Appropriation of the Internet as an Effective and Powerful Tool of Large Scale Global Social Protest

Buried beneath the blitz of news coverage of the rise of e-commerce and the emergence of the World Wide Web as a new focal point of consumerism ( the most ubiquitous stories of the moment) is a potentially just as significant, still unreported, story: the appropriation of the Internet as an effective and powerful tool of large scale global social protest.

Most major mainstream broadcast and cable news coverage and commentary rather jadedly treated the WTO protests in Seattle last month as a fluke, a nostalgic hippie flashback. Their cynicism reflects not only the binders of their Beltway mindsets, but the bias of their own, now challenged, media formats.

For most of the past forty years, since broadcast television emerged in about 1960 as the primary deliverer ( and definer) of news, political activism evolved in a kind of dependent relationship (which superficially some took to be a symbiotic one) to television. Intuitively, sometimes by instinct, sometimes, as students of McLuhan, quite consciously, activists of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, attuned to the persuasive power of the mediated image, learned to cast and craft their political protests at least in part as media politics. Grass roots organizing remained, as always, the essential underpinning of a viable social movement, but angling for a dramatic visually intense slot on the nightly news ( what Abbie Hoffman called "Becoming an Advertisement for the Revolution" or "Media Freaking") became a primary tactic, if not full fledged strategy.

The power relationship, however, was always ultimately one-sided. Those who lived by the televised image, could be easily squashed by the image gatekeepers, cancelled like a burnt-out sit-com or cops-and-robbers show once their novelty effect ebbed. And when "The Whole World" was no longer watching, communication was pretty easily squelched.

What the WTO protests represent, far from Luddite know-nothing-ism (despite the handful of brick throwing John Zerzan/Theodore Kaczynski "anarcho-primitivists" whom broadcast TV reflexively and inevitably locked-in on as the TV stars of the event) is the first social protest movement created largely through and communicating largely via the Web. Which is to say the first, potentially at least, able to by-pass the gatekeepers of mainstream media while reaching hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of participants/observers/ sympathizers and others, globally on an ongoing basis.

This suggests that the populist cyber-punk roots of Net BBS's are surviving and even flourishing alongside the corporate branding the Web is undergoing. With due apologies to the great writer Bruce Sterling (who advises us to retire cyber prefixes once and for all), I can't help thinking that, despite the apparent easy triumph of cyber-commercialization (the Web as global strip-mall), the next few years may also witness the blossoming of the first era of mass global populist cyber-protest.