Tension between “intentionality” and “self-expression” in Egyptian social movements?

Via cc at http://flic.kr/p/9fVrP3 by Steve Rhodes Maria Garrido presented an outstanding TASCHA Talk on Monday on the role of ICT in the revolution in Egypt. It’s easy to get hooked on the news narrative that made events in Iran and Egypt “Twitter Revolutions,” however Maria and her team were emphatic that such a narrative overemphasizes the role of technology. The technology needs to be viewed in the context of larger events: workers movements, dissatisfaction with Mubarak’s successi0n plans, etc. However, technology did provide affordances for mobilization that are significant.

Maria spoke to two: personal expression and strategic intentionality. These two themes interest me because they simultaneously speak to bottom-up, big-tent participation and top-down, command and control tactical strategy. Can these coexist? Does ICT create new, better opportunities for blended approaches?

The “self-expression” identified by Maria sounds to me like the marketplace of ideas. Many voice opinions in public. Some go viral. Some are ignored. Individuals participate in collective action in a way that maximizes their individuality while also strengthening “the movement’s” narrative–the message(s) that gain traction emerge as collective voice.

The “intentionality” identified in the research argues that specific actors–such as the administrator of a facebook page pursues a particular strategy–promoting a particular organizing tactic, rhetorical framing, etc. In this way particular actors lead and (at least in this research presentation) their choices are described as “the movement’s” choices.

At first I thought there was tension between these two ideas. It seemed like a top down strategy of “intentionality,” where movement elites who speak for “the movement” and make intentional strategic choices was inconsistent with self-expression percolating up from the bottom. Maybe not, though. If these influential characters became leaders through this self-expression, if their ideas won in the marketplace, it is very different from a command and control model. A smart, compelling facebook page could become the voice of the movement because the movement (through millions of ICT affirmations) made it so.

Ultimately, I can imagine a consistency between these phenomena. Self-expression by millions of actors elevates the messages of particular strategic, savvy, and intentional actors who then become leaders in the movement. Of course, as the researchers remind us, the alliances and hard work of on-the-ground activists cannot be overlooked. ICT doesn’t replace those things. However the affordances of the technology do seem to broaden the scope (and water down the purity–but we’ll save that for another time) of the message and the movement.

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