they do. The analysis
is situated at the micromobilization level, thus observing the interplay between personal and col-
lective identities (Hunt & Benford, 2004). It adopts a transnational perspective, looking for tech-
nology-specic patterns located above national cultures. Grounded on empirical observations of
various social mobilizations over the last two decades, this article, however, seeks to distance
itself from the empirics to sketch out a theoretical contribution towards a potential comprehensive
theory of collective action in relation to communicative processes. It seeks to move beyond the
here and now of the available social media platforms and their specics, to reect on how
social actors leverage the technical properties of the medium for collective action.
In what follows, I explore the materiality of social media, as one of the main places where the
symbolic work of contemporary movements occurs. Second, I propose a notion of collective iden-
tity that, building upon the work of Melucci (1988,1989,1996), recongures it as an exercise of
individuality, performance, visibility and juxtaposition. Third, I put this new conceptualization at
work by looking at collective identity as an organizational principle(Della Porta & Diani, 2006,
p. 93), offering my notion of cloud protestingas a way to rethink organized collective action in
the age of social media. Finally, I elaborate on how the politics of visibility fostered by social
media has outclassed the politics of identity of conventional movements. In the concluding
remarks, I call for a radical repositioning of our theoretical and methodological assumptions
for the study for contemporary collective action.
Inside the materialof social media
With the diffusion of social and mobile media, public space increasingly resembles a seemingly
endless semiotic democracyof user-produced meanings (Langlois, 2011). There are over 2
billion active social media users in the world out of a total 3 billion internet users (Kemp,
2015); each day in 2013 people uploaded over 10 million pictures on Facebook (Mayer-Schön-
berger & Cukier, 2013). The interweaving of social networking platforms into the fabric of daily
life has triggered a cultural shift in the process of inscribing meaning into our contemporary
social and spatial interactions(Farman, 2012, p. 1). Social and mobile media have falsied
the opposition between the realand the virtual(2012, p. 22). By subverting the familiar
dichotomies between the individual and the collective, the intimate and the public, the private
and the commercial, the present and the now, the distant and the proximate, social media
have altered our perception of self and our relational being-in-the-world.
While some have optimistically approached user-generated content to user empowerment
(Pierson, Manite-Meijer, & Loos, 2011), others have criticized its political economy (Gómez
García & Treré, 2014) as well as the central tenets of its model, such as exploitation and surveil-
lance (Andrejevic, 2005; Dean, Anderson, & Lovink, 2006;Fuchs & Sandoval, 2014; Leistert,
2013a; Terranova, 2000). Even so, and notwithstanding the Twitter fetishismthat surrounds
the outburst of social mobilizations in various parts of the world (Gerbaudo, 2012, p. 5), it is
hard to deny that social media have multiplied the opportunities and the venues for self-
expression and political intervention (Castells, 2012; Gerbaudo, 2012; Juris, 2012; Shirky,
2008). Connective action(Bennett & Segerberg, 2013), crowds of individuals(Juris, 2012)
and networked individuals(Rainie & Wellman, 2014) emerge next to traditionalmovements,
their organizations and entrepreneurs. While creating new opportunities for social action,
however, social media lessen the agency of their users. Not only have they been congured
beforehand by a complex ecosystem of designers, early adopters and controllers (cf. Akrich,
1992)they also impose on users the precise strategies, mechanisms and economies (van
Dijck & Poell, 2013). On the whole, social media appear to be for present movements what Wil-
liams called options under pressure(Williams, 1980, p. 241). They have set in motion a process
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that is not just technological, but sociotechnical a claim that I have explored elsewhere (Milan,
in press).
I contend that the rst, fundamental change that social media bring into the sphere of collec-
tive action is at the material level. One might argue that social movements have long been known
for creatively weaving together the materialand the symbolic, and the literature is awash with
pre-social media examples. Shared meanings have been inscribed in the signs pulled out at
marches, in the rituals such a slogans, songs and lifestyle marks that weld people together, in
the physical embodiments of the protest such as encampments, ash mobs and street demon-
strations. These very material incarnations of the activistsgrievances, beliefs and emotions are
the outcome of the interactive process of constructing meaning(Gamson, 1992, p. xii) per-
formed by social actors in the making of collective action. The mediation of social media,
however, adds an extra layer of materiality that contributes to transform both the content and
the process of meaning work(1992, p. xii). By materiality, I indicate the online platforms
and the devices people rely upon for interpersonal communication or organizing, but also the
messages, images and dataedemotions and relations brought to life on those platforms. In
this semiotic-material co-presence(Leistert, 2013a, p. 4), content and infrastructure are
thoroughly linked: the latter gives shape to the former, which cannot occur in the same form
outside the specic frame of social media platforms. By way of example, take a tweet, with its
lingo(i.e. language) of conventions such as hashtags (keywords that assigns information to cat-
egories), shortened links, followers, favourites and re-tweets, which structure discourse and
conversations.
