Over the last few years, I’ve been working on a project with Tim Highfield that explores the connections and disjunctions of activism that crosses online and offline spaces, Mapping Movements. We had a book contract to bring the research together and write up some material that hasn’t made it into other publications, but we’ve decided to withdraw it. It was the right choice to make, and it means wrapping up the project.
I learned a lot doing this research, and even though not all of it will end up seeing publication it will continue to weave through my understanding of the myriad of ways people are trying to create change in the world. This post is an awkward goodbye, and a chance to reflect on some of what I learned.
A large part of what I found valuable (as in many of my collaborations) was working out how our approaches fit: how to bring together quantitative and qualitative data from the Internet and the streets to show more than we might see otherwise. We wrote a bit about our methodology in ‘Mapping Movements – Social Movement Research and Big Data: Critiques and Alternatives’ (in Compromised Data From Social Media to Big Data) and a chapter in the forthcoming Second International Handbook of Internet Research. I continue to reflect on how academics can engage in research that’s safe, and hopefully eventually also useful, for activists. Internet research poses particular challenges in this respect, in part because of the increased online surveillance of many social movements.
Fieldwork I carried out for Occupy Oakland and #oo: uses of Twitter within the Occupy movement was particularly instructive when it came to thinking about surveillance and oppression. There were important debates happening in Occupy at the time about livestreaming and the ways in which citizen journalism might feed into claims to represent or lead the movement. And the open police violence made it clear what the stakes might involve. I won’t forget being teargassed, seeing someone carried away on a stretcher, being kettled, running with a group of friends as we got away, desperately trying to work out where the bulk of the marchers were and if there was anything we could do to help them. This violence was a large part of what dispersed the Occupy movement, but activists also spoke about how it prompted them to a deeper understanding of the problems with the US state and the extents to which it will go to protect capitalism.
My second round of fieldwork, in Athens, led to Harbouring Dissent: Greek Independent and Social Media and the Antifascist Movement. Activists there are doing vital work resisting fascism and racism and, increasingly, working to support refugees seeking safety. I am so grateful for the people I met through a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend who were willing to talk to me, help me improve my shoddy classroom Greek, make introductions, and argue with my analyses. Getting the opportunity to talk about some of my work at Bfest and in small workshops made me feel like there’s some hope for this research to be useful beyond academia.
Finally, research at the 2015 World Social Forum in Tunis is unlikely to be published. However, it did feed into my continuing reflections on the way the WSF is constituted and contested.
Mapping Movements helped me grow a lot as a researcher and let me connect and better understand movements that I often feel very far from in Perth. Ending the project opens up space to consider what comes next. Whatever that is, I know it will continue to be influenced by the work we’ve done over the last few years.