Occupy Oakland and #oo: Uses of Twitter within the Occupy movement
First Monday

Occupy Oakland and #oo: Uses of Twitter within the Occupy movement by Sky Croeser and Tim Highfield



Abstract
Social media have become crucial tools for political activists and protest movements, providing another channel for promoting messages and garnering support. Twitter, in particular, has been identified as a noteworthy medium for protests in countries including Iran and Egypt to receive global attention. The Occupy movement, originating with protests in, and the physical occupation of, Wall Street, and inspiring similar demonstrations in other U.S. cities and around the world, has been intrinsically linked with social media through location–specific hashtags: #ows for Occupy Wall Street, #occupysf for San Francisco, and so on. While the individual protests have a specific geographical focus — highlighted by the physical occupation of parks, buildings, and other urban areas — Twitter provides a means for these different movements to be linked and promoted through tweets containing multiple hashtags. It also serves as a channel for tactical communications during actions and as a space in which movement debates take place.

This paper examines Twitter’s use within the Occupy Oakland movement. We use a mixture of ethnographic research through interviews with activists and participant observation of the movements’ activities, and a dataset of public tweets containing the #oo hashtag from early 2012. This research methodology allows us to develop a more accurate and nuanced understanding of how movement activists use Twitter by cross–checking trends in the online data with observations and activists’ own reported use of Twitter. We also study the connections between a geographically focused movement such as Occupy Oakland and related, but physically distant, protests taking place concurrently in other cities. This study forms part of a wider research project, Mapping Movements, exploring the politics of place, investigating how social movements are composed and sustained, and the uses of online communication within these movements.

Contents

Introduction
Context: Social movements, social media
Methodology
Discussion: The intersections of place, space, Twitter, and Oakland
Critiques of Twitter’s role in Occupy Oakland
Further directions for research and limitations of this study
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

The Occupy movement has shown both physical places and online spaces to be important for the work of activists. The initial proposal for Occupy Wall Street, put forward by Canadian activist media organization Adbusters, emphasised the physical occupation of Wall Street, as well as the mediation and discussion of these actions online through the accompanying #occupywallstreet hashtag (Adbusters, 2011). As additional Occupy sites arose in public spaces in U.S. cities, as well as other cities around the world, so too did coverage and commentary of these movements online, as activists adopted social media to organize and connect their actions with other protests.

In this paper, we examine the roles and uses of Twitter within the Occupy Oakland movement, focusing in particular on how the online space situated around the #oo hashtag intersects with the physical places ‘occupied’ and referenced by activists. For Occupy Oakland, the space of Twitter and the place of the central square in Oakland, Oscar Grant [1] Plaza, and other areas important to the movement are characterized by different affordances. While activists privilege place–based politics, they rely on being able to ‘step outside’ the limitations of place in order to organize and, perhaps more importantly, retain cohesion for the movement when the physical places of Occupy Oakland are shut down. However, some of the same factors which constrain activists within the place of Occupy Oakland (such as the repressive role of the state, as demonstrated by the crackdown on Occupy sites discussed below) also affect the space of #oo. Further, in some respects the place of Occupy Oakland is seen to offer freedoms and opportunities that the space of #oo does not. This allows us to complicate any simple understanding of physical ‘place’ as necessarily constrained, while the space of the Internet is always characterised by privilege and freedom. Rather, place and space offer different affordances, and overlap with each other.

 

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Context: Social movements, social media

Social media, such as Twitter, have become established platforms for sharing information and discussions around a variety of contexts and actors, from politics and protests to natural disasters and entertainment. Twitter in particular has been widely adopted for information diffusion. Factors such as the brevity of messages on Twitter, or tweets (limited to 140 characters each), and the public nature of the majority of these comments have contributed to this evolving use of a platform not established for such specific purposes. In addition, recirculating messages on Twitter, broadcasting ideas from one account to more users, is supported and encouraged through functions such as retweeting, while users also denote similarly–themed tweets using common hashtags (keywords prefaced by a # symbol). Finally, the presence of accounts from a wide range of public figures, celebrities, and organizations further highlights Twitter’s use as a means of communicating information from official sources, such as government agencies and emergency services, and alternative voices alike.

Research into Twitter and political protests has covered many different contexts, including the 2009 Iranian and Moldovan demonstrations (Burns and Eltham, 2009; Splichal, 2009), the 2010 anti–G20 protests in Toronto, Canada (Poell and Borra, 2012), as well as various aspects of the Arab Spring uprisings (Barrons, 2012; Harlow and Johnson, 2011; Poell and Darmoni, 2012). The Occupy movements have also attracted extensive attention, particularly quantitative research drawing initially on the archives of tweets containing Occupy–related hashtags, such as #ows (for Occupy Wall Street) (Conover, Davis, et al., 2013; Conover, Ferrara, et al., 2013; Costanza–Chock, 2012; DeLuca, et al., 2012; Thorson, et al., 2013). These ‘big data’ studies of protest movements provide valuable information into the Twitter activity surrounding activist groups and demonstrations, such as daily tweeting patterns, highly active users, and the links and hashtags shared by users. The focus on hashtags also links these protest–specific studies to a wealth of other Twitter–oriented research, which investigates other hashtags as examples of online political communication and debate. In these cases, hashtags can be used to identify issue publics on Twitter, the temporary networks formed ad hoc around a given topic by users and their tweets (Bruns and Burgess, 2011a).

