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31.8.04

Protests And Comments

With the protests at the RNC in full swing, there's been a lot of talk -- typically disparaging -- about the diversity of messages within a single protest. The modern paradigm of mass protests, drawing on the dispersed-cell organizational model of the anti-globalization movement, are especially prone to this diversity (contrast them with candidates' rallies, where unofficial signs are prohibited and troublemakers are escorted out by the organizers).

In some ways, I think modern protests are like comments sections of major blogs. There's an overall theme of each thread set by the blogger (protest organizer), and commenters (protesters) generally stay on-message enough that the length of the thread (size of the protest) can be a rough guage of the importance of the theme. But commenters and protesters are often less polished and cool-headed than the blogger or organizers, both because the formats draw out extremists and because being shocking is necessary to get your voice heard in a crowd. Then along come the people with different issues to promote, who in a sense exploit the attention generated by the main event. Only a handful of people will read this post here. But if I were to go put it in the comment section of a post at Political Animal, I could take advantage of that blog's traffic to draw more attention to my message. Likewise, few people would notice if I were to go out on the corner by myself with a "free Tibet" sign, but if I take my sign to New York City, I can get it seen by all the people that come to watch the protest.

I wouldn't necessarily say that this openness to attention-hijacking is all bad. Certainly it can dilute the message, and leave moderates open to being tarred with guilt by association. But there's something to be said for the way that comments sections allow successful bloggers (disproportionately successful, due to the power law) to share the wealth, and similarly for effective protest organizers.

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