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Theories, Practices and Examples for Community and Social Informatics

Chapter 4


Towards an integrated system of local protest


On 6 April 2009 an earthquake occurred in L’Aquila, a small city in the centre of Italy, causing the death of more than 300 people. This tragic event led to a prompt increase in the adoption and use of Internet technologies by local citizens who appropriated social media platforms in order to reconstruct online the offline spaces of socialisation which had been damaged or destroyed by the quake. A year after the tragedy, to protest against the Italian State’s failure to remove the debris from the historical city centre, some citizens decided to flee into the streets with wheelbarrows and autonomously remove the rubble: a new movement later labelled as “The People of the Wheelbarrows” (“PoW”) emerged. These activists aimed at involving the citizenship in the decision processes regarding L’Aquila’s reconstruction, in contrast to the government’s top-down strategies, and at making the public aware of the issue of the debris removal and the urgent need for the historical centre’s re-opening and reconstruction. This paper explores the Internet-related practices of the actors of the PoW. Our findings highlight the existence of an integrated system of local protest characterised by a complex communication ecology based on crossovers between traditional media and multiple digital technologies, and articulated between the online and the offline dimensions.


On 6 April 2009 at 3.32 a.m., an earthquake measuring 6.3Mw struck L’Aquila, a small city (around 73,000 inhabitants) in the centre of Italy. It represented Italy’s worst earthquake in 30 years and the deadliest since the 1980 Irpinia tragedy. It caused significant damage not only to the medieval centre but also to several surrounding villages. More than 300 inhabitants of L’Aquila were killed, around 40,000 people were made homeless and approximately 10,000 were forced to abandon the city and were housed in hotels on the Adriatic coast.

For safety reasons, immediately after the earthquake, downtown L’Aquila was declared “zona rossa” (a red zone) and police forces and numerous barricades permitted access only to a small part of the historic centre, the traditional social, political and economic heart of the city. Most alleys and squares were closed off, blocking downtown access to people.

One year later, the situation had not changed substantially: most of the city centre was still under military control and access was denied to ordinary citizens. In February 2010, however, something happened: Italian mainstream media reported a phone tap between two entrepreneurs. One was telling the other how he laughed in his bed when he heard the news of the L’Aquila earthquake, thinking about the opportunities to profit financially from the rebuilding process. This recording was reported by several newspapers and online platforms and provoked strong indignation. The extreme cynicism of the entrepreneurs worked as a catalyst on people who were tired of unfulfilled promises of reconstruction and contributed to the construction of a collective identity. A few days after the recording was made public, citizens started to reclaim the city centre and to confront the police who blocked access to the off-limit zone.

The protest gathered momentum thanks to the word of mouth generated on Facebook: “Those who were not laughing in L’Aquila at 3.32” and on Sunday 21 February, the annihilated downtown area became the stage of the first citizen protest called “Protesta delle 1,000 chiavi” (“1,000 keys protest”), a symbolic initiative involving the inhabitants of the area, who were protesting against the impossibility of accessing their own houses. Hanging their house keys on the barriers that blocked access to the red zone, hundreds of people took the streets to protest, showing posters with slogans such as “I was not laughing”, “Let’s take back our town” or “The debris belongs to us”. The citizens breached one of the red zone blockades and broke into Piazza Palazzo, the City Hall square they had not been allowed to see for more than 10 months.

The following Sunday, about 6,000 citizens decided to meet again to conduct another day of protest, to press for the beginning of the rebuilding process, to claim to be an active part of the city reconstruction, and to recall media attention to the L’Aquila case. They took with them wheelbarrows, shovels and buckets to remove the debris from the devastated area and to show that, almost a year on – despite all the mainstream media emphasis on the positive aspects of the work of the Italian government – most of the rubble, stones and dirt had not been removed from the centre. Amateur photographers took shots of the event and video-makers also recorded the protest: material was posted and spread on several online platforms (Face­book, Flickr, Photobucket, Picasa, Twitter), and in particular on the most famous online video sharing repository, YouTube. That same afternoon, on Facebook, the popular social network site, a young university student, Federico, founded the group “L’Aquila Wheelbarrows Coordination” (“Coordinamento Carriole Aquilane”). The main aims of the group were:

  • to involve citizens in decision processes regarding L’Aquila reconstruction, contrasting with the government’s top-down approach;
  • to ask for the re-opening of the red zone;
  • to sensitise public opinion on the issue of the debris removal and the consequent historical centre reconstruction;
  • to promote transparency in the management of the disaster funds.

