When Tanya Kappo hashtagged #idlenomore on November 30, 2012, she had no idea it would ignite a protest movement, as she told me recently. Within a month of her tweet, flash mobs, round dances, blockades, and a hunger strike were making headlines across Canada and internationally. The expression “hashtag revolution” was soon in common usage and the ensuing twitter storm gained enough traction that #idlenomore was trending Top 10 for several weeks.
Alas, like any meteoric storm, particularly of the digital-kind, the intensity would eventually wane, a calmer front would move in, the pundits of skepticism would say “I told you so,” the status quo would appear triumphant, and the days of ‘trending’ would seem no more. Like Occupy Wall Street, Quebec’s ‘Red Square’ student movement, and numerous other social protest movements, #idlenomore seemed destined to the same, halcyon, comet-like existence. A quick entry, a brilliant, passing trajectory, and a fading arc, perhaps never to be seen again for decades. In short, another burnt out cause.
Events move with blinding rapidity in today’s digital world. Screens have supplanted face-to-face as the preferred norm of communication. Texts traverse at ever-faster rates of transference and ‘information overload’ itself seems a quaint notion in this endless social media barrage.
It also would seem to mark the total decline of ‘the age of contemplation’. The death of the storyteller, at least one who dares exceed 140 characters, is foretold. There is hardly a place for ancestral voice or the timeless sounds of nature. In many ways, as Francis Fukuyama once argued in his essay “The End of History” it seems that the battle of ideologies has reached its zenith in the universalization of Western liberal democracy. Fukuyama argued that although its realization was still a work-in-progress, the idea of Western liberalism had triumphed, as evidenced by the worldwide growth of Western consumerist culture and the gradual movement towards democratic or liberal reforms in countries that previously embraced alternative ideologies. In other words, everyone was now buying into the ‘western model’, even if it was fossil-fueled and left nasty emissions.
Except in far-flung corners of the world, alternatives seemed dead. Socialism was discredited, as was communism, and certainly in the United States, even ‘liberalism’ was a word to be avoided by Liberals themselves. In this context, one of the main criticisms leveled at #OccupyWallStreet was it lacked an endgame—a cohesive agenda for change. To that extent, Fukuyama seems correct. No one could envision an end game when the game is already, for all intents and purposes, over. We know who won. If there was a pretense at an end game, such as The Red Square movement and its ‘free tuition’ demand, it was to be mocked as utopic, unrealistic, and a kind of LSD-inspired ‘flashback’ to the summer of ’68.
#idlenomore underwent a similar barrage. There was no particular spokesperson, which confused an already skeptical mainstream media. The demands were painted as confused and contradictory. The audacity of eschewing the establishment, in this case, the Chiefs of The Assembly of First Nations, was portrayed as an act of ingratitude as ‘radicals with an agenda.’
The rising tide of reaction against #idlenomore was immediate on Twitter and its chorus grew, from the omnipresent ‘trolls’ to the scathing, even racist, tweets of thousands of critics. As conservative journalists and broadcasters cast around for targets and found them, in particular by focusing on Chief Theresa Spence with a particularly nasty meanness, the political winds around #idlenomore swirled on the internet, with as much negativity as hope.
The deluge of data had become murky, submerging the message, as it had with Occupy. #idlenomore seemed a direct repeat of #OccupyWallStreet’s trajectory, which first began as an Adbusters blog post on July 13, 2012. The network of tweeters using the hashtag was small and sparse in the beginning, dedicated and with a unified vision. There were no major media entities yet participating in the conversation and a minimum of trolls and destructive interlopers. All that changed.
Is it then safe to assume #idlenomore is over? (At least in the form the public knew it for in a few heady weeks of a cold Canadian winter.) The answer is both yes and no. Yes, in that the movement will never repeat itself in the same way. Yes, in that the signifiers of December and January are, in most regards, doing different things now. But, like #OccupyWallStreet, the root cause has not gone away. The injustices, social and economic, remain. Occupy will, almost definitively, morph into something else. The same with #idlenomore.
#idlenomore also has the benefit of being deeply rooted in Indigenous cultures and land. That is not a small thing. Those roots infuse #idlenomore with more than simply immediate protest; they allow #idlenomore to draw upon the sustaining nutrients of traditions and ancestral voices. In this light, and in this contemplative perspective, current activists continue to articulate the movement along lines of Indigenous Nationhood, sovereignty, women’s governance and anti-violence against women, women’s rights, and the environment. In this moment, spectators and witnesses of #idlenomore may also become contemplative in the growth of their perspectives.
#hashtags will change and evolve. They are temporary roadmaps of a movement’s vitality as long as retweets are happening and news is being ‘shared.’ But Twitter is contradictory, an accessible platform but not one without potential costs. In the United States, civil liberty and Internet privacy advocates have been watching closely as Twitter hands over information about an Occupy Wall Street protester to a New York criminal court.
The New York district attorney’s office had subpoenaed more than three months’ worth of tweets from the Twitter account of Occupy Wall Street protester Malcolm Harris. The office also wanted account information. The tweets are no longer publicly available, so there was no way to retrieve them without inside help. It is a sobering message to activists that they are not outside of the reach of authorities on Twitter or immune from legal reaction.
As events flare up, and the #hashtags against pipelines and environmental degradation and for indigenous rights grow in frequency, it would do us well to remember that social media is not a measure of a movement’s success or its impact. The real work of mobilization and of getting the message across, be it flashmob or blockade, still takes place in that most archaic of places —the streets—and in that most outmoded of platforms—the human body.
In short, it’s not digital but tangible space that must be occupied.