Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mobs, Wars, and Armies: Now Online!

This week’s readings provided a fascinating addition to our studies of nation-states and global governance. Hanson started out by reminding us of the current role of nation-states, and then she (along with the others) went on to highlight case studies of global activist groups that have essentially created their own system of global governance. Whether it be through promoting awareness of human rights abuses, highlighting misbehavior on the part of a politician, or revealing corporate missteps, this “global third sector” is playing an increasingly important role in solving issues with the help of ICTs.

While there are obvious limitations within these groups (more than one author reminded us of the digital divide – and honestly, who had a cell phone in 1999? Only the cutting-edge types could have been involved in the Battle of Seattle) - it cannot be denied that their presence is encouraging active participation among groups that may have previously only been observers.

Perhaps this is what is so exciting about these tools: voters can now play a role in the election well before election day, consumers can force change from the corporations producing the products they use, and issues that political parties wouldn’t touch are being addressed by other means. Further, these groups are appealing because by reducing hierarchies (or at least the obvious signs of their existence), participants become more aware of their role in the success of a mission. By answering the call to forward an e-mail, show up at a protest, write a letter, or call a congressperson, they are actively participating in the movement. This is markedly different than the “membership” models mentioned in Bennett’s article. (You pay us a membership fee, we will work to save the X from extinction, or remove Y from office.)

Further, these examples have highlighted the energy and youth that is behind many of these projects. Even the language of this type of activism is different. The slickness and youth is reflected by the re-appropriated use of words like “armies”, “mobs”, “wars, “jamming”, “swarming” in explaining how online actors are orchestrating their efforts.

In many ways, though, these actions can be described as reactive, not reflective. Many of the examples given have not necessarily intrinsically changed anything, but rather have solved short-term problems. Perhaps, though, this is what exactly why they work. Understanding that they can’t solve everything, it is appealing for ordinary citizens to be involved in solving something. Further, Bennett quotes Redden in acknowledging that these new ITCs “allow individuals and communication group to reduce the influence gap between themselves and wealthier organizations.” Through relying on information from their trusted networks, citizens feel more actively involved. Bennett also notes that internet networks are contributing to audience building that is “reaching people that frequently extend beyond activist circles.” While they might not become as radical as “members” of the White Overalls, they can feel as though they’ve played a meaningful role in enacting change.

Castells says that this is a sign of the power of each user to become his/her own broadcasting station. Bennett agrees: he notes that “people who have been on the receiving end of one-way mass communication are now increasingly likely to become producers and transmitters.”

All the examples reminded us that physical spaces do still matter. Even if messages were coordinated online, they were usually asking citizens to take action by participating in something occurring in a physical space – be it attending a protest, going to vote, etc. The internet is seen in most of these readings as providing a solid foundation for communication, but not a way of replacing person-to-person contacts. Bennett concludes that “internet use has complemented and facilitated face-to-face coordination and interaction, rather than replacing them.” (Indeed, the case studies given where users ignored the importance of personalization were the least successful.) Overall, these new networks serve an incredible purpose: encouraging participation in new groups, connecting people beyond typical lines of distinction, and enacting change on a global scale.

1 comment:

  1. Liz, I enjoyed reading your blog you did a great job cross-comparing the different arguments in the reading. However, I would argue that increasingly, physical spaces do not matter when it comes to political activism. Although the Internet facilitates coordination, it is not necessary to meet in a physical space in order to ensure the success of activism. The most prominent example I can think of is the Obama campaign. Obama was successful in utilizing online activity through his website, listservs, Facebook and other internet-based forums to gain support for his presidential bid. It was not essential for people to go to his speeches or canvass door-to-door, (utilizing physical space) in order to be a supporter of his campaign. It was entirely possible for someone to be an Obama activist without ever leaving the comfort of his or her home. Therefore, I believe as the use of social media expands, physical space is no longer relevant.