With social networking services ltering many of our relationships and interactions, the
materialempowered by, and enshrined in social media, has taken centre stage: rather than
being a sporadic and intermittent encounter, it has colonized the everyday, multiplying the
occasions for experiencing the collective dimension of social action beyond irregular events
like a demonstration. In so doing, the material of social media has become the vehicle of
meaning work, adjoining and to some extent replacing other traditional intermediaries such as
alternative and mainstream media and face-to-face interactions. In other words, it became the
process through which the symbolic takes form, rather than its mere physical (or virtual)
representation.
All told, social media play a novel broker role in the activistsmeaning construction process.
In a way, they function as intermediary semiotechnologies,ortechnocultural assemblages that
work with and through signs to organize the mediations and translations between data, infor-
mation and linguistic symbols, promoting specicregimes of the production and circulation
of meaning(Langlois, 2011, p. 3). These regimes are the consequence of the algorithmic
nature of social media. Algorithms, or the running code that sustains social media, intervene in
meaning production by dynamically modifying content and function through ( ) programmed
routines(McKelvey, 2014, p. 598; see also Gillespie, 2010), measuring and manipulating(van
Dijck & Poell, 2013, p. 7) user interactions. What is more, generally this modication and
manipulation of inputs and outputs takes place beyond user awareness and control (Beer,
2009). These regimes identify specic patterns of conveying and reproducing user-generated
content, and as such have an impact on the way meaning work unfolds. Here I sketch out
some of these patterns, whose generative properties (cf. Lash, 2007)inuence meaning construc-
tion by social actors: namely real-timeness (and its algorithmic subversion), publicity, mobility,
datacation/dividuality, virtual/real co-presence and automated disruption.
First, the content uploaded or posted online by the user is transmitted, and shows up onscreen,
in nearly real time. However, the platform can subvert the temporal order of things (e.g. their
sequence) by means of obscure algorithms that compute popularity and social interactions (and
probably much more), modifying the way content is presented (cf. Bucher, 2012)a property
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that van Dijck and Poell called programmabilityand dened as the ability of social media plat-
forms to trigger and steers userscreative or communicative contributions(2013, p. 5). Second,
social media operate in a regime of publicity, where content, narratives and interactions are for the
most part public, transparent and traceable even if oftentimes within the users’‘walled gardens
of friendsor followers. They force social actors to operate into the open, in a sort of permanent
front stagewhere they have to optimize the (re)presentation of self (Goffman, 1959). Third,
social media are naturally, even if not necessarily, entangled with mobile devices. Global
mobile data trafc has surpassed voice trafc (Ericsson, 2010); Facebook has now more
mobile than desktop users (Kelly, 2013). Mobility changes the temporality, spatiality and fre-
quency of content production and fruition. Take the description of a tweet (a message on the
microblogging platform Twitter) as an expression of a moment or idea(Twitter, n.a.): it
speaks to the instantaneous nature of social media, which have become continuous media
(McKelvey, 2014, p. 603). Fourth, social media quantify content, feelings and interactions, in
what some have called datacation(Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, 2013): think of the likes
and sharesthat have come to signify support, agreement, friendship. In this respect, social
media full the promise of Deleuzessociety of control, where [i]ndividuals have become
dividuals,and masses, samples, data, markets, or banks”’, with dividuality indicating the
transformation of persons into a variety of proles and data type(Deleuze, 1992, p. 5). These
dividualshave learnt to interpret and strategically leverage these external-to-themselvesdata-
cation mechanisms, in view of improving visibility, popularity and circulation of their content.