Those residents-turned-activists were labelled by the mainstream media as “The People of the Wheelbarrows” (hereafter “PoW”). Citizens decided to meet every Sunday to clean the red zone and established a permanent assembly. Participants also met every Wednesday and Sunday evening at 6.00 p.m. in the main square (Piazza Duomo) to discuss ideas, perspectives, and action.

Literature review and research questions

Social movements and ICTs

In the last two decades, a growing literature in social movements and alternative media research has dealt with the relationships between social movements and information and communication technologies (ICTs), focusing in particular on the Internet. ICTs have a variety of effects on the mobilising structures of social movements, opportunity structures, and framing processes (for a review of the literature, see Garrett 2006, Lievrouw 2011, Treré 2012).

On the one hand, the Internet is said greatly to facilitate mobilisation and participation in traditional offline activism, such as national street demonstrations, extending the traditional arsenal of protest movements to include electronic tools (emails, online petitions, etc.) and giving them a more transnational character by diffusing communication and mobilisation efforts rapidly and effectively (Bennett 2003, Cammaerts & Van Audenhove 2005, Della Porta & Mosca 2005). On the other hand, the Internet is seen as creating new forms of activism and resistance (Costanza-Chock 2003, Van Laer & Van Aelst 2009).

The emergence of Web 2.0 technologies like social networking platforms (Google+, Facebook, FriendFeed, etc.), microblogging platforms such as Twitter, blogs and video-sharing sites such as YouTube or Vimeo have provided activists and movements with increased opportunities to spread information, and organise and coordinate online actions (Chadwick 2009, Kavada 2012). The case of the contemporary Italian student movement has shown that arguing that these new technological possibilities are necessarily adopted by activists is a subtle form of technological determinism (Barassi & Treré 2012) that can blind researchers to exploration of the use of other “banal” practices related to “old” technologies (email, forums, etc.), whose relevance can be crucial to movement repertoires.

Moreover, the debate regarding the usefulness of social media within social movements has taken off thanks to the waves of mobilisation that shocked the world in 2011. From the Arab insurrections, to the Spanish Indignados and the Occupy Movement in the USA, to the so-called Chilean Winter and the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity in Mexico, 2011 will be remembered as an exceptional year of resistance all over the world or, as Time magazine puts it, “the year of the protester”.1

The effectiveness of social media for social movements is a controversial topic.

On the one hand, some have pointed to the advantages that social media bring to activism, such as the possibility of facilitating the creation of a “shared awareness”, that is, “the ability of each member of a group to not only to understand the situation at hand but also to understand that everyone else does, too” (Shirky 2011, pp. 35–36). On the other hand, critics point out that social media are only able to create “weak ties” among activists and underline the risks related to “clicktivism“ (Gladwell 2010), warning that these platforms tend to facilitate weak forms of engagement such as clicking “like” on Facebook causes. Moreover, the risks of surveillance and control inherent in Web 2.0 platforms (Farinosi 2011a, 2011b, Morozov 2011) apply even more to the case of activists’ media practices. Gerbaudo (2012) has rightly pointed out that both techno-optimist and techno-pessimist approaches tend to essentialise social media, and we need instead to explore their appropriations in specific local contexts and geographies.

Regarding the Italian context, the case of comedian Beppe Grillo and the importance of online communication strategies for his political suc­cess has been addressed in various studies (among others: Lanfrey 2011, Pepe & Di Gennaro 2009), and the use of online com­muni­cation by the Italian student movement which emerged in 2008 to fight against the subordination of knowledge to the neoliberal system has also been explored (Treré 2012).

