Three or Four Theories of Networked Activism

Adam Fish July 4, 2011
8 minutes

The social dynamics and genesis of inter-networked activist cultures are little understood and the focus of some of our research at UCLAs Part.Lab and a bunch of new business, activism, and pop theory books. Beyond __the __Echo __Chamber: Reshaping __Politics __through __Networked __Progressive __Media (New Press 2010) by Jessica Clark and Tracy Van Slyke is a strategy guide about how four levels of internet-enabled networks have an impact on progressive journalism, political commentary, and activist organizing: 1) networked users, 2) self-organized networks, 3) institutional networks, 4) networks of institutions. All but the first, networked users, articulate well with the categories and process we devised in Birds of the Internet Towards a Field Guide to the Organization and Governance of Participation to explain internet-based cultural behavior, namely, the self-generating or organized publics assisted in their construction by formal social enterprises. Like our 2011 publication, the book is a field guide designed to identify new species of networked culture, their interrelationships in the emergent media ecology, their diverse communicative practices, and the values they seek to reproduce throughout society. The power of this book lies in the elegance and utility of these network categories and in the suspenseful fast histories of netroots progressive movements.


What are progressives and netroots? Apparently a progressive is someone left of Democrats and liberals. They are “opposed to conservative philosophies that seek to maintain older systems of value and power.” Progressives are into “social change” (Clark and Van Slyke 2010: 3). While progressive values are variously but never concretely defined in this book I would quickly add social justice, social liberalism, civil society, and technoprogressivism. Progressives value “social justice,” or the promotion of the dignity of every human life; “social liberalism,” or the promotion of access, participation, diversity, and democracy; and “civil society”, a contested term that describes an arena for public discourse. Emphases on openness and public cultures overlap in social justice, social liberalism, and civil society. (In addition to the right to be heard and accounted for, the right to privacy is also a value of social justice.)

The progressive brand “Netroots,” a conflation of internet and grassroots, describes a politically coordinated and technology-enabled public. It can be considered synonymous with the progressive blogosphere, the internet-activated and discourse-constructed public sphere. Netroots express the value of technoprogressivism—a promotion of the positive role of technology in achieving progressive political objectives that has its historic roots in computer and countercultural notions of techno-cultural change. Netroots activists focus on the agencies provided by technology. Networks are seen as enabling not limiting factors. Beyond the Echo Chamber is designed to motivate not give a sociologically factual and balanced account of the promises and perils of networked political economy. Much of this idealism is identifiable in this selfinterview between the authors. Importing a dose of critical pessimism, that is a focus on overcoming impediments, from the media reform movement might have made this book more believable to academics but not as inspirational to activists.

Networks of Users and Institutions

The four networks go from the most abstract and loose to the most concrete and institutionalized. The first is “networked users” which include “tens of millions of individuals” and analogous to the “networked public sphere.” “Users” is deployed deliberately to define the confluence of “audience member and participant” (Clark and Van Slyke 2010: 34). I like this simple term “user” better than the clumsy neologism “produser” but the authors do not define the “networked public sphere” other than inferring that it is public, big, free, semi-communal, and potentially political and creative. If you hear some of the cyber-utopianism of Yochai Benkler, Henry Jenkins, Don Tabscott, and Clay Shirky in these notions then you are correct, they are cited throughout. Where the authors fail in describing these users is by ignoring the fact that they are networked not by some neutral, natural, or publically-owned infrastructure but by privately-owned or non-profit platforms with their own set of affordances, prejudices, values, and persuasions that limit and provoke certain types of networks that are not simply user-driven but semi-hierarchical, striated, partitioned, unbalanced, and more often then not governed to maximize capital. In their calculation there is an amorphous mass of politically minded people organized but unorganized. In a way, this is like people without culture, without an internalized self-governing structuration.