Fifth, social media blur the boundaries between the real and the virtual (cf. Farman, 2012), pro-
moting co-presence and superimposition of the two dimensions, which social actors can exploit
for strengthening the intensity of their voice, operating simultaneously on both levels. They are a
vehicle for the creation of new forms of proximity(Gerbaudo, 2012, p. 13) where the online is
not ontologically distinct from real life. Finally, many non-human actants(Akrich & Latour,
1992) such as fake accounts and social bots (virtual agents that perform automated tasks),
operate in the background of social media platforms (Gehl, 2014), distorting content ows as
well as human interactions in a way that users are unable to detect, grasp and exploit. By behaving
exactly like normal users, they join the popularity algorithms mentioned earlier in alimenting a
dangerous illusion of platform neutrality. This automated disruption reinforces other existing
spins such as the automated personalization(Van Dijck & Poell, 2013, p. 9), which in turn
approaches social media to psychic mediathat scrutinize patterns in order to predict and poten-
tially orient actions(Langlois, 2014, p. 111).
In summary, social media platforms and devices impose precise material constraints on their
social affordances. They do not merely enable but not determine(Bennett & Segerberg, 2013,
Kindle loc 923926) they signicantly contribute to structure modes of interactions and
relationships. This argument might be accused of techno-determinism yet, as Deleuze told
us, [t]ypes of machines are easily matched with each type of society not that machines are
determining, but because they express those social forms capable of generating them and using
them(1992, p. 6). In what follows, I zoom in into the notion of collective identity, and see
how the central tenets of the concept are transformed by the brokerage of social media.
Revisiting collective identity
If it is true that any movement that seeks to sustain commitment over a period of time must make
the construction of collective identity one of its most central tasks(Gamson, 1991, p. 27), it is
crucial to understand how collective action and the process of its making evolve with soft-
ware-mediated interactions and permanent mobile access. The procedural and material changes
Information, Communication & Society 5
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introduced by social media call for a redenition of collective identity able to accommodate the
new sociotechnical dynamics of semiotechnologies.
The various denitions of collective identity found in the toolbox of social movement studies
share the idea that individual I-s somehow collapse, or dissolve, into a collective we, through
which they recognize themselves in some sort of we-ness(real or imagined) that stands for col-
lective agency (Snow, 2001). Here I depart from the processual approachto identity (Melucci,
1996, p. 70) postulated by the late Alberto Melucci, an Italian sociologist who, without disregard-
ing the contentsof identity, helped to shed light on the interactional nature of its creation. But
why is revisiting Melucci necessary, despite the burgeoning sociological debate occurred between
the 1990s and today? Whereas much has been written on the intimate relation between digital
technology and the emerging epistemic settings of social movements (see, e.g., Castells, 2012;
Datanalysis15M, 2013; Elwood & Leszczynski, 2013), rarely has collective identity come to
the forefront. When taken into account, it has been watered down to a generic sense of community
(cf. Rheingold, 1993). What is more, much social movement literature adopts a sort of mechan-
icalapproach to collective identity, for instance, enumerating frames(Bennett & Segerberg,
2012; Hunt & Benford, 2004). The eld privileges either the subjective character (e.g. the cogni-
tive level) or objective outputs (e.g. cultural artefacts) of collective identity (Firer-Blaess, 2014),
dismissing its intersubjective nature. Meluccis emphasis on the relational and intersubjective
nature of identity building and the centrality he attributes to communicative action make his
approach particularly useful for present-day reasoning about movement identities.
According to Melucci, collective identity comes down to common cognitive frameworks
that are in part the result of negotiated interactions and relationships of inuence and in part
the fruit of emotional recognition(1989, p. 35). Simply put, identity tells us how acting together
makes sense for the participants in a social movement(1996, p. 69). More than being a sum of
individual motives, identity is positioned the crossroads of the private sphere of the individual and
the collective dimension of action. Contrary to its etymology, it does not presuppose unity and
coherence but is in continuous evolution. Most importantly, it is the result a network of active
relationships between actors(1996, p. 71). In his seminal Challenging Codes (1996), Melucci
characterized collective identity as
an interactive and shared denition produced by a number of individuals (or groups at a more complex
level) concerning the orientations of their action and the eld of opportunities and constraints in which
such action is to take place. By interactive and sharedI mean that these elements are constructed and
negotiated through a recurrent process of activation of the relations that bind actors together. (1996,
p. 70, original emphasis)
What does a Meluccian relational and process-driven approach to identity mean in an era
increasingly dened by a social media logic? Melucci did not live to see the internet as we
know it. Yet, he recognized that communicative channels and technologies of communication
are constitutive partsof the social relationships that make a movement, alongside with forms
of organizations and models of leadership(1996, p. 71). Hence, his relational denition is par-
ticularly suitable to be applied within the contemporary mediascape with some caveats, con-
cerning, respectively, access to resources, visibility, reciprocity and recognition.