Multiple online technologies and online/offline dimensions in activism

It has been stressed that studies on social movements and the media often fall into the trap of the “one-medium bias”, the persistent privileging of the analysis of just one medium or platform (Treré, 2012). The literature has generally failed to recognise issues obvious to activists such as the use by social movement actors of multiple platforms and their engagement in a wide array of online activities. Most studies talk about “the Internet” but do not make any distinction between the constellation of activities regarding multiple technologies, applications and platforms that can be used online. Baym et al. (2004) have warned that compiling online activities into a single variable of Internet use disregards important differences in the nature of the activities performed. Whereas some online activities are social, others are performed at the individual level. Moreover, within social online activities, a wide range of options is available, such as email, chat, IM, wikis, blogs and several social media platforms.

In recent analyses of movements and their media, different authors (among others: Barassi & Treré 2012, Costanza-Chock 2012, McCurdy 2011, Mattoni 2012, Kavada 2012, Padovani 2013, Treré 2012) have successfully shown how to overcome the bias and consider the whole “repertoire of communication” (Mattoni 2012, 2013) with which activists interact. Social movement actors often simultaneously use different types of Internet technologies and platforms to perform different activities for diverse purposes: we thus need to take into account the technological complexity of the Internet for a better grasp of the full range of online activities that social movements carry out.

Therefore, in this paper we ask: how do the PoW interact with the Internet to organise collective action? We pay particular attention to the array of platforms and online technologies used by activists of the PoW and, furthermore, we explore the interplay between the online and offline dimensions in the PoW’s practices.

The second aspect we explore in this chapter is the interplay between the online and offline dimensions in the PoW’s practices. Most social movement studies do not provide a deep understanding of the online/offline dynamics of social movements or how activists merge online activities with more traditional practices carried out offline. In our view, many social movement studies have relied on too marked a separation between the online and the offline dimensions, replicating dichotomies such as the virtual and the real. This line of thought can be found not only in the first studies on social movements and ICTs but also in more recent works. For instance, McCoughey and Ayers affirm that:

The Internet allows us to interact with others without our voices, faces and bodies. […] The Internet thus raises new questions about social change and how it works. For instance, where is the body on which that traditional activism has relied? (2003, p. 5)

In our view, studies should avoid replicating the real-virtual dichotomy (Papacharissi 2005) in the study of activism. Social movement scholar Mario Diani made an important point when he affirmed that “it is disputable whether the warmth and intensity of direct, face-to-face communication may be found in computer-mediated interactions” (2000, p. 6). There is a necessity, however, not only to investigate if the relationships that we build through ICTs are more “real” or more “trustable”, but also to look at how these technologies are integrated into movements’ activities and how they are embedded within human discourses and imagination (Barassi 2009). Most studies start directly with the online elements, instead of beginning with the movement’s actors and investigating if they do or do not make distinctions between these dimensions and thus if these categories are valuable. As Bennett (2005) has noted with respect to the transnational social justice movement:

The most important theoretical move we can make in trying to understand the movement is to move beyond the distinction between on- and offline relationships. Technology is often aimed at getting people together offline, and one purpose of offline associations is often to clarify and motivate online relations. (Bennett 2005, p. 217)

There is a need for a better understanding of the continuous blending, combination and interplay of online and offline practices within social movements and this understanding should come from analyses whose focus is represented by the actors. Social movements continuously operate by shifting and blending the online and offline dimensions, and it is in this never-ending combination that they organise, mobilise and protest. The erosion of dichotomies is well explained by Gillan (2009) who, in his work on the anti-war movement, advises us to conceptualise the role of the Internet with care. This scholar does not consider that the Internet provides an alternative space for social movements or that it constitutes a tool for movements to create social change.

Rather, Internet activities are understood as partially constitutive of social movements. That is, as the distinction between “virtual” and “real” has eroded, so the creation and dissemination of meaning through Internet technologies has been included among the core practical tasks of movement organizations (2009, p. 26).

Atton (2004) rightly argued that we need to recognise the banality of Internet practices, meaning not their triviality, but a focus on the ways in which these practices are embedded into activists’ everyday activities. The focus of this chapter is thus not on the supposed virtualisation of the movement owing to the adoption of Internet technologies. As suggested by Slater (2002), we do not take the online/offline categories for granted, but start with activists’ media uses to see if the PoW make a distinction between the online and the offline, and “if they do, when and why they do it, and how they accomplish it practically” (p. 543).