However, such quantitative studies of social media are often quite broad and hashtag–oriented in their analysis. While hashtags are important data sources as they act as signifiers for topics of interest, hashtag use is not required behavior on Twitter, and not all relevant tweets will include a topic–specific hashtag. Similarly, Twitter is just one aspect of collective action online, and not the only tool used by social movements. In this paper, then, we draw on both quantitative Twitter data around Occupy Oakland and qualitative research based on interviews and participant observation in the physical spaces occupied in Oakland to provide multiple perspectives into social media use within the movement. These mixed methods also enable us to examine the role of Twitter within a wider debate surrounding the politics of space, place, and social movements.

Although social media are used within movements such as Occupy Oakland, physical space remains a more prominent component, and critical consideration, for these movements. This is particularly true for Occupy, which is organized around the physical occupation of public spaces. However, the physical and digital are not distinct aspects of the movement, occurring in isolation, but are interlinked. Juris (2012) notes the symbolic importance of social media to Occupy through common references to the movement as “#Occupy”, but also finds that the movement “spread through the occupation of physical spaces as well as the diffusion of evocative images through traditional mass media platforms” and Occupiers’ [2] use of social media [3]. Juris argues that the intersections between new media and “offline politics” need to be further examined in order to establish “how virtual and physical forms of protest and communication are mutually constitutive” [4]. Gerbaudo (2012), for example, studies the role of social media within several different protest movements, including Occupy Wall Street and the 2011 uprising in Egypt opposing President Hosni Mubarak, with a focus on the links between physical and online spaces. Within the Occupy context, Gerbaudo claims that social media act to provide a “choreography of assembly”, wherein public space is symbolically constructed online. Social media, for Gerbaudo, “facilitate the reverberation of episodes taking place on the ground, rather than [...] preparing the terrain symbolically for the protests” [5]. In this paper, we expand upon these ideas to explore further the connections between the physical and online aspects of the movement, and the significance of place both in Oakland and on Twitter.

Insofar as research on social media and activism is ‘placed’, the connections between Twitter and activism have often taken a wide lens, looking at the level of nation–wide phenomena (cf., Burns and Eltham, 2009; Harlow and Johnson, 2011; Lotan, et al., 2011; Russell, 2011). While this work is useful, it needs to be complemented by work which is more tightly focused, as “protest ecologies” shape the use of technologies such as Twitter [6], and are often highly localised. As Cumbers, et al. [7] argue, work on movements needs to pay more attention to the local context. The national context plays a significant role in shaping protest ecologies, but they are also shaped by the particular history of the city (or even neighborhood) in which they are based, and by the personal histories and politics of the participants and organizations of which they are constituted. Occupy Oakland is embedded within the broader protest ecology of Occupy Wall Street and the context of U.S. politics, but its politics are different from those of other Occupy sites, as are participants' attitudes to and use of social media.

Investigations of the use of Twitter and other social media in activism are also frequently defined by the ways in which the literature on social movements, and indeed more broadly in the social sciences, distinguishes between and frames geographically–defined place and the more amorphous space of online communications. This distinction is embedded in Castells’ (see, for example, 2005; 2012) discussions of the ‘space of places’ and the ‘space of flows.’ In this work, we draw on these distinctions by referring to the ‘space’ of #oo (or, in other words, the space which the Occupy Oakland movement creates and exists within online, particularly on Twitter) and the ‘place’ of Occupy Oakland (the physical locations, largely centred around the Oscar Grant Plaza, in which activists locate the movement). At the same time, we question many of the assumptions that are made about the space of places and the space of flows.

There are two assumptions which we focus on particularly in this work. The first is that social media and other online communications which Castells positions within the space of flows are, in contrast to the space of places, unconstrained. Castells writes that recent protests “began on the Internet social networks, as these are spaces of autonomy, largely beyond the control of governments and corporations”, and of the importance of the “free public space of the Internet” [8]. This assumption that social media is a space of freedom is a common theme within the literature. While increasing attention is being paid to the ways in which activists’ use of the Internet is constrained, the focus has predominantly been on authoritarian states, and frequently on activists’ ability to circumvent attempts at controls (cf., Christensen, 2011; Russell, 2011). Our research challenges this assumption, exploring the ways in which participants in Occupy Oakland experience their use of Twitter and other social media as limited by knowledge of online surveillance and government or corporate censorship, as well as by the embedded affordances of the platforms themselves.

The second assumption we explore in this work is that place–based activism is always more authentic, inclusive, and meaningful than online communications. Castells, for example, writes that autonomy, “can only be exercised as a transformative force by challenging the disciplinary institutional order by reclaiming the space of the city for its citizens” [9]. This is in keeping with what Massey [10] describes as the “totemic resonance” of place, in which its “symbolic value is endlessly mobilised in political argument” and it becomes the sphere “of real and valued practices, the geographical source of meaning, vital to hold on to as ‘the global’ spins its ever more powerful and alienating webs”. We do not dispute the importance of place–based activism; almost all the participants in the study repeatedly emphasised the vital work of being present in the place of Occupy Oakland, during occupations and actions. At the same time, however, we recognize the problematic nature of place, the ways in which the fetishisation of place might act as exclusionary, and the ways in which online spaces served as a fall–back position to support the movement’s place–based work.

 

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Methodology

Drawing on this framework, we investigate the following questions:

RQ1: How are the two spaces of Occupy Oakland — the physical and the online — interwoven? In particular, how does the online link with the physical?

RQ2: How are these distinct — yet connected — spaces seen by participants within the movement? How are they used within the Occupy Oakland movement?