Melucci tied the propensity of an individual to join collective action to the differential
capacity to dene an identity, that is, to the differential access to resources that enable him to par-
ticipate in the process of identity building(1988, p. 343). Social media multiply the symbolic and
interactional resources at disposal of accomplished and potential activists. Activists scout the
resources available in the platforms and devices they hold right in their pockets connecting
elements from personality aspects, grievances and emotions, and from analogue and digital
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culture (e.g. memes) to the materiality of social media (e.g. hashtags). Todays popularity of social
networking services exposes social actors to the exercise of storytelling and meaning work, poten-
tially augmenting their ability to produce new denitions(1996, p. 75).
Furthermore, Melucci claimed that collective identity is always the result [ ] of an active
process which is not immediately visible(1996, p. 72). Social media make it visible (cf. Bucher,
2012), at least to a certain extent, making it tangible, albeit in its virtual representation. This
affects also the ability to recognize and be recognized, one of the three tenets of identity accord-
ing to Melucci, alongside with the continuity of the political subject and its ability to adapt to the
environment, and its active role in dening the boundaries of the group (1996, p. 71). Recognition
and visibility are both exponentially boosted by social media, as these append the layer of pub-
licity that makes the recognition of the other visible, thus reinforcing the making of emotional
investment, which enable individuals to recognize themselves(1988, p. 343). Moreover, auto-
identication must also gain social recognition, which in turn must be coupled by a minimal
degree of reciprocity(1996, p. 73). Reciprocity is not only made visible in social media by
means of, for instance, friending, returned likesand favorites’‒it is also quantiable, as
so are recognition and visibility, approaching interactions to transactions.
All told, social media contribute to change the terms of identity building. By providing always
on platforms in which interactions are practiced on a recurring basis, they amplify the interactive
and sharedproperties of collective action. In other words, they continuously activate the relation-
ships that maintain collective identity and joint action, rather than merely allowing for personal-
ized identitiesto emerge (Bennett & Segerberg, 2012, p. 744). They foster an extension of
activism, and of the collective experience in particular, into the private sphere of individuals
and their quotidian, strengthening the symbolic nexus between activism and personal life.
Identity as organizational principle: protesting in the cloud
How does the specic materiality of social media renegotiate the dynamics of collective action on
the whole? Here I outline the notion of cloud protestingas both a way to conceptualize the type
of collective action fashioned by social media, and a strategic solution for its empirical investi-
gation. Cloud protesting can help make sense of and visualizespecic types of organizational
relations between individuals within a shared identity. More specically, the cloud takes on
two meanings: rst, it designates a digital imagined space where soft resources vital to collective
action are stowed and experienced by participants; secondly, it stays as a metaphor for a way of
connecting individuals in an instance of collective action which is specic to the age of social
media.
The notion is easier to understand in relation to cloud computing, to which the social reality
analysed here bears some resemblance. Cloud computing indicates the centralized storage of soft-
ware services and their supply over the internet. Customers can access the resources hosted in the
cloud from remote through web interfaces that do not require specialized skills. They benet from
customized services without having to own them exclusively. In a nutshell, the cloud enables
organizations to have a lighter structure while enjoying access to specically tailored resources
that are crucial to their functioning. I am aware that cloud computing has severe implications
for privacy, labour and the environment (Mosco, 2014) and it embodies its own specic dominant
narratives infused of power dynamics (Dourish & Bell, 2011); hence, it is not the best metaphor to
describe contemporary protesting. Furthermore, its centralized and privatized nature does not do
justice to the distributed efforts of current protests. This ambivalence, however, is mindful of tech-
nology being at the core of the digital capitalism activists both exploit and reject. With this con-
tention in mind, cloudis used here with the purpose of illustrating the set of mobilization
properties that are built intosocial media.
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In its rst connotation, the cloud indicates the virtual space where the movementscultural
and symbolic production takes place. It identies a symbolic place between technology devices
and platforms, as evoked by Sterlingsdenition of cyberspace as the placewhere a telephone
conversation appears to occur. Not inside your actual phone, the plastic device on your desk. Not
inside the other persons phone, in some other city. The place between the phones(Sterling,
1993). This symbolic place betweenstores a set of ingredientsthat make joint action possible,
such as meanings, identities, narratives, experience-based knowledge and solidarity networks.
