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The Global Imagination of Protest

NEW YORK – When graffiti appeared last spring on a wall near Tunisia’s interior ministry reading “Thank you, Facebook,” it was not just praise for a social-media company that had facilitated the country’s uprising. It was also a celebration of the sense of shared experience that defined the Tunisian revolution – and the many other historic protests and revolutions that erupted in 2011.

As we discovered collecting essays for our new book From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring, one of the defining characteristics of the new age of protest is the dovetailing of the desire and the ability to connect – across neighborhoods, cities, countries, and even continents. In every contributor’s country, a new awareness of shared destinies and of a global community permeated protest movements. Social-media technology was one tool that advanced it; but so was a reconceptualization of the meaning of public space, and the view that a plurality of ideas is superior to dogma – that the act of collaboration is as important as the outcome.

So these were not just political revolutions. They were also revolutions of ideas – the globalization of protest as a strategy.

To be sure, protesters’ grievances vary greatly according to local circumstances (though there is surprising consistency across regions and even continents when it comes to issues like housing, unemployment, inequality, and the frustration of young people who have studied hard and cannot find jobs). At the same time, the philosophy of change through mass, collaborative, and inclusive action is common to – and cross-fertilized between – almost every movement.