We cannot understand users without their correlating structuring principles. On the internet this means looking to cultures of production and collaboration that aggregate around issues, tools, and practices–these can be named by brands or parties–but the point is they can be named. And that is what indeed the authors do as they provide several examples of networked users by referencing the users of the brands YouTube, progressive television Link TV, ethnic magazine Colorlines, citizen video journalism nonprofit The UpTake, etc. So what they are really referring to when they discuss “networked users” is not the unincorporated masses, which doesn’t exist, but their second category, self-organized networks.

If our research or disciplinary paradigm as anthropologists and sociologists cannot affirm the existence of “user networks” we do however observe evidence of the remaining three categories. These include self-organized networks, which we call organized publics or OPs. Organized publics develop without the formal economic or infrastructural assistance of institutions or what we call formal social enterprises. Jenkins is key to assisting the authors’ speciation of these self-organizing networks by providing them the concepts of pools, webs, and hubs. Self-organized network form pools around common projects, create webs around social communities, and aggregate around brands or hubs. Clark and Van Slyke’s concept of self-organizing networks is an excellent example of the formation of organized publics in the realm of progressive media. In our research we’ve gone a step further by adding a temporal input to the concept of the self-organized network or organized public by showing that in all likelihood such organized publics become institutions through time. This brings us to their third category.

The third category also coordinates with our analytical distinctions. The author’s concept of the “network organized by institutions” is akin to the relationship between the formal social enterprise, or what they simply call an “institution” and the organized public, or what they call “self-organized networks.” Institutions such as the Sierra Club, National Organization for Woken, and the ACLU provide internet infrastructure to publics in order to seed activism. They did not spend much ink on “network organized by institutions” but with the examples provides by Clark and Van Slyke we can reasonably conclude that within the progressive media sector the FSE-OP relationship is present.

Finally, the forth category is one Ive written about before in regards to progressive media organizing and I would like to expand upon. I am not sure if it falls exactly within the rubric we’ve set out to test at Part.Lab, that is, the development of OPs and the relationships between FSEs-OPs, but I am finding it increasingly difficult to isolate FSEs from other FSEs. Clark and Van Slyke’s forth category, “networks of institutions,” explores the lateral relationships between institutions, or what I previously called, collaborations. The key example comes from The Media Consortium, a 2005 journalism meta-organization both authors are intimately involved in that serves as a nexus for meetings, conference calls, and email lists that coordinate messaging and projects across a number of progressive groups.

The Media Reform Movement and Network Neutrality: A Case Study

How do these netroots networks synergistically interact and self-generate? Examples come from the rise of Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004, Ned Lamont’s 2006 primary victory over Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, and Virginia Senator George Allen’s 2006 resignation over the viral video of him calling an opponent’s aide “macaca.”  A more elaborated case comes from the media reform movement’s work on network neutrality. And yet based on their evidence I can recognize three distinct networks but not “networked users.” Clark and Van Slyke (2010) might argue that the 1.6 million people signing a petition for network neutrality is an example of networked users but weren’t these users’ signatures aggregated by institutions and thus an example of their term “institutional networks?” Or perhaps these publics constituted a self-organized network, also one of their categories? (In this movement there certainly was a strong “network of institutions” with 850 organizations constituting the Coalition.) It may seem like a small point but to really concentrate on what I am vaguely calling publics or what Clark and Van Slyke call “user networks” means to begin to understand the origins of social motivation.

Beyond the Echo Chamber confirms our suspicion that networked environment can incubate organized publics and facilitate the interactions between institutions and those publics. The book also wrestles with but ultimately misunderstands that earliest and vaguest moment of genesis of networked users. This is understandable; we don’t quite get it either, hence the research into it. The difficulty is understandable; within convergence culture clear lines demarcating consumers from producers and this networks from that network are difficult to define. We have at our disposal excellent examples of organized publics developing out of Wikipedia, open source software development, and the anti-corporate globalization movement. But if such radically transformative events such as the Arab Spring are to be ethnographically and historically understood then we may begin to grasp the transformation of isolation to belonging and apathy to activism.