These ingredients, which a social movement scholar would count in as resources, are brought
into existence and negotiated both online and in face-to-face interactions. However, they are enli-
vened, exchanged and stored in the cloudof social networking and storytelling platforms, micro
blogs and content-sharing sites. The cloud gives them a presence and a tangible shape in the
myriad of posts, tweets, links, photographs, tags and likes. These embodiments, which are multi-
layered, multi-authored and often contradictory, are immanent to cyberspace, as they do not occur
in the same form outside the cloud.
The imagined space identied by the cloud enables individuals to cherry-pick the soft
resources necessary for mobilization, with two likely consequences: the drastic fall of the costs
associated with taking action and the customization of narratives at the individual level. First,
the costsof mobilization decrease dramatically (see also Earl & Kimport, 2011; Shirky,
2008), as the soft resources necessary for collective action become broadly and readily available
to potential and engaged participants alike, and know-how necessary for mobilization travels
across borders and protest waves. Second, activists can customize their involvement and narra-
tive. Take the We Are the 99 PercentTumblr: everyone can potentially participate in building
the collective plot. Similarly, the 131 university students who launched the #YoSoy132 (Iam
132) protests in Mexico in 2012, posted on social media their individual picture holding their
student ID cards, pleading to bystanders to join the protest by becoming the no. 132 (Gómez
García & Treré, 2014). The cloud gives voice and visibility to personalized yet universal narra-
tives, connecting individual stories into a broader context that gives them meaning. As the
examples show, the resulting collective narrative spurred by cloud protesting might be fragmented
like a narrative via hashtags is but it is exible, real-time and crowd-controlled. It scores high in
its ability to bridgepersonal viewpoints and experiences (cf. Benford & Snow, 2000), and to
build and reproduce communication-based social capital(Ellison, Lampe, Steineld, & Vitak,
2010). This partaking-in-the-rst-person to meaning work occurs to a large extent outside the
mediation of organizations. However, it is covertly shaped by the algorithmic interventions of
social media including those exploiting content popularity which might eventually bring
the strongest voices back in.
In its second connotation, the cloud can be seen as an allegory for specic ways of creating
meaningful connections among individuals in the social media age. Think of the General Assem-
bly of Occupy camps, where each participant could in principle take the oor (Costanza-Chock,
2012). Assemblies unfolded like a conversation in a social media platform, connecting self-con-
tained individuals rather than pre-existing groups. Activists adopted the human microphone,
whereby whoever was nearby a speaker would repeat in chorus the speakers utterances, ensuring
that everyone would be reached and/or heard. The reverberatingmechanism of the human
microphone, analogous to the way content moves within social media platforms, allowed each
participant to directly engage in self-expression and identity building. Similarly, the cloud as a
metaphor echoes the rise of a dispersed and individualized constituency(Gerbaudo, 2012,
p. 5), whereby membership-based groups have made room for experience movementsrooted
on the public experience of the self(McDonald, 2002, p. 125). Emphasizing individuals and
their needs, preferences, bodies and personalities, cloud protesting groupings are not only tempor-
ary and elusive, but also action-oriented and heavily dependent on the provision of an experience.
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With individuals contributing to symbolic production in the rst person, movement organizations
have lost their regulatory role in dening membership and narratives. There is no need for (and no
means of) organizational control over the normative and symbolic production of a movement, as
the cloud collectively votesby selecting, highlighting and sharing content, thus determining
what ts to the collective narrative.
However, as it often happens in the sphere of organized collective action, opportunities and
threats are mutually constituted. Whereas online action encourages diverse participation by per-
mitting individual activists to select specic activities to reect their individuality, it may also
render social movements more fragile, contradictory and unstable. To start with, it would be
wrong to dismiss the enduring relevance of leadership in organizational settings of this kind.
In these dispersed but leaderful(Costanza-Chock, 2012) constituencies, inuential Facebook
admins and activist tweeps become soft leadersor choreographers, involved in setting the
scene, and constructing an emotional space within which collective action can unfold(Gerbaudo,
2012, p. 5). Allegedly, horizontal and participatory mobilizations are typically structured around a
dictatorship of actionwhereby the imperative of taking and experiencing action distorts the lea-
derless nature of the protest (Milan, 2013). Finally, the exile sense of belonging of cloud protest-
ing does not impose the same degree of responsibility towards fellow activists that real-life groups
do. The cloud might have dramatic effects on duration, sustainability, identity productionof
movements, and on how robust the political trajectory can become(Leistert, 2013b).
