Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Information Resource Centre - U.S. Embassy Nigeria , chapter name Harnessing the Power of Protest

Harnessing the Power of Protest

By Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky consults and writes about the social and economic effects of Internet technologies and teaches at New York University. His most recent book is Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.

Simple new telecommunications tools are removing obstacles to collective action by ordinary people, and thus changing the world.

This article appears in the March 2009 issue of eJournal USA, Nonviolent Paths to Social Change (  

On March 27, 2006, a Monday, secondary school students in Los Angeles, California, surprised teachers and administrators by staging a school walkout in protest of HR4437, a bill before the U.S. Congress proposing a crackdown on illegal immigrants. This was no ordinary walkout, though, because tens of thousands of students participated, from schools all across the city. The students walking out, a largely Hispanic population, had been inspired to act by a protest by adults in their community that had taken place just two days before. So many students walked out of their schools and down to City Hall that they blocked traffic as they went, creating a very visible and public display for their cause.

Using communication tools, Los Angeles students organized a surprise demonstration by 30,000 people.


The protest had several remarkable aspects, starting with size — tens of thousands of people all taking coordinated political action. Coordinating such a thing at multiple geographic sites at the same time is hard. Getting secondary school students to do so when most of them are too young to vote, is harder. And involving immigrants, who may never be able to vote, is harder still. Being able to do so without the school administration knowing is nothing short of astonishing — keeping a secret among 30,000 people has never been trivial. And doing it all in 48 hours should have been impossible, would have been impossible, in fact, even a year before.

What made a rapid, secret, huge protest happen was the adoption of new communication tools, especially MySpace (the interactive social-networking Web site) and SMS (text messages sent via the phone). Armed with these tools, students could coordinate with one another, not just person to person but in groups. Almost as critically, the messages they exchanged went to the people who mattered — the other students — without reaching the school administrators.

Making the school protest possible, though, was not the same as making it happen. What made it happen was real political feeling: The students had a message they wanted to express, together and in public. MySpace and texting amplified that message by giving the messengers abilities they hadn’t had before, but the message itself, demand for political inclusion in making immigration policy, was independent of the tools.

Though some of the early utopianism around new communications tools suggested we were heading into some sort of post-hierarchical paradise, that’s not what is happening now, and it’s not what is going to happen. None of the absolute advantages of large-scale and professional media has disappeared. Instead, what has happened is that most of the relative advantages of those institutions have disappeared — relative, that is, to the media controlled directly by the citizens.

The story here is the new ability of uncoordinated groups to achieve the kind of goals such groups have always shared. Human beings are social creatures, not occasionally or by accident, but always, and society isn’t just the product of its individual members; it’s the product of its constituent groups as well. Whenever you improve a group’s ability to communicate with one another, you change the things they are able to accomplish together.

Speaking Is Publishing

You can see those changes in the altered relationship between citizens and the media: The old saying that freedom of the press exists only for those who own a press points to the significance of the Internet and mobile phones. In the digital realm, to speak is to publish, and to publish online is to open the possibility of connecting with others. With the arrival of a medium where interpersonal communication, public broadcasting, and social coordination shade into one another, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of association now do so as well.

With this blending of conversational, broadcast, and social elements into one medium, we have entered a world where every piece of digital media is a latent community: The people interested in any given bit of writing, picture, or video might well be interested in conversing with one another as well. Being able to synchronize groups via social media is adding a new feature to traditional media; it is becoming not only a source of information, but also a site of coordination. In the case of the Los Angeles walkout, MySpace provided a place for students to publish information about HR4437 (a broadcast function), to talk to one another directly about the bill (a communications function), and to propose a course of communal action (a coordination function), all in one arena.

To put it in military terms, digital media can create “shared awareness,” the sense in a group not only that each member understands what is going on, but also that the understanding is similar among all, and, critically, each member understands this as well. Shared awareness is a useful precursor to coordinated action, and the ability to create shared awareness improves with real-time media and with mobile media.