To answer these questions, we draw on a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods to explore both the physical and online actions of Occupy Oakland. While there is a growing amount of quantitative research mapping connections involved in Occupy and other social movements (Conover, Davis, et al., 2013; Conover, Ferrara, et al., 2013), and a smaller number of pieces looking specifically at the use of Twitter in Occupy based on qualitative, interview–based research (Penney and Dadas, 2014), this is one of the few pieces of Occupy–specific research which draws together quantitative and qualitative methods in this way (see Costanza–Schock, 2012, for an example of national–level mixed methods research). These mixed methods allow us to take into account a greater variety of perspectives about Occupy Oakland than would be possible by focusing on only one of these approaches. Similarly, the methods used provide clear links to the physical places and online spaces that are the subject of this study.

The qualitative aspect of the work was focused around three and a half weeks of fieldwork, which included participant observation and semi–structured interviews with 13 Occupy Oakland participants, ranging between 14 and 45 minutes in length. Croeser attended a range of movement activities, including general assemblies (GAs), the January 20 action to shut down the San Francisco financial district, the January 28 ‘Move In Day’ action, and weekly ‘Fuck the Police’ marches. In addition, she was present around the Oscar Grant Plaza area during times when no events or meetings were scheduled, talking to people and taking part in everyday activities like picking up trash. Participants were contacted through a variety of methods, including those who were recommended through pre–existing contacts in the Bay Area; people who Croeser met at actions, meetings, or through spending time in the space; people contacted through Twitter; and those who spoke to her after introductions from previous interview participants, using a process of snowball sampling. It is notable that most requests for interviews made over Twitter were unsuccessful: none were directly refused, but most were ignored, with only one participant responding positively. Therefore, while the interview set is by no means unbiased, it is not skewed towards those who are more active on Twitter. Participants are identified here by number, rather than name, in keeping with standard practice and as there is significant evidence of U.S. government surveillance of those involved in Occupy movements.

The fieldwork carried out in Oakland was complemented by analysis of Twitter activity by, and connected to, the Occupy Oakland movement. Twitter is just one of the online tools used by social movements; however, it has advantages over other social media due to its short character limit per tweet, which encourages quick updates, particularly from mobile users, while the retweet function helps to spread messages from different movements and increase their visibility. Unlike other social media such as Facebook, Twitter does not have the same expectations around using real names, and if a Twitter account is public then there is no requirement to follow that account (and be approved) to see its tweets. Finally, the use of hashtags further connects discussions on shared topics without a user needing to be aware of, and follow, other people talking about the same issues.

For this project, we focused on one specific hashtag pertaining to the Occupy Oakland movement: #oo. While other hashtags were used, such as #occupyoakland, technical limitations meant that we were unable to track multiple hashtags concurrently. #oo was selected as the most common Occupy Oakland–related hashtag from observations on Twitter; its short length makes it preferable to #occupyoakland, for example, when there are only 140 characters available in total for an entire tweet. Two tools were used to capture tweets containing the #oo hashtag, the Desktop version of Archivist (current version at Tweet Archivist, 2013) and NodeXL (current version at NodeXL, 2013). These tools query the Twitter Streaming Application Programming Interface (API) for specified keywords, including hashtags, and gather corresponding tweets in different ways. Archivist provides a live capture of discussions as they take place for as long as the program is running with a continuous Internet connection (subject to rate limiting). NodeXL, on the other hand, collects recently published tweets up to the point of querying the API. While the Streaming API only provides access to a subset of the total Twitter activity at any given time (Morstatter, et al., 2013), the data gathered for this study is not intended to provide a complete archive of all Occupy Oakland tweets, but rather an outline of Twitter use within social movements. The incomplete nature of the #oo dataset is not a critical limitation of this research.

In total, 43,978 tweets were captured during several collection processes run between 29 January and 6 March 2012. This was not a continuous capture: as with the absence of related tweets not including the #oo hashtag, there are gaps in the dataset between the different collection processes, meaning that the captured tweets do not provide a complete overview of the #oo hashtag during this period. However, such an exhaustive analysis is not the aim of this research. Instead, we carried out an exploratory study of the captured tweets to identify different uses of Twitter by the Occupy Oakland movement, and also how the movement connects to, and is connected by, other U.S.–based and international protest groups. To filter and analyze the gathered tweets, we made use of Gawk scripts developed for the large–scale automated processing of Twitter data (Bruns and Burgess, 2011b). In the following discussion, we include a few examples of tweets carrying out different functions within the Occupy Oakland movement; however, although all tweets captured were publicly available, we have chosen not to extensively quote tweets so as not to compromise the safety of activists, or other individuals, using Twitter. All tweets featured here are drawn from the captured data.

The mixed methods employed in this paper, drawing on interviews and tweets, allow us to establish how Twitter links with the Occupy Oakland movement, and thus how the online space intersects with the physical place. In the following analysis we examine these ideas, and how Twitter is used by activists, by focusing on several key themes identified by participants both online and off–line. In particular, we investigate the organizational and informational functions of Twitter, demonstrations of solidarity with other social movements, and critiques and surveillance of Occupy Oakland. This analysis then provides answers to this study’s guiding questions of how the online and physical spaces are linked, and how these spaces are seen by participants.

 

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Discussion: The intersections of place, space, Twitter, and Oakland

One of the most important uses of Twitter within the movement was live–tweeting from places that could not be occupied, or were away from the main occupations — such as City Hall meetings — providing a means of connecting physical and Internet Occupiers. In these cases, tweets and livestreams relayed updates from these events to other interested parties, making the movement accessible to those who were not physically at assemblies and marches. For example, a meeting organized by Occupy Oakland in response to a cancelled Citizens’ Police Review Board forum in February 2012, discussing police conduct, was widely covered on Twitter using the #CPRB hashtag alongside #oo (“#OccupyOakland Citizens Police Review Board official #tag is #CPRB. #OO #OWS #p21”). In this case, the tweets serve multiple purposes: first, they provide information for people who could not physically attend the meeting; second, they act as a public record of what was said, particularly regarding the actions of the Oakland Police Department (OPD), given the unofficial nature of the meeting following the cancellation of the original CPRB.

