As 2011 comes to a finish, it is now broadly recognized that the ‘Network Society’ and its tools has given rise to a new breed of social movements and actors which themselves have created innovative tactics, strategies of protest and mobilizing identities (such as the 99% in the US and the Indignados in Southern Europe). All of this within the context of economic stagnation (at best) within the OECD for the better part of the rest of this decade.
It is safe to say that 18 months ago no-one really saw any of this coming. When making applications to start a PhD in how the internet and digital communications effect social movements in late 2009, many political science faculties simply had no idea of what I was attempting to investigate. Popular thinking within the academy, and mainstream commentary more generally, had chosen to instead focus on the impact of the internet on already existing institutional actors such as political parties (the 2008 Barack Obama campaign), how to make existant bureaucracies more efficient or how the internet could render existing actors more accountable and transparent.
The idea that these same technologies would come to exercise a major impact on how ‘normal’ organise themselves as agents of political and social change, particularly within the context of economic or political crisis was rarely discussed. Consequently the energies unleashed by net-mediated forms of protest in 2011 were almost entirely unanticipated within the academy, the media and within the political establishment.
There were of course exceptions.
Clay Shirky and Cory Doctorow argued explicitly for the impact of the network society on collective action beyond institutional actors, but such thinkers broadly resided within the genre of 'popular science'. The transformation of such thinkers to the role of public intellectuals with the rise of these new movements is evident particularly with Shirky, who, held in some contempt by parts of the academy previously, wrote the first ‘major’ article on the the 'political use' of social media for Foreign Affairs magazine in early 2011.
OurKingdom recognised this lacuna of analysis within the mainstream media and after some discussion it was decided that I would have the pleasure of editing the 'Network Society’ debate. Our intention was to offer a level of analysis with regards to the role of technological change on social life and politics that was frequently found wanting elsewhere and hopefully couch emergent movements and social forms within a broader narrative that could bind heterogeneous demands, countries and politics.
Having been conceived of immediately after the wave of student occupations in the United Kingdom during the Winter of 2010 we weren't quite sure what kind of content was to be included nor what, be it in the UK or globally, was around the corner. As we now know it conspired to be rather a lot.
We believe that the debate did its best in keeping up with what were, and remain to be, chaotic and inspiring events, and that it retained a level of insight often missing elsewhere. We are also very happy that we have been able to provide a platform for highly relevant content from elsewhere on the internet such as @piercepenniless @DSG_DSG and @SFTMC.
In this walk back through 2011, I will attempt to offer some final points with regards to the debate in the hope that certain conclusions maybe drawn as to what has happened, what we can learn and maybe, what happens next.