By emphasizing interactions that determine social action at the micro-level rather than simply
enabling it, cloud protesting distances itself from the logic of connective action proposed by
Bennett and Segerberg. Similar to connective action, cloud protesting is based on an act of per-
sonal expression and recognition or self-validation achieved by sharing ideas and actions in
trusted relationships(Bennett & Segerberg, 2013, Kindle loc 936). However, it emphasizes
the fundamental broker role of social media in building internalized or personalized ideasas
opposed to merely circulating them. Furthermore, by depicting what happens at the level of
those virtual yet meaningful interactions, cloud protesting is complementary to the choreography
of assemblyproposed by Gerbaudo: whereas the latter emphasizes the imbrication between
media and locality(2012, p. 5), cloud protesting stresses the grounding role of social media in
making meanings tangible.
In the next section, I zero in the dynamics through which social media recongure collective
identity within cloud protesting.
Practicing visibility
The peculiar way in which social media boost the materiality of social exchanges translates into
the practice of visibility, where visibility indicates the virtual embodiment and online manifes-
tation of groups and individuals and of the associated meanings, which are (and ought to be)
relentlessly negotiated, bolstered and updated. This emerging politics of visibilityhas
anked, rather than replaced, the politics of identity, so prominent in post-1960s understandings
of social movements (Melucci, 1989).
We have seen how the social-media driven exercise of identity is enacted via individual
choices, performance, visibility and juxtaposition. Posts, audio-visual clips and links become
the building blocks of collective identity. Participants appropriate the identity elements that
best correspond to their inclinations, and select and emphasize meanings created by their
peers, contributing to dene a love-object (Usagainst Them)(Melucci, 1996, p. 83). The
resulting identity, made of custom-built assemblages of available meanings and their recombina-
tion, facilitates the alignment of personal and collective identities (cf. Snow & McAdam, 2000).
In other words, the cloud provides a loosened afliation working on an individual basis: created
Information, Communication & Society 9
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by selection and juxtaposition, that is, to say, the incremental placing togetherof meanings pro-
duced by discrete individuals, collective identity becomes exible and symbolically inclusive,
built as it is on minimum common denominators open to interpretations.
This personalized identity is experiential, polycentric, ne-grained and multilayered. It is
experiential (as opposed to practiced) since it is shaped by iterative virtual interpersonal
exchanges. Through social media, bodies arent practiced but experienced(Farman, 2012,
p. 21): in other words, co-presence is no longer a prerequisite for embodiment, nor a requirement
for (collective) experience. ATumblr might be sufcient for experiencing a sense of commonality
and emotional attachment, while making cross-fertilization possible also beyond borders. It is
polycentric, as it is the result of the juxtaposition of personalized selves, ltered through joint
experience and negotiated beliefs. Also, this new identity is at the same time ne-grained and
multilayered. Since social media allow users to hang out in publicsimultaneously on several
platforms, they urge users into performance on multiple, concurrent stages.
Social media foster three mechanisms that concur to generate the aforementioned politics of
visibility. First, by joining the protests and making it visible, each individual becomes the heroine
of the story. Events unfold in real life as much as they do in the cloud, and often simultaneously.
The virtual performance and the expression of actionon social media proles (Ellison & boyd,
2012, p. 154) becomes the condicio sine qua non of social action. Second, social media enable
users to appeal to other people, by means of tags, citations and mentions. In doing so, they reiter-
ate the collective denition of we/them, but also spread it to bystanders, setting in motion
further cycles of exchange and negotiation. Third, by empowering asynchronous interactions,
social media let users bypass co-presence and allow for a permanent re-enactment of social
action in online platforms; they also change its fruition by the public, reiterating it. In doing
so, they stretch the duration and lifecycle of mobilization. Moreover, collective identity is con-
tinuously activated and reinforced, rather to being galvanized only in occasion of meetings or
demonstrations. Finally, performance, interpellation and reproducibility become a ritual, contri-
buting to convey the collective identity in stylized and dramatized ways(Della Porta &
Diani, 2006, p. 109) that regenerate bonds and promote group solidarity (Milan, in press).
