Politics and the Web

royalholloway.JPGEarlier this month, I had the opportunity to travel to London to attend Politics: Web 2.0: An International Conference, hosted by the New Political Communication Unit (NPCU), Department of Politics and International Relations, Royal Holloway, University of London.

The theme of the conference was summarized as follows:

Has there been a shift in political use of the internet and digital new media – a new web 2.0 politics based on participatory values? How do broader social, cultural, and economic shifts towards web 2.0 impact, if at all, on the contexts, the organizational structures, and the communication of politics and policy? Does web 2.0 hinder or help democratic citizenship? This conference provides an opportunity for researchers to share and debate perspectives.

The conference was in large part the brainchild of Andrew Chadwick, Founding Director of the NPCU. There were 120 papers organised into 41 panels, and over 180 participants from over 30 countries. Some of the conference topics included: Parties, Elections and Campaigning; e-Governance; Constituency, Mobilisation and Engagement; The Politics of Blogging; Platforms, Power, and Politics; Young People, the Internet and Civic Participation; New Perspectives on e-Democracy; and Theorising Web 2.0.

What follows is a review of some of the presentations I found relevant to my interests (a summary of my paper is provided towards the end).

In his keynote, Stephen Coleman (Professor of Political Communication and Director of Research at the Institute for Communications Studies, University of Leeds) established the connection between politics and technology by arguing that the public is always constructed through mediation. But the ways in which technology and politics shape each other is anything but straightforward. Instead of simply asking “Does Web 2.0 help or hinder citizenship?” we should investigate the emergence of Web 2.0 as a discourse that re-orients citizenship itself. If citizenship is a creative act of self-representation, the opportunities afforded by Web 2.0 technologies would seem to open up a multiplicity of networked spaces for defining our political place in society (blogs, YouTube videos, Facebook groups, etc.). But according to Coleman, democracy requires commons as well as networks. Real political action requires that we go “beyond the ghetto of our Facebooks friends” to build platforms of solidarity or disagreement.

This issue of whether Web 2.0 allows for the creation of authentic commons or merely aggregates isolated individuals into interest-based networks was a recurring theme in the conference. For instance, Bernhard Rieder (Of People and Algorithms: Web 2.0 and the Production of Visibility) argued that the “wisdom of the crowd” is in fact a socio-technical construct that “represents a new arrangement for producing visibility and structuring public discourse.” In his paper, Rieder examines how Web 2.0 redistributes control over information flows and argues that “the democratic potential of this shift is counterbalanced by technological blackboxing, privatization and delusion of accountability.” Along the same lines, Jussi Parikka (Web 2.0 and Politics of Attention, Sociability and Capture) states:

“In a certain sense, much of the discourse around several web 2.0 applications is based on a forgetting, or assumption of “naturalness” in terms of “the sociability” of the people involved and the transparency of the media technological tools.”

One of the perils, then, is that before we get to question how meaningful is the kind of participation that Web 2.0 makes possible, democracy might be redefined to fit the affordances of the technology: Democracy is as Web 2.0 does. After all, as Tarleton Gillespie (WikiCandidate, Political Discourse and the Peculiarities of the Technological) pointed out, “democracy has had to evolve alongside the communication technologies taken up in its service.” Gillespie offered a model for differentiating between stated, materialized and symbolized participation, which can be useful in the analysis of actual participation v. a “sense” of participation. In the end, however, he argued that the promise of participation can’t be manufactured by Web 2.0 technology; it needs to be actualized through the involvement of the users. His presentation focused on some of the features of wikis as they relate to the formation of publics. For instance: Does the Revert function encourage dismissal of opinions? Does the “finished” look of wiki pages discourage dialogue?

Another common belief is that Web 2.0 can promote democracy by simply enlarging the visibility of marginalized voices. While Sandra González-Bailón (The Importance of Gaining an Audience: Visibility and Reach on the Web 2.0 Age) argued that there is “no democratization without visibility,” she cast some doubts on the claims that Web 2.0 can guarantee a larger audience. She observes:

“Gaining users’ attention is still the most crucial, albeit scarce, commodity online; web 2.0 might have widened the pool of producers, but consumers still manage a narrow scope of attention, which inevitably concentrates on a minority of sources.”

