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Re: <nettime> Politics: Web 2.0 - Conference review/summary
arsalaan1-3677 on Wed, 21 May 2008 00:23:40 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Politics: Web 2.0 - Conference review/summary


My own review of the Politics: Web 2.0 Conference (covering different talks
than Roman) follows. 

-Ulises Mejias

(originally posted at http://blog.ulisesmejias.com/2008/04/26/politics-and-the-web/)

Earlier 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
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
 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 Gonz?lez-Bail?n (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
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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