The vision of the Internet as a “separate sphere”, a “distinct world” that pulls people away from their everyday lives and social circle, no longer holds in the light of recent research showing that the Internet integrates with people’s everyday practices (Boase & Wellman 2006, Matei & Ball-Rokeach 2002). As Wellman has recently pointed out, “both inter­personal scholars and contentious politics scholars have had to show the intertwining of online and offline activity: they are not separate lives” (2010, p. 151). Castells (2009) observes that the space of the new social movements in the digital age is at the same time constituted by the space of flows and the space of places. Social movements continuously operate through shifting and blending the online and the offline world, and it is precisely through this combination that they organise, mobilise and pro­test. In the L’Aquila case the interplay and continuity between the online and offline dimensions is particularly strong and represents a unique case in the Italian scenario.

Therefore we ask how the movement’s participation is articulated between online spaces and offline squares, meetings and events.

Methodology and theoretical framework

In order to understand how the PoW interact with the Internet to organise, spread and report collective action and how the activists’ participation is articulated between online spaces and offline squares, we deployed a multi-method approach, combining different qualitative research tools, in order to provide a more complete set of findings and obtain a deeper understanding of the movement. As highlighted by Klandermans and Staggenborg: “A major advantage of social movement research has been the use of multiple methods… Triangulation of methods ultimately produces stronger theories than multiple replications and permutations of the same method” (2002, pp. 315–316). We therefore conducted 20 semi-structured interviews, online content analysis and non-participant observation, and focused our attention on the exploration of the media practices of the activists of the PoW.

The choice of methods was informed by approaches that look at activists’ media as practice (Brauchler & Postill 2010). The analysis of media as practice requires moving beyond functionalist approaches which only understand media as text (Couldry 2004).

Recent works on social movements (Barassi & Treré 2012, McCurdy 2011, Mattoni 2012, Treré, 2012) have developed theoretical and methodological lenses to explore activists’ media practices. Although scholars do not agree on a specific definition of media practice, they all concur about using different sets of methodologies to explore the array of technologies which activists use and try to understand what social movement actors “actually do” with these multiple platforms.

In the exploratory phase, we spent a month observing the official Face­book group of the PoW, formally known as “L’Aquila Wheelbarrows Coordination” (“Coordinamento Carriole Aquilane”2), and, on the basis of the number of posts, interactions and comments published on the wall, we selected some of the most active members of the online group. We contacted them and carried out semi-structured interviews with a convenient sample of 20 individuals (11 males and 9 females) of different ages (average age: 36.5 years) and backgrounds. Semi-structured interviews are pivotal for understanding social movements from the point of view of participants (Blee & Taylor 2002) because they allow activists the freedom to express their visions in their own terms and can provide reliable and comparable qualit­ative data. Furthermore they are particularly relevant for the exploration of how activists regard their participation and how they understand and make sense of their social world. Interviews were digitally recorded and then transcribed for thematic analysis (Flick 2009).

In a second phase, we explored the online activities of the members of the movement, investigating the tactics behind the adoption of multiple Internet platforms for the production and/or distribution of content. In particular, we focused our attention on the Facebook group “L’Aquila Wheelbarrows Coordination”, which was by far the most used online platform, with 3,318 members. We took into account three months of the online group’s activity, from 28 February, when the group was opened, to 31 May 2010, and analysed the kind of content activists shared on the Facebook wall with the other members of the group. We conducted online content analysis (Byrne 2007, Herring 2010), in order to provide a more fine-grained understanding of the messages posted on the wall and categorised the data collected on the basis of their content (text/photo/video).

In addition, we decided to conduct brief offline ethnography by spending five Sundays with the PoW. We took part in their scarriolate (a neologism coined by the group’s activists, with the idiomatic meaning of “to go down to the square with a wheelbarrow”) in the red zone and participated in several town meetings.

The combination of different methods allowed us to get a wide picture of the movement’s media practices and to develop a model, the “Integrated System of Local Protest” (ISoLP), that summarises the combination of the three different phases identified from the data analysis.