This is somewhat at odds with the scenario documented by Jonah Bossewitch (The ZyprexaKills Campaign: Peer Production and the Frontiers of Radical Pedagogy), in which a small committed group of decentralized activists used a combination of modern collaboration technologies (wikis, public tagging, Bittorrent, and Tor) to organize their resistance to Lilly’s attempts to suppress evidence surrounding the secondary effects of Eli Lilly’s blockbuster antipsychotic drug Zyprexa. According to Bossewitch,

This story suggests models for the purposeful deployment of emerging technologies by social justice movements, and demonstrates the strong symbiotic relationship between new and traditional media. [The case also exemplifies] some of the issues surrounding whistle-blowing in an era of omniscient surveillance, the relationship between anonymity and free speech, and the politics of memory.

But while Web 2.0 technologies might be efficient at organizing the work that decentralized anonymous activists undertake, its potential to coordinate in real-time the actions of a group for the purpose of creating social change (another one of the claims often associated with new information and communication technologies) needs to be contested. Joss Hands (Mobil(e)ising the Multitude: the Political Significance of Mobility in Contemporary Protest and Resistance Movements), for instance, pointed out that while mobile communications have facilitated the organisation of individuals into groups for the purpose of political protest and resistance (a scenario commonly associated with Howard Rheingold’s notion of the ‘Smart Mob’ or Hardt and Negri’s concept of ‘Multitude’), the emphasis on speed that these technologies introduce might be detrimental to the emergence and enactment of political will. He asks whether

“this necessarily produces an emphasis on the ‘mob’ element, or rather allows for a genuine ‘smartness’, thus, what is the distinction here between the multiple and the singular? And, what does it mean to be a political actor in such circumstances?”

The four papers in my panel on Theorising Web 2.0 continued to explore many of these questions from the perspective of the politics of power. Marcus Breen (Uncivil Society: Political Power Making in Web 2.0) began by poking holes on the utopian ideal of an equal-opportunity global communications network. He used a number of case studies (including one featuring Karl Rove discussing the use of email “e-blasts” by the Republican Party) to illustrate “how the culturally liberating possibilities of Web 2.0 may be circumvented and undermined by subterfuge in policy making and infrastructure control.” Underneath the rhetoric of openness, he argues, lies the reality that “the power deployed by political and business elites may produce models of society that are defined by their “uncivil” characteristics, reinforcing the view that civil society itself is a contested terrain.”

Meanwhile, Christian Fuchs (Social Theory Foundations of Social Software and the Web: From Web 1.0 towards Web 2.0 and Web 3.0) offered a model for tracing the potential in various generations of Web technologies for cognitive, communicative and cooperative affordances. What is at stake is the power to define the Web as a technology of competition or cooperation.

To David Berry (Web X.0: Politics as Imagined Technology) that struggle begins with the power to give meaning to the construct of something called “Web 2.0”, “Web 3.0” or whatever. More than mere marketing terms, for him these names suggest that technology is a form of “imagined politics.” What Web 2.0 imagines, if we are to believe the literature from Silicon Valley, is an environment where actors are brought together to actualize new and revolutionary democratic potentials, where technology can ‘enhance’ or ‘improve’ democracy and freedom. However, it is interesting to note that

“the notions normally associated with Web 2.0 technologies, particularly those related to efficiency, speed, precise measurement, rationality and productivity would previously have been rejected as inappropriate to the realization of democratic debate and political action.”

In my own paper (Ulises Mejias, Social Networks and the Politics of Nodocentrism), I attempted to explore the politics of the network as episteme. As social networks are actualized by information and communication technologies (ICTs), they cease to function as mere metaphors and become templates for organizing sociality. Networks –as assemblages of people, technology and social norms– arrange subjects into structures and define the parameters for their interaction, thus actively shaping their social realities. But what does the social network include, and what is left out?

By definition, social networks are not anti-social, but they manifest a bias (which I term “nodocentrism”) against engaging anything that is not part of the network. There are two properties of networks that explain nodocentrism. First: the distance between two nodes within the same network is zero. Second: the distance between a node and something outside the network is practically infinite. Nodocentrism embodies a politics of exclusion, since in order for something to be relevant or even visible within the network it needs to be rendered as a node. In other words, nodocentrism is a reductionism that eliminates everything but the reality of the node. Nodocentrism informs a model of progress or development where things not on the network must and should be incorporated in order for them to exist (we find this ideology in the discourses of the digital divide, pervasive computing, etc.).

