“Mashing” traditional civil society and flash mobs


The protest is the hashtag and the hashtag is the protest

The day I arrived in Brazil last month, I learned by word of mouth that students in the northern city of Natal, Brazil had been occupying the city council for over a week.

Their camp was being transmitted live on webcam, emblazoned with the hashtag above.

It all started on May 25, when about a thousand people organized a rally online with the help of a tweet, fed up with alleged corruption by the mayor, demanding her impeachment. A week later a thousand more joined.

A week after that, they set up camp – INSIDE the city council.

Not even super-online friends in São Paulo had heard of it, more than a week after the camp was set up.

Why am I sharing this? Because traditional civil society – the kind of organizations promoting reform and change that we work with – were not the driving force in this organic collective. (Of course, as in Tunisia and Egypt, when the resistance became a social fact, unions and CSOs were keen to link in.)

Does this mean that the old ways of pushing social change are to be discarded? My answer lies in another question: what happens when the campers go home, and when the webcam is turned off?

Traditional civil society need not compete with or try and co-opt campers or flashmobbers. Instead pitch in, offer tactical advice where welcome, and help to sustain citizen organization over the long haul. And the reverse is true – when traditional mobilization flags in energy, or runs up against obstacles, clearly the creative energy of this digital native generation can help sustain.

Recently, Ciana-Mare Pegus asked on the Civicus Alliance blog

How can traditional civil society organisations capitalise from and build on an almost organic process, happening quite independently from them, without attempting to capture or institutionalise such processes, which would endanger their creativity and flexibility? Or put inversely: how can an undefined, motivated but oftentimes transient group of individuals best use the technical know-how of CSOs?

I think Ciana-Mare has hit on some of the most crucial questions of our time. We have been encouraging our partner organizations to reflect on this well before the Arab Spring – we believe that the success of the Ficha Limpa campaign for anti-corruption legislation in Brazil was only possible with the ad-hoc marriage of traditional and online mobilization.

We have supported an online case study of this campaign, where we will host a series of online dialogues about traditional and online mobilization, and how they can virtuously intermingle.

Other Brazilian innovators like a crowdfunding site called Multidão (Multitude) are pushing things forward as well. They have recently shared the concept for their new site promoting creative collective action (my translation)

In the last 6 months we have observed a profusion of events that highlight the idea that we are living a moment where an action, where mere sharing, an extraordinary video, can unleash an immeasurable domino effect, and generate discussion and reflection on issues of general interest. […]

This is basically our idea. Create actions where creativity is the principal ingredient, that awaken the interest of people in numerous topics. We will be creative anarchists, and our mission will be to generate questioning that, via action, go beyond the online world, and bring extraordinary experiences to people. Actions in which the role of one person is fundamental within the notion of a collective, where alone we can do something, that becomes much more powerful when we multiply these individual actions, forming a Multitude.

Quite an intriguing vision for a new form of collective action.

In the end, we know that the answers to Civicus’ questions will come from neither traditional civil society nor lone innovators with their flash mobs alone. The answers have to be co-created. Our partner organizations are thirsty to link with online innovators like Multidão – but not just to learn, also to share how to sustain mobilization once the webcam goes off.

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3 Responses to ““Mashing” traditional civil society and flash mobs”

  1. Diego Casaes Says:

    Very insightful comments, Miss Gunter.

    I remember that I’ve heard very little about the camp in the city council of Natal. The news didn’t spread in southern Brazil that much, even among Twitter users and bloggers. We knew about it, but there was not much attention to it. And when even the online activists do not pay attention to this kind of mobilization, well… there is something wrong!

    The question that Ciana-Mare asked in Civicus blog is rather a difficult one. I don’t have an answer, but I’d dare to say that we need to get these people talking to each other, sharing experiences and learning with them, creating a culture of documentation and sharing of best practices. That would make a lot of difference!

    I know it is difficult though. I am living on a very similar context, where an online community of activists is losing control of itself, in a sense that sometimes it feels we are disconnected from real issues. It looks like disagreeing is becoming trivial (instead of asking questions about the problem and coming with answers; or at least hypothesis to address a issue) and playing with their tools is the goal, not the means to tackle a bigger challenge.

    On the other hand, it is still very difficult for online activists to create a bridge with social movements and other CSOs. There is prejudice from both sides. While some organizations are rather rigid, some online activists communities are too liberal sometimes, or lack maturity in terms of doing politics and engaging in social change.

    But to be honest, I guess that we need a humble position from both sides, to show them what they can learn with each other. This will be the first step into creating a better public sphere, with new relations and new forms of driving benefits to everyone.

  2. Janet Gunter Says:

    Hi Mr Diego, Thanks for the comment. I think we are moving towards an age of greater “humility” from both sides. But I think the real issue with bringing the two sides together is that it will require both to set aside time. This approximation will inevitably drain from the immediate work of both. I have trouble even finding the time with our partners to document best practice, as you suggest!

  3. Diego Casaes Says:

    Yeah, indeed. We need to find better solutions for this problem 😛

    But on the average, I think there are some people from both sides who understand this frustration, and will carefully tiptoe on the problem, bringing new perspectives and driving change, at least a little bit.

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