Findings: An integrated system of local protest

From the interviews we carried out it emerged that the PoW have used a variety of online platforms – blogs, online journals, social network sites – to be informed, to post material (photos, videos, texts) and to spread messages and coordinate themselves. Their practices highlight the tendency of contemporary networked movements to spread over a wide range of online platforms. Furthermore some of the movement’s activists also wrote articles for local (Il Capoluogo) or national newspapers (Il Fatto Quotidiano) and participated in TV programs on the national RAI networks (Porta a Porta on RAI 1 and Anno Zero on RAI 3). That means that there is not only an adoption of several online platforms but also a variety of crossovers among different media. As highlighted by Padovani (2013), activists in L’Aquila have simultaneously used the four strategies of interactions with mainstream media identified by Rucht (2004): abstention, attack, adaptation, alternative.

People adopted different online platforms for different purposes, depending on the technical architecture and characteristics of each online environment. In this context it is possible to identify three distinct phases:

  1. planning phase, in which activists organised and promoted events, town meetings and, more generally, all the activities of the movement;
  2. square phase, offline moments in which activists carried out their initiatives, such as scarriolate or town meetings;
  3. report phase, in which members of the movement used media to report – through textual and/or visual content – what happened during the meetings in the square.

In the planning phase, the most commonly used online tool was the “event” box of the Facebook group “L’Aquila Wheelbarrows Coordination”. A small group of administrators used this Facebook feature to create a webpage in order to advertise a particular initiative (such as assemblies, Sunday scarriolate or meetings) and to send an invitation with details about a specific event to all the members of the Facebook group. The construction of an event-page on Facebook is quite an easy task, consisting of filling in all the details about the initiative (name, time, date, location and a brief summary of what the event is about) and inviting people to attend it. This allowed the actors of the movement to promote their activities among the Aquilani exiled after the earthquake to hotels on the Adriatic coast or accommodation provided by the Italian Civil Protection in other cities, such as Pescara, Chieti, Teramo, or in other municipalities in the province of L’Aquila away from the epicentre, like Sulmona and Avezzano. Thanks to Facebook they could be informed about the grassroots initiatives taking place in the city and reconnect their ties with the community.

From the analysis of the interviews, Facebook represented the online platform used most often by the members of the PoW and citizens of L’Aquila in the post-earthquake phase. The social media were used differently in the different stages of the post-earthquake phase. In the earliest moments after the tragedy, Facebook was mainly used to communicate from individual profiles to networks of friends and spread information about people who had been rescued, people who were found dead under the rubble, and people who were still missing. The role of Facebook was pivotal in a second phase, when it was used to find friends and reconnect with them, given that the centre and the traditional social spaces had been destroyed by the quake and many inhabitants had been displaced in the tent-camps or in other cities. Furthermore, Facebook was crucial even after the emergency phase, as a space for discussion and aggregation, and it played a key role in helping the construction of the PoW movement. According to Giusi, blogger and activist (female, 52 years old):

Everything happened online, because all the people who are now in the assemblies had a Facebook profile so we created a “tom-tom”.

As another activist explained to us:

The Web was important because obviously the squares do not exist anymore, there are no physical spaces to meet and the virtual square became Facebook, the blogs and forums where citizens and committees exchange ideas and give appointments (Francesco, journalist and activist; male, 28 years old).

Talking about the PoW movement, Alessio pointed out:

With Facebook we absolutely created the movement. We exploited the so­cial network to make people conscious of their being political citizens and take respon­si­bil­ity regarding the power system, so the first time there was a break in the historical centre it was thanks to a Facebook group (Alessio, activist of the “3e32” no-profit citizen network; male, 35 years old).

From 28 February, the day on which the group was founded, to 31 May 2010, activists of the PoW promoted 18 Facebook events through the Face­book group “L’Aquila Wheelbarrows Coordination”. The strong organisa­tion­al function of the Facebook group also emerged from the Web content analysis of the messages and comments written by members on the wall. The most common words are: L’Aquila, piazza (square), Domenica (Sunday), carriole (wheelbarrows), macerie (debris). The first two words indicate the location of the event, the third refers to the day of the offline meeting, the fourth suggests what citizens should bring with them to take part in the protest and the fifth shows the main object of activists’ attention, the debris, which had to be carefully collected and removed from the red zone.

Each event posted on Facebook comes with a flyer (see for example Figures 4.1 and 4.2) produced by an amateur graphic designer active in the movement and both uploaded online and posted up on the walls of the city in order to announce the demonstration and remind people of the tools they need to bring with them for the action (wheelbarrows, gloves, buckets, safety helmets, surgical masks, cameras).