During actions undertaken by Occupy Oakland, such as Move In Day, live coverage on Twitter and other online platforms also served essential functions for participants and supporters. One participant [5] said that although she rarely follows livestreaming, it is important when something is going on. For example, “the other day they had the press conference for the building move in day and I pulled that up online and I watched that”. Livestreams and live–tweeting also played a crucial role during Move In Day: participants in the action who had been separated from the main body of the march by repeated teargassing, police kettles [11], or other police violence, were able to use social media to rejoin the group or — for those too tired or traumatized — to begin solidarity actions, such as documenting those arrested and their conditions, or preparing for jail support actions. This is in keeping with Gerbaudo’s finding that “Twitter streams helped in maintaining a sense of solidarity between ‘physical occupiers’ and ‘internet occupiers’” [12], reinforced in tweets such as “In interest of accessability [sic] for people who can’t come to today’s 2PM #OO GA; we enourage [sic] streaming & livetweeting ...”. Although the relationship between ‘Internet Occupiers’ and ‘physical Occupiers’ was frequently problematized, it nevertheless played a key role within the movement.

Similarly, one of the ongoing issues for the Occupy Oakland movement was the attempt to hold open a space for the movement to exist in the face of strong opposition, primarily from the police and the Oakland City Administration, possibly with some federal coordination (Wolf, 2011). Juris argues for the importance of Twitter and other social media during the Occupy movement’s initial mobilization phase [13]; our research serves as a bookend to this, demonstrating the importance of Twitter as a way to maintain space for the movement once it became difficult to maintain a physical presence in the plaza or other public places. After the forcible evictions of the camps at Oscar Grant Plaza and Snow Park in October 2011, one participant cited the old hashtag for the post–eviction vigil, #247OGP, as a way to make the action visible: “without the camp they were really invisible, you can see them from the street [but] there was no real way to distinguish them from real homeless set of people and they were dying for lack of attention ... they were being harassed by the police and when they got online it made a difference ... people would come into the plaza and that was where the intersection of location and the Internet is important, but not as a replacement for it” [8]. For some people, Twitter plays a crucial role in maintaining a connection to the movement. One participant said, “it has become the only thing, the only connection I have since the camp has been gone. Because I was still getting a lot of information online about the camp, when it existed. But when it was gone there was just nowhere to meet and so a lot of it has just become discussions online” [5]. As this statement suggests, social movements require space to exist, to organize and to take action. As access to public places is limited through enclosure [14] and by attempts to forcibly prevent the Occupy movement’s use of plazas and squares around the U.S., some Occupy Oakland participants make use of Twitter as one of the few ‘public spaces’ available to them. Twitter has also helped to make the movement's presence visible as a movement.

Twitter also served an important role in providing information to participants. One participant [5] said that she initially learned about Occupy Oakland both through friends and from Twitter, as all she had heard from the mainstream media was, “there was a rat infestation which is ridiculous, because of course there were rats ... there are rats all over Oakland”. Although this participant had stopped using Twitter, she picked it up again in order to find out more about the movement, and since then, “Twitter is where I’ve gotten most of my information.” The differing perspectives on the movement provided via mainstream and social media sources was also discussed on Twitter; several tweets proposed a boycott of mainstream media publications — and alternative titles, too — which described Occupy Oakland as violent, especially in its interactions with the police (“We need a #Occupy wide mvmnt2 BOYCOTT any&all media that calls #OccupyOakland violent or “clashed w/cops” hack jobs #oo #osf #ows #occupycal”). Even if the boycott proposal was not widely adopted, the movement was encouraging of citizen journalism efforts, with reporters among the most active #oo Twitter accounts as well as prominent participants in and around the protests; livestreaming and tweeting updates from marches and meetings acted as the raw material for coverage of the movement and its actions, for instance. Indeed, at least one livestreamer (Eiko, 2012) was using the footage shot as a wider documentary project about Occupy Oakland, in addition to providing a live record of marches, with the expenses of the project supported financially by crowd–sourced donations.

Twitter is in a sense a backchannel here, allowing spectators a means of commenting on what they are observing and sharing those thoughts with others, to some extent independent of the participants in the event itself. For Occupy Oakland, though, these tweets take on a further informational dimension; given the perceived mainstream media view of the movement, social media provide a means for both documenting what is happening, and shaping what information is presented about, and by, the movement. A sub–topic within #oo tweets concerned the media and public image of Occupy Oakland (and its interactions with the OPD), making use of the #PRWar hashtag. Such comments critiqued actions undertaken during Occupy events which were not seen as helpful for the movement, including flag–burning (“So #OO can we get a goddamn consensus that burning the flag is fucking us over badly in the #PRwar please?”). In this context, social media were used to publish opinions which could be spread widely and attract further recognition — and have a public record of the comments — than might happen if these comments were shared in the physical space alone.

