Thinking about politics and the internet: time to update our perspective

We need a politics of the internet focused as much on creativity and imagination as on structure, space and intersection 

The meteoric rise in popularity of the Pirate Party in Germany, the place of Facebook and Twitter in the recent upheavals in the Arab world, the potential for e-government, serious games for economic progress and development, citizen journalism, and, last but not least, the viral KONY2012-campaign show all too clearly that the Internet is of increasing relevance in people’s life in general, and in politics in particular.

As a result, it is a favoured topic for political analysts and commentators who offer theories as to the role of the Internet in and for contemporary politics. With each new civil society upheaval, the debate reignites asking whether the uses of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, are significant enough to merit the relabelling of these upheavals as ‘Facebook-’ or ‘Twitter-revolutions’.

More generally, there is an ongoing (at times heated) debate about if and how the Internet could be a solution for a number of democracy-related problems that analysts detect within the contemporary global context. Many of the commentaries comprising this debate are of value, including James Curran’s elaboration on ‘why the Internet has changed so little’, in the sense that it has failed to meet many of our expectations for political and social change. This and other analyses of the Internet offer rich and varied discussion of the relevance of the Internet for political analysis.

And yet, despite this, contemporary political accounts of the role and significance of the Internet are somewhat ‘tame’ or even ‘tamed’. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that the majority of political analyses concerned with the Internet start with questions that are shaped by pre-determined, discipline-specific concerns - for example, issues related to the Internet’s (potential) impact on politics, and whether it can help to overcome the specific (normative or realist) problems that political analysts diagnose as shortcomings in and of contemporary democracies. Typically, these shortcomings relate to issues of participation and deliberation. On the one hand, analysts set out to investigate whether the Internet can improve the style and level of political participation: and on the other side, there is a sense - and indeed a hope - that the Internet could serve as a (Habermasian) public sphere, an open and accessible space for genuine debate and discourse on social concerns. Guiding these analyses is a dual conceptualisation of the Internet where it is understood both as a tool, a (new kind of) medium that is used by political actors to do something, and as a (new kind of) space, a sphere in which (new) things happen.

The second reason for ‘tame’ analyses of the Internet in political science is the tendency to treat it as something separate from the ‘real’ world. Many analysts employ an unexamined distinction between the offline and the online world. More often than not, this conceptual separation is implicit and naturalised; it is, for example, apparent when analysts ask for the impact of the Internet ‘on’ something. This categorical distinction between the offline and the online appears to be a v2 of the notion of the ‘great divide’, one of the key foundational notions of International Relations theory.

Acknowledging these two trends in the majority of existing approaches to the Internet by political analysts is important. The very idea or notion of ‘the Internet’ that many mainstream political analysts deploy is trimmed and ‘tamed’ through the norms and concerns ‘natural’ to their existing views of the world and the philosophical assumptions that underpin them. In other words, it is a very specific kind of Internet that is being described, investigated and debated.

The Internet approached from a different direction 

In our chapter in Global Civil Society 2012, we address these problems directly and suggest an alternative understanding of the Internet to trigger a rethinking and a re-configuration of the conceptual frame that has guided political analyses hitherto. We start from different premises. Two conceptual steps are at the heart of our endeavour. First, instead of conceptualising the Internet as a virtual space and / or tool for activism, or indeed as a ‘new type of territory’, as some analysts do, we follow theorists of digital culture and suggest that the Internet must be understood as a ‘set of interactions in process’. This involves envisaging the Internet as a set of resources, engagements, relations and structures through which the world is constantly renewed – rather than as a material object or single entity.

As we explain, this alternative conception of the Internet is a consequence of its two main features, namely its digital nature (which means that it is immaterial and constantly open to change) and the ‘ethos’ of Web 2.0 (which relates to a culture of sharing, editing, re-editing, producing, re-producing, creating new forms of relation, prosuming etc).

Secondly, instead of thinking of the Internet as a thing separate from the ‘real’ world, that is, instead of working with the notion of a ‘great divide’ between the offline and the online (real/virtual, material/symbolic), we suggest that scholars take recent studies seriously and acknowledge that the Internet today is fundamentally intertwined with socio-political structures and ‘offline’ lived realities.

Our reconfiguration of the conceptual frame through which to study the Internet holds two interlinked implications for political analysts’ scholarly imagination. Once we decide that the distinction between the ‘offline’ and the ‘online’ does not readily reflect contemporary lived reality, the Internet occupies a different position in our thinking about politics. Rather than asking how or if the Internet has the potential of changing or improving the ‘real’ world, we need to consider it as a part of a (political) world brought into being through complex sets of interactions between the offline and the online.

Life itself 

Understanding the Internet as a set of interactions in process throws into question the value of the conceptual metaphors of ‘tool’ and ‘space’, because questions about what is happening ‘on’ the Internet, and how the internet is used, by whom, and with what impact on the ‘actual’ world no longer have sufficient analytical purchase. The internet is not a tool or a space for politics, but a set of interactions in process that constitute the political, and indeed the social and the economic. As such it is not a tool or a space to enable life, but life itself.  This is what David Gauntlett intends in Making is Connecting when he says that the internet is a set of processes in which “people are rejecting the givens and are making their world anew”. And as Henrietta Moore argues in Still Life, this requires political and social analysts to focus as much on the concepts of creativity and imagination as they do on those of structure, space and intersection. We need a politics of the internet, and indeed a politics that starts from somewhere else.

About the author

Sabine Selchow is a researcher in the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), UK.