Flyer of the 11/04/2010 Sunday scarriolate

Figure 4.1. Flyer of the 11/04/2010 Sunday scarriolate


Flyer of the 09/05/2010 Sunday scarriolate

Figure 4.2. Flyer of the 09/05/2010 Sunday scarriolate


Another important online tool used during the planning phase was the website “L’Aquila Anno Uno-Spazi Aperti per una Agenda Aquilana” (“L’Aquila Year One-Open Spaces for an Aquilana agenda”)3, an online space where citizens could obtain information on activities organised by members of the PoW, put forward a proposal, share suggestions for the reconstruction of the city, comment on what other people had written and read reports of previous meetings. The pro­posals received online were then discussed offline during the citizens assembly, thus providing the opportunity for participation in town meetings to citizens who could not take part in the assemblies directly because of distance.

During the square phase all the initiatives promoted by the activists of the PoW through the Facebook group and the site were carried out offline. The offline dimension was characterised by two key meetings and subsequent activities which took place intensively from February to June 2010:

  • the town meeting: citizens gathered every Wednesday and Sunday evening at 6.00 p.m. in a big tent located in the centre of the main square (Piazza Duomo) of L’Aquila to discuss ideas regarding the reconstruction of the city;
  • the Sunday scarriolate, a community team, in which each citizen made a contribution: every Sunday morning they met downtown to make a human chain, passing pails from hand to hand to remove the debris and clean up the centre.

The town meetings were based on the S-OST technique, a method based on self-organisation and participants’ opportunity to make pro­po­sals. It was tested for the first time in Florence (Italy), mixing elements from the OST (Open Space Technology), created by Harrison Owen (2008), and elements from the E-TM (Electronic Town Meeting) system. The activists of the PoW decided to adopt this method and to adapt it to their local context and needs, trying to recreate spaces for open dialogue after the disaster. The S-OST meetings were mainly based on two different levels: discussion panels and plenary assembly. Discussion panels were self-managed by a small group of participants with the help of several expert coordinators and were based on three macro-topics: (1) reconstruction of the urban context; (2) reconstruction of the social fabric; (3) reconstruction of the economic fabric. All the panels were based on the “law of two feet”, which, as an activist explained us, consists in the following principle: “if you’re in a situation where you are neither learning nor offering your contribution, use your two feet and go somewhere else!”. At the end of the panel sessions, the three groups of citizens converged in the plenary assembly where they presented a summary of the major issues emerging from the different panels and discussed the results with all participants in the plenary assembly.

At the end of the plenary meeting, activists of the PoW drafted a report of what happened during the assembly and uploaded the document to the website in order to allow those who live at some distance from the city and those who did not attend to know the outcome of the meeting. These reports could in turn be discussed online, in a logic of exchange between the virtual and the real.

The town meetings and the original Sunday scarriolate clearly show that in an era characterised by readily accessible digital media, social movements are not virtualised at all, but have learned to use social platforms and integrate them in their practices in order to organise and coordinate their collective actions in the offline dimension, in the squares and in the streets of the city.

The invasion of the red zone with the wheelbarrows represents an act of protest designed to regain possession of the territory and consequently of the narratives concerning the future of citizens. Furthermore it highlights the fundamental importance of the offline dimension. The PoW movement constitutes a significant example of the willingness of citizens to participate in political discourse and of the desire to rebuild together bit-by-bit the social fabric damaged by the tragedy and choose the best options for their future and their city.

As noted, the reports drawn up at the end of town meetings were uploaded to the website During the report phase, however, PoW activists adopted other online platforms. In this phase the Facebook group “L’Aquila Wheelbarrows Coordination” took on a new role and was transformed into a repository for materials created by the citizens during the square phase. Activists used social platforms in order to spread content collected during the offline moments, such as videos or photos, or to comment on what happened during the town meetings. They uploaded to YouTube the videos recorded during the wheelbarrow performance and clips of the most salient features of the assembly. They also used the Flickr platform to post photos of the wheelbarrow demonstration. Sometimes they uploaded videos and photos directly to the Facebook group, but usually they preferred to use YouTube and Flickr and then shared the links on the wall of the Facebook group.