The politics of visibility exacerbates the centrality of the subjective and private experience of
the individual that is at the heart of todaysexperience movements, which privilege grammars
of embodimentover the power to represent(McDonald, 2006, p. 37). Paraphrasing McDonald,
the collective identity of experience movements can be understood in the guise of stories of I
encountering others(2004, p. 589), as the We Are the 99 PercentTumblr makes explicit.
Through the lter of visibility, individual action becomes performance and expression of the
I, partially losing the representative function of the we. Collective identity can then be under-
stood as the set of shared meanings that have passed through the lter of the sharing (in the sense
of pooling together) of private individual experiences(Milan, 2013). The unmediated encoun-
ter between individuals enabled by social media results in the collectivebeing experienced
through the individual’‒a far cry from earlier conceptualizations of collective identity.
It is precisely in the role assigned to the group that the politics of visibility moves away from
Meluccis notion. Visibility in fact becomes a proxy for the collective weat the expenses of fun-
damental group dynamics such as internal solidarity, commitment and responsibility towards
fellow activists. Identity building in cloud protesting originates and ends with and within the indi-
vidual and its self-representation. While the collective weremains a fundamental condition of
existence of collective action, it is relegated to an intermediary role, functional to peer recognition
(cf. Benkler, 2006). The group becomes the means of collective action, rather than an end in itself,
because the politics of visibility creates individuals-in-the-group rather than full-edged groups.
The resulting shared identity is strong in the present and as far as it is kept alive by the brokerage
of social media, but might turn out to be fragile and evanescent as time goes by.
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Concluding remarks
It is instructive to read with the eyes of today seminal theoretical works of the yesteryear. In the
case with the writings of Alberto Melucci (19432001), one can only wonder how such a long-
sighted scholar would have interpreted todaysmediascape and its seemingly innite communi-
cative possibilities. Here I tried to expand his constructivist perspective on collective action to
incorporate social media as one of the main meaning-making machines of our times. I focused
on the production of meaning, as a central task for any movement, and suggested approaching
social media as actors in their own right, characterized by a specic logic and regimes, and iden-
tifying a signicant space constructed across platforms and devices where a specic mobilization
dynamic unfolds. I termed this dynamic cloud protesting, and I illustrated how it has paved the
way to a politics of visibility that has in part supplanted the politics of identity typical of social
movements.
The epistemological project that I have started to outline here calls for a radical reposition-
ing of the theoretical and methodological toolbox of social movement studies. It supports the
idea, not new in the eld but rarely practiced, that we ought to embrace other disciplinary
elds, including organizational studies, social psychology and semiotics if we are to understand
the impact of communicative processes on social action. It calls for an ontological approach
that does not black boxmaterial supports like social media, but takes them as active
agents shaping the symbolic and organizational processes of social actors an approach that
prompts us to engage with science and technology studies, surveillance studies and political
economy, as others have suggested (Barassi & Treré, 2012; Leistert, 2013a). Finally, taking
seriously the hypothesis of technological agency has some methodological consequences. It
invites us not only to give careful consideration to the micro-level of collective action, but
also to engage in methods as diverse as infrastructure ethnography (Star, 1999) and compu-
tational methods, in view of capturing the socio-technical components of social-media
driven collective action.
Much work remains to be done if we are to fully understand how the power through the algor-
ithm(Beer, 2009, p. 999) recongures organized collective action. We should, for example,
investigate cloud protesting in action, testing it against ethnographic empirical data and real-
life interactions, and in relation with the political system in which movements are embedded.
A diachronic approach would allow us to control for the sustainability over time of social-
media powered action, but also to measure it against the pressing challenges of our times, such
as infrastructure concentration (Mosco, 2014) and surveillance (Leistert, 2013a).
Acknowledgements
The author wishes to thank the editors of this special issue and the two anonymous reviewers for their excel-
lent comments and valuable suggestions, without which this article would have been very different.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author.
