I gave an interview to a newspaper journalist the other day who wanted some information about Occupy Wall Street in the context of the history of American social movements. One question she asked was about how technology makes this movement different. And it struck me that while this movement is rightfully being lauded for its sophisticated use of technology, it’s also something we shouldn’t say is SO different from the past. Given Americans’ fetishization of technology, it’s hardly surprising that we talk about Twitter and YouTube as transformative technological achievements that separate our current organizing practices from those in the past. And of course, the internet is transformative, but it’s also worth noting that previous organizing movements also created incredibly sophisticated technological strategies using the available tools. Twitter allows one to get word of current events around the world in real time, but this isn’t that new; we’ve been shrinking space and time ever since the steamship. To take the I.W.W. as an example, these people used created tremendously effective propaganda using art, pamphlets, and songs and spread them across the country and world really quite quickly thanks to their strategies of organizing through the use of train-hopping. The telegraph and telephone still meant that people found out about information pretty much right away and while big technologies like television might mean that people mostly received versions of stories by the 1950s, the plethora of newspapers from all different perspectives allowed interested parties to receive a great deal of information very quickly.
This isn’t to discount the value of Twitter in organizing at all, but rather to say that it is part of a technological continuum, not a complete transformation of what our less advanced organizing ancestors were doing 10 years ago or 100 years ago.