Publishing such content on the Internet gave the opportunity to those who could not attend the event to see and comment on what happened during the meeting and the scarriolate, as well as testifying through images to the work done by the PoW activists.

Alongside the social media, other online platforms that played a key role both in the planning phase and in the report phase were blogs. Some of the most active members of the movement in fact have their own personal blogs and posted in-depth articles on what was actually happening in the city, providing their views on issues discussed during the town meetings and on topics related to the post-quake situation. They also recommended guidelines to be followed during the reconstruction process. Usually the message was first posted on the individual blog and then the link was shared both on the individual profile on Facebook and on the Facebook wall of “L’Aquila Wheel­barrows Coordination” in order to increase the visibility of the post. This practice is well illustrated by the words of activist Anna (female, 54 years old):

I have 5000 contacts on Facebook and I receive something like 70 to 80 friend requests a day… so, you can imagine… When I write a post, usually I write three times per week, because I can’t make it otherwise, then the moment I publish the post I immediately put it on Facebook. On Facebook lots of people retake and share it. The classic domino effect.

On the Facebook wall of “L’Aquila Wheelbarrows Coordination” activists posted links to the local or national newspapers in order to share relevant news with the other members of the group, receive comments and spark debate with their fellow citizens. During the three months of activity examined activists shared the following on the wall of the Facebook group “L’Aquila Wheelbarrows Coordination”:

  • 107 news articles: the vast majority from local newspapers (mainly from Il Centro and Il Capoluogo), others from some of the major Italian newspapers (La Repubblica, Il Giornale, Il Corriere) and a small minority from the international news (The Times, The Washington Post, Publico). Usually local newspapers pay more attention than national ones to reporting what is happening in the city and dedicate more space to detailing the news, so it is quite easy for the PoW to find articles that talk about their Sunday scarriolate or assemblies;
  • 84 posts from personal blogs of the most active members of the PoW movement;
  • 71 videos of the town meetings and incursions into the red zone;
  • 46 photographs, mainly of the Sunday scarriolate.

PoW have also shared the following links (Table 4.1):

Table 4.1. Shared content on the Facebook wall of “L’Aquila Wheelbarrows Coordination” (March to May 2010)

The report phase marks the culmination of the activities realised by the PoW activists and shows that people adopt different platforms for different purposes, according to their needs and to the technical architecture and the features offered by the applications.

We can summarise the practices described using the following scheme (Figure 4.3):

Diagram of the integrated system of local protest

Figure 4.3. Integrated system of local protest (ISoLP)

Created by M. Farinosi and E. Treré 2013.

As we can see from the description of the activists’ practices, the interplay and the overlap between the online and offline activities highlights the existence of an “integrated system of local protest” (ISoLP) that involves multiple online platforms in a never-ending cycle that goes from the Internet to the square and then again to the Internet and characterises the three phases identified in the analysis of our findings. Whereas the first and third phases are closely rooted in the online dimension, the second phase is related to the offline one. The two dimensions are functionally related to each other and their intertwining is especially evident if we take into consideration the role played by social media in the distribution of reports generated from the town meetings. The ISoLP (see Figure 4.3) shows on the one hand how the online and the offline dynamics are both part of a unique continuum, and on the other hand how the different features provided by digital platforms are adopted differently by the PoW activists depending on what they want to achieve.

In the specific case of the PoW, the ISoLP was characterised by the con­tinuous repetition of the cycle of protests that took place during the week (as we have seen, there was usually a scarriolate every Sunday morning, and there were town meetings every Wednesday and Sunday afternoon).

Concluding remarks

Our exploration of the media practices of the PoW highlighted the existence of what we have defined as an “Integrated System of Local Protest” (ISoLP) characterised by a complex communication ecology (Treré 2012), based on several crossovers between traditional media and multiple digital technologies and articulated between the online and the offline dimensions: from the strictly online planning phase to the offline square phase (performing the scarriolate and taking part in the meetings), and then online again for the report phase.

Digital media have provided new possibilities for mobilisation, organ­isation, coordination and discussion, offering citizens of L’Aquila new spaces for speaking and acting together, participating in the debate regarding the future of their city. Furthermore, online platforms have allowed the PoW activists to alter mainstream political agendas and use the Internet to post their messages and share their point of view with other citizens.

