The Social Media of Protest

I had an interesting experience today watching the various media assembled, largely through twitter, of the protest in 65 5th Ave. While I don't have much to say one way or the other on the event itself, it was fascinating to see the raw news feed come together and to get a sense of the spread of and reaction to the news of a noteworthy event.

I arrived in the Parsons building around 11 a.m., just before much happened between the police and the protesters. Since I had a good view with the crowd downstairs of the occupied building, I flipped on the laptop and tried to find a twitter stream. I first searched for New School, and, frankly, didn't find much. But then I hit on tweeter Angus Johnston's feed which had the #NSIE (New School in Exile) tag on it.

Looking at the real-time updates on #NSIE and #newschool, I started seeing more twitpics of the police on the roof and other place, many shot by Mark Pilatowski and Travis Thomas, and some tinyurls of twitter searches. Another tinyurl (or similar) had the blog used by one of the people inside. The early unconfirmed reports of tear gas and pepper spray came from that source.

I started adding my own observations as they came, mostly of police entering or protestors extracted. After a few minutes, some of my posts were being RTed, and several people started following me--at one point, I was referred to as a "Tweeter on the scene". Also, the #nsie and #newschool tags quickly emerged as "canonical", with many updates tagged with both as noon approached.

The general "new school" search on Twitter didn't yield very many relevant results until around noon, then kind of exploded. As I write this, around 1:30, it's only now sort of tapering off. Aside of repeats of the #nsie and #newschool posts, many of the later posts were reactions of people not on the scene. It seemed, to me, that the first of these were people local or nearby, and then the major wave of tweets were RTs and larger national (global?) reactions of people who knew people. The Gothamist and Gawker chimed in via twitter around or shortly after noon.

As a measurable phenomenon, the phase of the social media news coverage lasted about 2 to 3 hours (roughly before 11 to after 1), though certainly more reactions are coming as major media reports spread. Tweets started referencing the New School President's announcement (over email but not yet on his blog) describing the administration's stance regarding the event. Tweets also began consolidating the news, referencing Kerrey's statement, the protester's blog, and other sources.

Some key pieces of media were crucial. The protester blog was responsible for the meme (a word used here in its analytical, non-derogatory sense) of police brutality. Kerrey's email was also quickly picked up and it's meaning merged and analyzed against earlier media--it introduced a counter meme of illegality, protester violence, and the "outsiders" (NYU, CUNY students) at the event. The twitpics seemed an essential "first look" at the events from perspectives (high up in 2 W. 13th) unavailable to news vans and the formal press. And the quick coalescence of streams around the #nsie and #netschool tags created a "channel" of information that was followed, RTed, and reblogged very quickly.

The consequence of this, for protest media, seems to be that some care needs to be taken "managing" the media, but, given the rapidity with which my posts and others were disseminated, only a little effort at key moments can influence the aggregation, organization, and tone of the event as it happens. The degree to which any of this effects the mainstream media narrative will have to be seen, but for addressing people on and around the scene (and people who follow those people), some level of media skills need to be developed to confront and co-opt this emerging form of news coverage--with just as much savvy as the organization of the protest event itself.

Update (4:24 p.m.): I got a nice twitter reply from mailecannon that points to an aggregation s/he did of New School protest haters. This is exactly the kind of rapid media creation and commentary I think is so interesting. This happened around 1 or 2 p.m. today, almost immediately after the event. And yet, it's a sophisticated collection of opinions with mailecannon's own commentary interleaved. Cool stuff.

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