Twitter is particularly well–suited to (cautious) use during actions, although this has received relatively little attention in the academic literature. Theocharis (2013) notes that Twitter played a vital role in on–the–ground coordination of U.K. protests against education spending cuts in 2010, and argues that the use of Twitter during protests to serve a coordination function deserves more research. Other studies which discuss Twitter’s use touch on this function only glancingly: Segerberg and Bennett (2011), for example, only briefly mention (but do not expand on) its logistical uses during climate change protests, as do Penney and Dadas [15] and Conover, et al. [16] in their discussions of Occupy Wall Street’s activists’ use of Twitter. Similarly, movement tactics are just one of the thematic categories of tweets and links identified by Gleason (2013) in their analysis of #OWS datasets. For Occupy Oakland, though, we find that the key traits of tweets — their short content, public nature, and spreadability — and mobile access to Twitter led the platform to play an important coordinating role. As one participant said, “I usually follow Twitter on the day of an action, because that gives you minute by minute [updates], the march is here, the march is here, the march is here. Every minute you’ll know where anything is when you look at Twitter” [3], demonstrating “the powerful articulation of internet and mobile media” seen in other research (Monterde and Postill, 2013). This organizational role, providing updates as actions unfold to help direct participants and supporters, is also realized through tweets requesting support from activists, including asking for supplies to be brought to demonstrations (“the vigil is still going. They need support like food and water. #oo #occupyoakland #occupycal #j28 #occupysf #ows”). Utilizing the public and spreadable nature of Twitter communication, tweets of this kind could potentially reach a wider audience — and subsequently someone who could provide support — quickly, rather than just the group of people present at the scene or in individual contact lists.

All of these uses of Twitter point towards a deeply intertwined relationship between online and off–line spaces, in which online and off–line actions rely heavily on one another. Work online, such as livestreaming, repeatedly referred back to, and interacted with, off–line actions. At the same time, many off–line actions were supported by or relied upon online coordination and communication. Furthermore, these connections are not limited to Oakland; #oo activity on Twitter also creates and maintains links between Occupy Oakland and other social movements around the world, as the online space helps to connect geographically dispersed but politically linked physical places.

The Occupy movement is international, with manifestations throughout North America as well as in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Connections between different locations are made in a variety of ways: through adoption of the same name and a similar tactical framework; through personal connections as participants move between activist sites; and also through the network of communications, including Twitter. The solidarity between different Occupy sites is demonstrated in tweets containing the hashtags of multiple movements: not just #oo, but also the likes of #ows and #osf. This provides a picture which complements other research focusing on the #ows tag as a whole (Conover, Davis, et al., 2013). The presence of these hashtags in #oo tweets highlights a number of specific, although similar, phenomena. Activists tweeting from Oakland may include additional hashtags to share their messages with multiple sites, or to note common themes. In particular, updates from demonstrations or information about Oakland–specific activities were often accompanied by #ows as well as #oo, linking back to the initial Occupy movement.

The same process works in reverse; tweets from other Occupy sites may also include #oo alongside other hashtags, to connect with additional Occupy branches. With Oakland as one of the more visible and well–known Occupy sites, including #oo is a targeted choice; mentioning Oakland and Wall Street has the potential to reach a wider audience than using hashtags of smaller Occupy sites. Combining these processes were tweets from Oakland about events at other sites; in February 2012, for example, the central Occupy Oakland Twitter account posted updates in response to police raids of occupations in Houston and Newark (“#OccupyHouston is being raided. Please stay safe; livestream; take pictures; tweet. #Solidarity from #OO. All eyes on #Houston. #OWS #Occupy”; “#OO in #Solidarity with #OccupyNewark; raided & destroyed at 12 midnight Eastern time. @OccupyNewark: Emptied out. [link removed] #OWS”). By also including #ows in their contents, these tweets further emphasised the connection between different groups of activists, organised around shared beliefs, separated physically by geographical distance, and linked by online technologies (see also Penney and Dadas, 2014; Papacharissi and de Fatima Oliveira, 2012).

The combination of separate hashtags for each Occupy site and overarching hashtags, such as #occupy, is linked to (and reinforces) the complex relationships between local manifestations and the broader Occupy movement. The broader connection with Occupy was important both for the local movement identity and in its constitution. For example, several of those interviewed had come to Oakland after being involved in Occupy elsewhere. One person shifted from Occupy Berkley; another had recently come from Hawaii; another came from LA for a three–day action and ended up staying permanently; another was visiting the Bay Area for work and stopping in at Occupy Oakland in their free time. In each case, involvement in Occupy Oakland was reliant on an assumption that to be involved in one Occupy site was, at least to some extent, to be involved in Occupy at other sites.

At the same time, Occupy Oakland was constituted as a separate place from other sites, distinguished by its own history, concerns, and politics. For example, Oakland’s “long and intense history of tension between police and residents [meant] that the conversation has really largely shifted towards police brutality in Oakland in a way that [for] San Francisco when they had Occupy Wall Street West it was all about the banks” [5]. One participant who had visited several Occupy sites said, “each Occupy in itself is an individual” [6]. Massey [17] argues that, “the very identification of places as particular places” is a process of continual construction; Occupy Oakland was defined in part through the use of different site names and hashtags, combined with other factors (such as separate GAs) to differentiate the site while still retaining a connection to the broader Occupy movement.

Solidarity also took a physical form, as Oakland rallied in support of fellow movements around the world — and they in turn marched in solidarity with Oakland. Activists in movements in the U.S. and overseas invoked other sites in their demonstrations, which were also announced on Twitter. Rallies took on multiple dimensions; a February 2012 march in Oakland, for instance, was promoted as a ‘Fuck the Police’ demonstration, but also took place in solidarity with both Occupy Barcelona and Occupy Chile (“#FTP this Sat #F11 in solidarity with @occupybarcelona #occupychile 7pm rally #OGP”). In interviews, several participants described Oakland’s links with Egypt as being particularly important [1, 5, 9]. While a visit from an Egyptian blogger heavily involved in the Tahrir Square uprising helped to create and nurture this connection [6], Twitter has played a key role in maintaining it. One participant said of Twitter, “We keep in touch with people in Egypt and people in Barcelona, just find out what is going on. We say Egypt and Oakland are like one fist because people come from Egypt and they say what I see here is what I saw in Egypt, you guys don’t have it as bad as us but that doesn’t mean you are not going to” [1].

