I’m in Frankfurt, Germany for two days to participate in a conference on networked political protests hosted by the University of Siegen (agenda in PDF). The conference is taking place in the new Artur-Woll-Haus, one of Germany’s most energy efficient buildings which also draws on a unique architectural style from the 1920s that shies away from straightlines. In fact, Artur-Woll-Haus from the inside looks distinctly like three sea-farring ships turned upside down.
Professor Dieter Rucht gave the Keynote address on “Protest Mobilization in the Age of Social Web” which was an excellent, sceptical overview of the current state of the debate between proponents of Web 2.0 and skeptics. Professor Rucht is Germany’s leading scholar on the topic and his current research seeks to assess the web’s relevance with respect to progressive social movements, particularly in terms of increasing political education, empowering citizens and furthering the process of democratization.
He criticized our field’s tendency to focus only on “stunning success stories” which create high (and arguably at times) unfounded expectations. These success stories are the exception, not the rule. Professor Ruch reminds us that the Internet serves progressive groups as well as their opponents, with the latter becoming increasingly sophisticated in their technical abilities.
While I largely agreed with most of what Professor Rucht had to say, some of his comments did surprise me. For example, he argued that the Internet hardly serves to mobilize new constituents. I find that hard to believe. Even more surprising was his comment on the Obama campaign, which he argued was not a social movement. Professor Rucht maintains that the campaign strategy was centrally controlled and orchestrated by a small group of individuals who simply happened to be awash with vast sums of money. What Professor Rucht fails to recognize, however, is that the only way the Obama campaign was able to tap into so much money was precisely because it created an effective social movement!
Another comment that through me off has to do with his take on mass mobilization in the past compared to present day. “Mass mobilization was also effecient before the era of the Internet. To be sure, the Internet is not a necessary condition for mass protests, it is simply a facilitator.” I basically agree with the second part of his statement but take issue with the first, particularly because Professor Rucht does not even define what he means by efficient. Does he mean efficient in terms of cost and time? Efficient relative to the tools of the time? Making sweeping statements is fine to provoke discussion, but at least we should take care to cleary define our terms!
In any case, I do agree with the general gist of Professor Rucht’s keynote address and while I don’t share the extent of his skepticism, I find it healthy. It is true that the Internet cannot replace physical protests in the streets. What is less evident to me, however, is whether Professor Rucht is correct in claiming that the rise of the social web and networked political protests is not changing the existing constellation of political power between large and small groups.