The PoW’s use of social media is part of a process of re-appropriation of public spaces. As we have highlighted in our chapter, activists have adopted dif­ferent online technologies for different purposes. This reveals the nego­tiation process between actors and technologies. On the one hand, digital media have affordances (Gibson 1979), and each platform’s architecture permits or inhibits certain actions; on the other hand, actors can decide whether to use and how to appropriate through their practices a given platform or a spe­cific part/function of it. Moreover, our work has highlighted that the appropri­ation of communication technologies by activists has to be analysed in a dia­chron­ic perspective, taking into account the different phases of the movement’s development. By doing so, we can avoid common generalisations on the role of technology inside movements and provide more nuanced understandings of which particular platform/part of a platform was used during a certain phase and for which purposes. For instance, PoW activists especially used the possibilities provided by Facebook for event creation, and relied on their own website to organise and promote the meetings and the demonstrations. Then, during the report phase, they turned to YouTube, Flickr and blogs, while continuing at the same time to use Facebook and the website.

In this case study, the local dimension and the face-to-face relationships have been of considerable importance. Whereas most of the studies on social movements have underlined the role that online platforms play in strengthening the movement’s transnational dimension by allowing distant activists to communicate and share resources, our case study shows that digital media can also play an important role in situations that are ingrained in the very local dimension of a specific community. The importance of the locality aspect has been underlined in recent works on social movements and social media (Gerbaudo 2012, Treré 2012). Although social media and Internet platforms in general have played a pivotal role in the development of the actions of the PoW, events, assemblies and informal meetings are still identified by the activists as crucial arenas where the bottom-up participation and the empowerment of citizens find their more complete realisation. In particular, town meetings and Sunday scarriolate represented the most emblematic and significant moments of reappropriation of the city and reconstruction of the social fabric, severely compromised by the earthquake of 6 April 2009. In the L’Aquila case, the symbolic importance of the local dimension was strengthened by the fact that the earthquake hit the historical centre, the social and political heart of the city, and wiped out traditional spaces of socialisation. In this context the Sunday scarriolate represented a moment of both symbolic and physical reappropriation of citizenship (Farinosi & Treré 2010).

As Padovani (2010) underlines, however, there were also points when the movement built translocal connections in order to gain global attention. Just three months after the earthquake, when the Italian government decided to move the G8 summit to L’Aquila in July 2009 “as a show of solidarity with the town”, the two most active protest groups, the “3 e 32 committee” and the Epicentro Solidale (Solidarity Epicentre) movement, used the G8 meeting as a “golden opportunity… to make their voices heard, not only nationally but also internationally”, in order to help speed up the rebuilding process. As De Cindio and Schuler have noted (2012), a protest movement focused on a local grievance may also choose to involve a broader audience in order to gain more visibility.

In the literature review, we observed that Morozov underlined the prob­lems related to Web 2.0 technologies as tools of control and surveillance. In our study, this did not represent a concern for PoW activists. When we asked about the risks and threats related to the adoption of social media platforms, interviewees answered that in an emergency situation there was no time to worry about it. Their immediate aim was to reach and connect with as many citizens as possible, so the “dark side” of social media exploitation and control was not considered a relevant issue. Activists chose Facebook because “everyone was there and it was easy to keep in touch and to have a place to meet” (interview with Andrea, activist, male, 32 years old).

Though our contribution has shed light on several aspects of the PoW movement, especially in relation to its media practices, further research is needed to explore other relevant aspects of the PoW case. It has been argued (Treré & Farinosi 2012) that the L’Aquila earthquake was framed by Italian mainstream media as a “spectacle of catastrophe”: thus, scholars could profit from deepening the analysis of the connections between the movement and the mainstream media by investigating the differences and the biases in the movement’s coverage as provided by local/national television and newspapers. Furthermore, from a more political perspective, it is important to analyse the relationships between the movement and the local/national government in order to see if and how political actors dealt with the proposals and the petitions which emerged from citizens meetings and online discussions.


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Theories, Practices and Examples for Community and Social Informatics

   by Tom Denison, Mauro Sarrica and Larry Stillman