 

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Critiques of Twitter’s role in Occupy Oakland

Although the public nature of tweets concerning Occupy Oakland enabled important messages about co–ordination, organization, and announcements from the movement to be widely distributed, the capacity for anyone to see these tweets also led to concerns about surveillance of the movement and its participants. This is in keeping with other research on Occupy Wall Street, which has shown that activists were concerned about government and police surveillance [18]. One interviewee [9] chose not to post about Occupy Oakland on social media, including Facebook and Twitter, because these channels were being watched; similarly, the issue was addressed in #oo tweets, with comments that the police’s intelligence gathering only needed to involve keeping an eye on the #oo/#occupyoakland streams. The concerns about surveillance of social media — including the public nature of tweets and real–name connections on Facebook — led to activists self–censoring as they posted opinions, information, and links online. Activists noted in particular that footage from protests could potentially be reviewed by the OPD, leading to charges well after actions had finished. Given increasing evidence that social media is under surveillance, including profiles and tweets associated with Occupy (Mlot, 2012; Privacy SOS, 2013), these concerns demonstrate a prescient understanding of the limitations of using Twitter.

Activists also voiced concerns about censorship, especially on Facebook. One participant said, “the general rule is that 60 per cent gets taken off immediately and I’ll have to repost it” [9]. Similarly, when Occupy Oakland started trending in response to the ‘Move In Day’ actions on 28 January 2012, several users commented that the increased attention would lead Twitter to censor tweets covering the movement: “Occupy Oakland is trending right now on #twitter worldwide. How long before #twitter censors it? #OO #OccupyOakland”, for example (online censorship was also suspected at other Occupy sites — see Penney and Dadas, 2014). Although Twitter allowed activists a space which was not subject to the forcible evictions or daily harassment which made it difficult to occupy the physical place of Oakland’s plazas and parks, activists’ use of Twitter remained constrained by the knowledge that the spaces of social media are also policed.

At times activists tried to turn around these concerns about police surveillance, and the same channels that could be observed by Oakland authorities could also be adopted by the movement for counter–surveillance. Taking advantage of mobile and Web–based technologies, protest movements, including various Occupy sites, use Twitter, YouTube, and other streaming and broadcast platforms to post — and spread — details about police tactics (for example, counter–surveillance at Occupy Sydney is examined by Shaw, 2013). During marches and demonstrations, live streams and tweets provided details of police officers, with later tweets following up further information as participants saw necessary; one of the most tweeted links during the period covered by the data collection was to documentation outlining the personal details of an officer accused of assaulting a pregnant protester. Information shared included not just the officer’s name and badge number, but also addresses and phone numbers, names of family members, social media profiles, and their church.

Twitter also became a space in which participants in Occupy Oakland met with critics and opponents who took to social media to vent their frustrations with the movement, and to actively ‘troll’ the Occupiers: to deliberately provoke, and abuse, other users with inflammatory remarks. Complaints captured on Twitter included comments about the perceived high numbers of Occupiers who had come to Oakland from other cities, with their Twitter critics arguing that they should have occupied their own locales instead. Several of those interviewed mentioned these critiques. One participant who had travelled from another city positioned critiques of outsider involvement as being a tool of Occupy’s opponents, saying, “people like me who come from other places to join in the battle I think is a thing that the status quo is afraid of, because the cops really tried to pin it on me, ‘you’re not a citizen of Oakland, you don’t pay taxes in this city.’ I was just like this isn’t about your city this is about the world. ... Any part of the movement is important to the entire human race right now” [3]. Accusations about “outside agitators,” and allegations that the size of the movement was inflated by people coming from other cities, were also answered on Twitter by turning them back on the city authorities, as Occupy participants tweeted questions or information about the number of OPD and City Council employees who actually lived in the area. Another participant who had moved to Oakland for Occupy spoke about the difference between being “of Oakland” and “for Oakland,” emphasizing the importance of his physical presence and acceptance of risks in legitimating his involvement in Occupy Oakland [9]. The tension between alternative claims to legitimacy, gained from appeals to the authenticity of place in speaking for and about Occupy Oakland, created a complex topography for the movement. Some critics of Occupy Oakland claimed more authority because they lived in the city, and others claimed authority from their willingness to commit to struggles within the city, despite the risks and losses involved.

The legitimacy and authenticity of voices within the movement were also questioned on different lines. In addition to the accusations of outsider agitators coming to Oakland to take advantage of the situation, individual participants were suspected of being police informants, provocateurs, or trolls, seeking to disrupt the movement by collaborating with the Oakland authorities by causing violent actions, or by encouraging in–fighting and denigrating other Occupiers. Although these suspicions were voiced off–line as well as online, Twitter helped to amplify allegations — or at least give more fuel for them — as other users dwelt on the possible negative outcomes of the sharing of information and footage online. Not only were livestreamers dubbed ‘snitches’ (either deliberately or inadvertently) because their footage could be seen and used by the police, but individual streamers were connected to these allegations in tweets containing their user names. Similarly, tweets sent out about trolling would also name the users in question. Whether warranted or not, these accusations included a direct link to suspected participants, potentially shaping other users’ perceptions of these accounts and the views and information they shared. While Twitter provided a public space for discussion, the interactions between users through tweets show that this space was also subject to fears and critiques that affected physical, public spaces.