Notes on contributor
Stefania Milan (stefaniamilan.net) is an Assistant Professor of New Media and Digital Culture at the Univer-
sity of Amsterdam. Her research focuses on the interplay between technology and activism, cyberspace gov-
ernance, and the politics of big data. She is the author of Social Movements and Their Technologies: Wiring
Social Change(Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and co-author of Media/Society(Sage, 2011). [Email:
s.milan@uva.nl]
Information, Communication & Society 11
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... The leaderless discourse and the proliferation of platform technologies Networked phenomena drive connective and cloud protesting actions (Bennett and Segerberg, 2012;Milan, 2015), and while many studies have investigated activists' use of platform technologies (Van Dijck et al., 2018), fewer have investigated the link between the growth of these technologies and the (perhaps not-so) coincidental rise of leaderless social movements. Considering the convergence of technology and movement actors' capabilities, Tufekci (2014) recalls how those who resembled formalized leaders were "pushed out of the circle of legitimacy" from the Arab uprisings to more recent Occupy movements, due to their reluctance to engage in institutional politics (p. ...
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... På 2010-talet har sociala medier blivit en viktig komponent i konstruktionen av kollektiva identiteter (Gerbaudo och Trére 2015). Detta har bland annat lett till en individualisering och personifiering av kollektiv handling eftersom kollektiva identiteters interaktiva och gemensamma beståndsdelar betonas i en tid av synlighetens politik som kännetecknas av individualism, performativitet och motsättningar (Milan 2015). Med hjälp av så kallade hashtaggar (#) kan gemenskaper byggas kring delade intresseområden varmed affektiva publiker skapas (Zappavigna 2011;Papacharissi 2015). ...
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... Por otra parte, está la vertiente que ha estudiado el uso de TIC para la organización de la acción colectiva, notando las diferencias que se han dado entre los grandes acontecimientos de protesta como la Primavera Árabe y el movimiento de Indignados en España (Bakardjieva, 2015;Gerbaudo, 2017;Milan, 2015;Van Dijck y Poell, 2015) ...
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... TRP and similar forums prescribe philosophies such as stoicism as a means to encourage self-improvement, yet the lack of critical examination merely reinforces negative behaviors associated with masculine toxicity in an echo chamber of aggrieved entitlement (Hodge & Hallgrimsdottir, 2019;Zuckerberg, 2018). Further, an increased dependency on virtual rather than physical connection opens the places cultural connection at the forefront, creating misguided communities through alt-right and ethnostate groups that transcend globally (Hodge & Hallgrimsdottir, 2019;Newell, 2021;Milan, 2015;Zuylen-Wood et al., 2017). A fear of vulnerability and help-seeking may ultimately create a place for so-called troubled men to fit in with extremist groups. ...
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... Collective identity has long been considered as one of the important factors in protest in social movement literature (e.g., Melucci, 1995;Taylor & Whittier, 1992) and it refers to "the shared definition of a group that derives from members' common interests, experiences and solidarity" (Taylor & Whittier, 1992, p. 105). Though some researchers suggest that collective identity is not a central factor of protest mobilization (e.g., Bennett & Segerberg, 2012;Castells, 2009), others argue that it still plays an important role in current social movements, and social media help users to build their collective identity (e.g., Gerbaudo, 2014;Milan, 2015). Gerbaudo (2014) argued that traditional forms of collective organizations play a less important role in current social movement as it "does not entail the irrelevance of collective identity, but rather the rise of new forms of collective identity" (p. ...
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This article provides an analytic overview of scholarly work on the concept of collective identity by considering its conceptualization and various empirical manifestations, the analytic approaches informing its discussion and analysis, and a number of theoretical and empirical issues, including a synopsis of the symbolic means through which collective identity is expressed and asserted. Although the scholarly roots of the concept can be traced to classical sociologists such as Marx and Durkheim, and more recently to the mid-century work of more social psychologically oriented scholars such as Erik Erikson and Erving Goffman, it was not until the latter quarter of the twentieth century that the concept generated an outpouring of work invoking the concept directly or referring to it indirectly through the linkage of various collectivities and their identity interests via such concepts as identity politics, identity projects, contested identities, insurgent identities, nationalism, identity movements, and even social movements more generally. Conceptually, the essence of collective identity resides in a shared and interactive sense of ‘we-ness’ and ‘collective agency.’ Although the concept is distinguished analytically from both personal identity and social identity, the three types of identity clearly overlap and interact. Empirically, collective identity can surface in a variety of contexts, although the preponderance of research has focused on its connection to gender, ethnicity, religion, nationalism, and particularly social movements. Analytically, collective identity has generally been discussed from a primordial, structural, and/or constructionist standpoint. Primordial and structural approaches are discussed as variants of essentialism, which is contrasted to constructionism. Among other things, constructionism focuses attention on the symbolic expression and maintenance of collective identities.