While nodocentrism makes for very efficient networks, I’m interested in what happens when it is used to define the social in networks owned and controlled by corporations. The problem then is that the criteria for inclusion, the power to name the social, rests disproportionately with network owners, not network users. Technosocial networks owned by corporations are like shopping malls in the sense that they re-inscribe the public unto a privatized space. The economy is no longer part of society; society is now part of the economy (Vandenberghe, 2002). In my presentation, I suggested a model for helping us think about the inequalities and injustices that result from using the privatized network as template for the social. This model follows the stages of development of a network.

The first stage is network growth. Networks start small, linking two lonely nodes, but their growth is exponential and explosive. Networks grow by adding or assimilating nodes. But what political function does the explosive growth of technosocial networks serve? Does it benefit network users and owners equally?

Networks don’t grow haphazardly, they follow certain rules. The rule that has the most impact is Preferential Attachment: Given the choice to link to a node with fewer links and a node with more links, we will choose to link to the one with more links. This means that in the long run, rich nodes get richer and rich networks get richer (this is the second stage).

Preferential attachment in technosocial networks leads to hyperinflation, a form of massive network growth that widens the gap between rich nodes and the rest of the nodes (the third stage). The presence of rich nodes or hubs benefits network owners, as hubs attracts more nodes through preferential attachment, and the network gets bigger. What is hyperinflated is social capital, meaning that the value of social networks is artificially inflated in order to attract more nodes. The goal of hyperinflation is to increase profit: bigger network membership means more eyes exposed to advertising, and a guaranteed rate of growth. But hyperinflation cannot be sustained indefinitely.

The excess of hyperinflation often leads to a bursting of the bubble. But market crashes can be good for business. In this stage of the development of the network, capitalization is used to convert inequality into gain for a few and loss for the rest. The privatized network is a commodity that can be exchanged and capitalized, and along with it the identity and content of all those users.

For the most part, capitalization goes unnoticed. Most people don’t care who owns the network, as long as they can use it for “free” (they are unaware of the cost they pay for this “free” service). But capitalization can also create discontent, at which time (the last stage) network owners are faced with a decision: tolerate a certain amount of sabotage from unhappy users, or purge the unwanted nodes from the network. The exercise of control over network membership is crucial at this point. The elimination of nodes requires complex forms of network collusion and transference. In other words, data from one network can be used to control membership in another network (for instance, information found on Facebook can be used to fire workers or expel students).

Corporations and governments engage in small daily acts of network purging: They cancel accounts, deny licenses, engage in surveillance, suspend service, modify terms of use, and trespass users’ rights. The way to secure the network is to assume a perpetual state of insecurity, which constantly requires new and improved methods for the purging of potentially unwanted nodes.

I ended my presentation by proposing the concept of the “paranodal,” the expanse between nodes, as the only possible site from which to un-think the logic of nodocentrism. Paranodality can provide the subject with the political context for disidentifying from the network, offering a site for the critical assessment of networked sociality. Of course, to unthink the logic of the network is not to pretend the network doesn’t exist, or to refuse to deal with it, but to re-imagine one’s relationship to it. The relationship of the paranode to the network is perhaps like the one of the parasite to the host (here I’m borrowing from Michel Serres): the parasite inserts itself into the communication process, between the sender and the receiver, disrupting the communication by being “noise”, and forcing the system to adjust to its presence. In this context, the paranode can be described as a parasite of the network, an element that lodges itself between nodes, distorting or introducing noise into the information that passes between nodes, and forcing the network –whether it acknowledges the paranode’s existence or not– to adjust to its presence. In my work, I attempt to theorize how this parasitical disruption can provide a way to think outside the logic of the network, to disidentify from it, and to resist its nodocentric view of the world.

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  1. Very Interesting. Thanks, would an example of a paranodal space be a site which focused on a political issue from a neutral viewpoint, providing the means for discourse with moderation, but no bias? Or would this network grow in an unbalanced manner? Is there an example of paranodal or is it more theoretical?

  2. Allan,
    Well there’s all sort of examples, but for instance: children’s testimony in English courts (I was just reading the Lee and Stenner chapter in Actor Network Theory and Beyond). As potential testifiers, children as a class are paranodal because they are excluded form the court, at the same time that their status as children serves to reinforce our status as adult nodes in the legal network. More web-related examples of the paranodal could include expelled Facebook users, cached web pages, etc…

  3. I still don’t understand how paranodality would work in social networks. How can you not be a node since as soon as you are aknowledged in some way by a node that in turn makes you a node, doesn’t it? Can you give an example?

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