These suspicions, coupled with an individual’s specific uses of Twitter — their styles of tweeting, the types of information shared, their interactions with others, and their volume of tweeting, for example — could potentially give a different impression of the participant than if they were encountered physically at Occupy sites, or indeed further shape the impressions of different Occupiers. For example, livestreamers were distrusted not just because they were documenting the movement online, but also because there were concerns that the movement would be mediated through a few individuals who may or may not be present during actions. One participant said, “Twitter gives you an odd view of this movement, there is a guy ... who seems to be like a central character if you look at Twitter. I’ve met him twice and I’m here all the time, so it does give a twisted view. I’ll also say that what Twitter does, and Facebook, is that it gives people with access to mass media an incredibly loud voice and they aren’t very careful about how they use that voice so they pick and choose who are going to be the interlocutors for this movement” [8]. This ambivalence from Occupiers about the role of citizen journalists and other forms of embedded media is rarely touched upon in the literature on Occupy.

These critiques of the use of Twitter are tied to a sense of the importance of the physical space for the movement. The experience of the physical camp had played a key role in many participants’ decisions to become involved in Occupy Oakland, whether it was due to the pleasure of being in a place where, “they were feeding everybody and there were all these tents and everybody has room to hang out and everybody has a place to sleep” [5]; the sense of possibility in response to defending the plaza from riot police [9]; or the way in which the constant presence facilitated the growth of the movement [1]. Physical involvement is also seen as playing a key role in the development of a lived politics around Occupy. One participant [10] said, “there is a level of dialogue and discourse that only happens when you are down here, and of course when you are down here ... you have to really part ways with classist compartmentalism. So you are continually faced with your own biases, your own prejudices and only if you are down here do those start to get a little bit eroded.” While these statements may seem reminiscent of the ‘totemic resonance’ of place referred to above, they are also in keeping with Massey’s [19] more progressive characterisation of place, in which place is defined by interrelationships and, therefore, by plurality. Place, here, is in large part defined not by a fixed local identity but rather by the continual friction of negotiating difference, a process which changes those involved at the same time as they attempt to change the place of Oakland.

Twitter is also seen as a space which is particularly prone to fostering misunderstanding and conflict. One participant noted that, “Twitter makes it very easy to fight with people you agree with” [1], while another said, “Twitter is not really a forum for debates, or it’s a debate of one liners” [10]. This was also frequently addressed on Twitter itself, as some participants encouraged resolution of disagreements, seeing in–fighting as counter–productive and distracting from the movement’s aims; tweets such as “#oo remember that if we fight each other; they win”, which also included the corresponding Twitter user names to invoke the participants concerned, demonstrate this view. Some participants consciously attempted to engage in this strategy: one said, “I always try to be a peace maker and I’m like guys you love each other and you are just talking about things that haven’t happened, it’s all hypothetical” [1]. However, repeated injunctions for people to deal with issues in person rather than online did not necessarily always solve problems.

For precisely the reasons that the physical place of Occupy Oakland is seen as more authentic, it is also a place in which some people cannot — or choose not to — participate: a lack of anonymity, exposure to potential physical threat, and the time which needed to be invested all acted as barriers to participation. Many of the Twitter accounts created explicitly to troll Occupy Oakland were anonymous, which was quite reasonably taken by many participants as a sign of ill intentions. However, other critics of Occupy Oakland who voiced concerns online under their real names cited concerns for physical safety. Even those still involved in the movement saw issues with physical safety in the space, including potential arrests and other police harassment, which might act to exclude some people. Face to face communication, particularly the GA model, was seen by many as deeply problematic. Almost all interview participants voiced dislike of the GAs. One participant [5], for example, said, “the GA was sort of this place where people had endless, endless philosophical debates and could not agree on anything,” and others [9, 7] saw the GAs as partly responsible for problems with the movement, due to slow decision–making and fatigue. One participant [5] argued, however, that this was in part because the GA format was more suited to an ongoing encampment than the temporary actions which had been forced upon Occupy by camp clearouts. All of these issues complicated any notion of place as inherently a site of inclusion, unity and action, in opposition to the discord facilitated by Twitter.

Both the space of online communications and the place of Occupy Oakland’s physical presence were limited, sometimes by the same structures. The use of state power which was employed to violently clear out the camps and to harass activists who attempted to remain in the space also limited activists’ ability to use online spaces, as noted above in the discussion of activists' concerns about surveillance. While the direct physical threat of police violence is not present online, concerns about police surveillance connect the supposedly ‘disembodied’ space of Twitter to the physical threat of arrest. At the same time, the importance that activists placed on physical presence in the space of Oakland was used by critics in attempts to discredit the movement as an import from elsewhere, leading to a complex understanding of what it means to be “from Oakland” and “for Oakland,” including the risks that may be involved for those willing to be “for Oakland.” For participants in Occupy Oakland, then, it is not simply a matter of connecting the “free space” of social media to the “transformative power of reclaiming city space.” Rather, activists attempt to move strategically between spaces, connecting them where possible as well as dealing with ruptures and dissonances caused by these connections.

