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the future of organizing in the digital age

September 27, 2011

First, Yahoo! was caught blocking Occupy Wall Street-related emails (they later claimed it was an unintentional error); and now word on the interwebs is that Twitter has been blocking #occupywallstreet from trending. (You can check out the trend map for #occupywallstreet here.)

It’s hard to say whether this is true because of the way trending topics are identified and circulated; but if it is, it makes one wonder where the interests of digital/social media companies like Twitter and Yahoo! really lie: with their users or with Wall Street. (And with stories like this, I’m leaning more towards Wall Street.)

So what are the implications assuming both stories are true, or at least have the potential to be true at some point in the future? I suppose the answer to that will depend on the type of analysis you give it. From a more theoretical/critical standpoint, for example, it evidences that private companies have a tendency to favour the interests of capital over the interests of users/consumers/etc., which isn’t all that surprising.

From a more practical standpoint, however, I think it raises some serious questions about the place and use of digital/social media in regard to organizing, specifically how it can help or hinder those utilizing this growing medium based mainly upon the whims of those in control of these services and methods of communication.

Only a few months ago, for example, people were touting the use of social media when it was being used by activists to organize in places like Iran, Egypt, etc., where things like the right to free speech and the right to peaceably organize don’t really exist in any meaningful way, if at all. But here in the US, where we do have these protections, our use of them is potentially being limited/censored by the private interests that own and control them because they’re coming into conflict with the interests of the ruling class, especially those of wealth/capital.

It brings up issues from censorship to the security of the people who are trying to organize (e.g., the ability of corporate interests to reveal names, locations and correspondences of activists to governments) to whether the internet and certain online services should be regarded as part of the commons since they’re fast becoming an integral part of how we communicate and function as a society. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Because digital/social media is such a relatively new phenomenon, it’ll be interesting to see how we, as general users and activists alike, approach these issues as they develop, particularly when many of our ideas about them may well be influenced by the very medium and corporate interests in question.

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