A recent application that improves shared awareness using both fast and mobile messages is Twitter, the service that broadcasts short messages from a phone or personal computer to any of your friends who have subscribed to your Twitter “feed.” Though Twitter can be used for any sort of short message, Twitter itself proposes that you use Twitter to answer the question “What are you doing now?”


Improved communication capability can lead to more accomplishment.

As a result, much of the content on Twitter at any given moment is inane. On a random Thursday afternoon, here’s a random sample of twittering: 

PaulDizmang: Moving appliances from one rental to another. 

 radiopalmwine: King Sunny Ade - Dance, Dance, Dance       

Lisanne: im having a really bad day. 

Patorama: It is seemingly impossible to buy a single Faber-Castell black brush pen online. I can buy a pack of 10 tho. I guess I’ll have extras. 

Many of the public posts have this sort of quality — grooving to King Sunny Ade, moving appliances, generically bad days — where the publicly available content is not likely to interest most users. Just because much of the content is banal, though, doesn’t mean all of it is, as with this Twitter feed from Cairo in 2007 (with message times appended):

      Alaa: Going to doky prosecutor judge murad accused me and manal of libel (10:11 a.m. April 04)

      Alaa: Waiting for prosecutors decision might actually spend the night in custody (01:57 p.m. April 04)

      Alaa: We are going to dokky police station (03:31 p.m. April 04)

      Alaa: In police station no senior officers present so we are in limbo (04:29 p.m. April 04)

      Alaa: We will not be released from giza security will have to go back to dokki station (07:59 p.m.

April 04)

      Alaa: On our way back to police station (10:25 p.m. April 04)

      Alaa: We are free (11:22 p.m. April 04)

Alaa, or Alaa Abd El Fattah, is an Egyptian programmer, democracy activist, and blogger living in Cairo. Here, he is documenting his arrest, with his wife, Manal, in El Dokky, a Cairo neighbourhood, an episode that ended 12 hours later with their release. His arrest was ordered by Abdel Fatah Murad, an Egyptian judge attempting to have dozens of Web sites blocked in Egypt on the grounds that the sites “insult the Quran, God, the president, and the country.” When Egyptian pro-democracy bloggers started covering the proposed censorship, Murad added their sites to the list he was attempting to ban.

Tipping the Balance

What does a service like Twitter, whose public face is so banal, offer El Fattah and other Egyptian activists? As El Fattah describes Twitter, “We use it to keep a tight network of activists informed about security action in protests. The activists would then use Twitter to coordinate a reaction.” Because pro-democracy activists are watched so carefully, Twitter allows them a combination of real-time and group coordination that helps tip the balance of action in their favour.

One early use of Twitter had El Fattah and a dozen or so of his colleagues coordinating movements to surround a car in which their friend Malek was being held by the police, to prevent it and him from being towed away. Knowing they were being monitored, they then sent messages suggesting that there were many more of them coming. The police sent reinforcements, surrounding and thus immobilizing the car themselves. This kept Malek in place until the press and members of Parliament arrived. The threat of bad publicity led to Malek’s release, an outcome that would have been hard to coordinate without Twitter.

The power to coordinate otherwise dispersed groups will continue to improve: New social tools are still being invented. However minor they may seem, any tool that improves shared awareness or group coordination can be pressed into service for political means because the freedom to act in a group is inherently political. What the increasingly social and real-time uses of text messaging from China to Nigeria show us is that we adopt those tools that amplify our capabilities, and we modify our tools to improve that amplification.

Social tools aren’t creating collective action; they are merely removing the obstacles to it. Those obstacles have been so significant and pervasive, however, that as they are being removed, the world is becoming a different place. This is why many of the significant changes are based not on the fanciest, newest bits of technology, but on simple, easy-to-use tools such as e-mail, mobile phones, and Web sites. Those are the tools most people have access to and, critically, are comfortable using in their daily lives. Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies; it happens when society adopts new behaviours.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.

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