 

++++++++++

Further directions for research and limitations of this study

This paper has provided a preliminary examination of Occupy Oakland as experienced online and off–line, focusing on the uses and functions of Twitter. Space limitations mean that additional aspects of the movement and its associated tweets are not studied here, but remain important considerations for future analysis. In particular, further content analysis of the collected tweets may look at the online discussion and presentation of topics and issues specific to both the Occupy movement and to Oakland itself, including race and class. Additional analysis may also examine more qualitatively how tweets refer to and frame particular places, providing a further comparison with the fieldwork carried out for this project. The research outlined here also sets out an approach that invites comparative work with other social movements; as noted earlier in this paper, Twitter–related research can often be caught in the ‘big data’ moment which has its own potential pitfalls (see boyd and Crawford, 2012); our mixed methods approach is an attempt to establish a methodology which acknowledges the utility of social media without necessarily over–emphasising its importance, and further research may adopt and develop these methods. This research also acts as a pilot study for our wider ‘Mapping Movements’ project, which will see further methodological developments in response to the movements and sites studied. As we have outlined here, exploring both the physical and the online components of social movements is a critical consideration for future studies.

There are obvious limits to the findings discussed in this project; as established in the methods section, the dataset for this paper does not form an exhaustive collection of Twitter data for the period covered here, nor does this period cover the lifespan of the movement. The hashtag–specific data collection process imposes further limits on the scope of our findings. While the #oo hashtag is a means of connecting comments to the wider coverage of the movement and other Occupy sites, there is no requirement for Occupy Oakland tweets to include this (or any) hashtag in tweets or replies to previously tagged comments. This research also raises ethical questions for further research in the field. At the time of writing, there is no standard approach to the ethics of social media analysis, especially which personal, identifiable information should be included in published studies. The sensitive nature of the events discussed here, though, has led us to anonymize Twitter usernames, and suppress links. However, this approach is essentially an aesthetic decision; further discussion about ethical considerations with public, but sensitive, social media data is required within, and beyond, the Internet studies community.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

The example of Occupy Oakland demonstrates how activists make use of physical places and online spaces to organize, maintain, and critique the movements they are involved in. In the context of the Occupy movement, physical presence is a core component of the protests, but is not always possible; our research finds that activists attempt to shift between the physical place and the online space in order to balance the constraints and affordances of each. These practices are not universally accepted, though, and an important aspect of these shifts is the negotiation between participants in attempts to create processes and structures which will work; these include responding to the perceived unsuitability of Twitter as a space for debate versus its significance for live updates and unheard voices, in addition to questions of surveillance and opposition to the movement both online and off–line.

Our findings regarding the importance of place and space to Occupy Oakland have clear implications for further research into social movements, including other Occupy sites. The mixed methods approach used in this paper afforded us the opportunity to examine multiple perspectives about the movement which might not have been included if the research was limited either the online or off–line spaces individually. Relying on Twitter data alone would lack the range of first–hand voices and observations obtained from the qualitative fieldwork, while a purely quantitative approach runs the risk of ascribing importance on Twitter users with many posts yet who are not involved in the physical aspects of the movement. Taking a qualitative, off–line–only approach would also miss out on the uses of social media in mediating the representation of Occupy Oakland to the world — including to people in Oakland — and in creating connections of solidarity between other Occupy sites and international social movements. As we have noted, the Occupy movement continually involves both physical and online components in response to factors on the ground and on social media; for research into similar social movements, it is critical to take these mixed approaches and perspectives into account, studying the physical place and online space, and their intersections, as key sites for activists. End of article

 

About the authors

Sky Croeser is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Department of Internet Studies at Curtin University. Her research focuses on how activists around the world use, and shape, key technologies. Her book, Global justice and the politics of information: The struggle over knowledge, will be published by Routledge in 2014.
Web: http://skycroeser.net
Direct comments to: s [dot] croeser [at] curtin [dot] edu [dot] au

Tim Highfield is a Research Fellow in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, through Queensland University of Technology and the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University. He was awarded his Ph.D. in 2011 from Queensland University of Technology for research into political blogging in Australia and France.
Web: http://timhighfield.net
E–mail: tim [dot] highfield [at] curtin [dot] edu [dot] au

 

Acknowledgements

The authors gratefully acknowledge the time given by interview participants; funding provided by Curtin University’s School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts Research Grant, which facilitated the fieldwork for this research; and feedback on the final draft from Carter Lavin.

 

Notes

1. We have chosen to use the movement’s name for the Plaza here, rather than “Frank Ogawa Plaza”, in part to maintain consistency with the interview material.

2. We use the term ‘Occupier’ to differentiate Occupy activists from ‘occupiers’ in a general sense, which frequently has a very different political meaning.

3. Juris, 2012, p. 260.

4. Ibid.

5. Gerbaudo, 2012, p. 117.

6. Segerberg and Bennett, 2011, p. 211.

7. Cumbers, et al., 2008, p. 192.

8. Castells, 2012, p. 2.

9. Castells, 2012, p. 222.

10. Massey, 2005, pp. 5–6.

11. A ‘kettle’ is a police tactic in which protesters are pushed into an enclosed space, such as between buildings, and held there through police cordons. Kettles are frequently followed by arrests, and in the case of Occupy Oakland kettled protesters were also teargassed.

12. Gerbaudo, 2012, p. 124.

13. Juris, 2012, p. 261.

14. For example, the park fences against which police first tried to kettle participants in Move In Day had only been erected recently, after an open space previously owned by the council had been sold to developers.

15. Penney and Dadas, 2014, pp. 7–8.

16. Conover, et al., 2013, pp. 7–8.

17. Massey, 2005, pp. 189–190.

18. Penney and Dadas, 2014, p. 14.

19. Massey, 2005, p. 9.

 

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Editorial history

Received 9 August 2013; revised 29 January 2014; accepted 11 February 2014.


Copyright © 2014, First Monday.
Copyright © 2014, Sky Croeser and Tim Highfield.

Occupy Oakland and #oo: Uses of Twitter within the Occupy movement
by Sky Croeser and Tim Highfield.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 3 - 3 March 2014
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4827/3846
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v19i3.4827.





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