Weaving networks: the growing conversation of the world

Paul Hilder was co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of openDemocracy.net. He is now Director of Campaigns for the UK arm of Oxfam, the global development movement.
Paul Hilder
12 May 2011

It was 2000. The beginning of a new millennium. The last flourish of the dozen-year interval after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A transatlantic West was telling itself stories about a new world order. The dotcom boom was approaching its bust.

I was 25. Working as a strategist in a government agency, moonlighting with friends in dotcom incubators, playing with the design of online communities and networks. It was four years before the birth of Facebook.

That was when, at the suggestion of a friend, Anthony Barnett came to me with a proposal. “Power and Democracy”. An online magazine called PAD.  

So I started talking to him about networks.

A year later, after what began to seem like an endless round of business plans, pitches and brainstorms, with the words “this will never work” ringing in our ears, we decided to launch openDemocracy anyway.

It was a lesson I will never forget. The best way to show people that the impossible is possible is by doing it.

We were right to change the name – of that I have no doubt. openDemocracy is more of an invitation, less of a sermon. But the connection of these two concepts, power and democracy, was one of the things that attracted me in the beginning.

At its heart, the ideal of openDemocracy is to grow the conversation of the world, based on principles of deliberation, openness, communication and respect.

Yet we also knew from the start that the world is not flat. That the cosmopolitanism of the 1990s was a thin, deceptive and fragile veneer. And that the unillusioned scrutiny of networks of power, and the uses of power by citizens as well as states, is essential to growing a truly open conversation in our communities, our nations, and our world.

For the intellectuals in the openDemocracy network, this meant harnessing Habermas to Foucault – connecting the panopticon prison and the coffeehouses of the public sphere.

But this is much more about practice than theory.

Over the last ten years, openDemocracy has had an influence that belies its modest size. I chuckled as I watched big newspaper empires wrestle with the idea of conversation, adding calls to “Join the Debate”.

I think one of openDemocracy’s greatest contributions has been to provide an example and an inspiration to revive and open up the public intellectual function – challenging people everywhere to share and test big practical thoughts about how things could be different.

For me, our debates on globalization in 2001 were exemplary. We brought everyone from the founder of the WTO to protesters bleeding on the streets together to wrestle with the challenges of our global system. I rediscovered my summary of a part of that debate recently (Making the space for creative dissent ), and was provoked to reflect anew.  

Progressive social innovation and well-prepared transformation have only become more pressing. After the painful interval of the terror wars, and the twin turning points of the global economic crisis and Copenhagen, these arguments of our interwoven fate cannot be ignored. Events this year further reveal the perils and the promise of the future barreling toward us.

openDemocracy has always struggled with tensions in its model, which reflect the broader tensions in the world. Hierarchy or network? Power or democracy? Which conversations matter most – local, national, or global?

These arguments are important. Yet if we step back for a moment and try to look at the whole, to oppose any is to miss the point. Everything matters. What matters most is how we interweave it.

Building a safer, more democratic and more joyful future for communities, nations and the wider world, a world we must share, is all about making connections. Between worldviews, individuals and communities. Between economics, societies and the ecology which connects them. Between citizens who have too often felt disempowered and isolated. And between the levels of a multi-dimensional strategic chessboard.

In his recent New Yorker memorial essay to fellow novelist David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen criticizes online networks for taking the fragmented individualism of modernity to new heights. But he does not mention the more hopeful possibilities of our networked age.

Human action makes all the difference. Our systems often run out of control, either by accident or design. Eli Pariser, a leading figure in global social activism and a friend, has an acute analysis of these problems. But one thing is certain: these systems can be reshaped and engaged with. openDemocracy is just one example of a network building bridges and dissolving false borders.

I am proud of the contribution openDemocracy has made to the growing conversation of the world. It is still incomplete. But it is growing.

I have learnt more than I can say from all its contributors – the commissioned and the spontaneous alike. But of course, conversation is never enough. I felt the call of action in 2002, and left to wrestle with the challenges of the Middle East – putting into practice many of the things I had learnt about building conversations across divides. After a brief return to orchestrate debates around the struggling continental congresses of Europe, for a while I shuttled between the Middle East and a programme of work in Britain on the devolution of power, and the power of weak ties, neighbourhood action and campaigning.

All the while, I was dreaming of something bigger: a framework for global civil society to not just talk but act together. Finally, in 2006, I found people who shared that dream and were working to put it into practice. We launched the global web movement Avaaz.org in 2007. It now has over 8 million members. Through their commitment, it achieved the financial independence openDemocracy is still working toward. (why not donate to oD here?)

openDemocracy has revealed whole new worlds and ways of seeing. Avaaz and other network movements have proved that step by step, citizens can act together to change our world. But I am worried about how far we have yet to go, and about the lateness of the hour.

Particularly, I worry about the failings and inertia of our global systems of governance and commerce. And about whether we are dreaming the right dreams, or applying the right models of human progress. We cannot afford to continue as we are.

That is why I have joined the global development movement Oxfam as their new Director of Campaigns, based in the UK but working with an exciting global network of allies.

In a way, I feel I have come full circle: back to the debates about globalization, equity, transformation and progress on openDemocracy in 2001. But since then, we have learnt a great deal about how to make real change happen, avoiding dead ends and making the right kinds of connections.

Today, Oxfam is preparing to launch a new conversation around the world. We want to talk about the growing age of crisis we face, about the practical challenges of food and resources from global summits to our homes and dinner tables, and about whether we can grow a better way. It will be a conversation about a growing movement for change. The date is June 1st. Everyone is invited.


This piece is dedicated to my wife, Morwenna White, whose insight and patience has been almost boundless and whose impatience has been equally helpful; to the multitude of contributors to the conversations on openDemocracy; to David Hayes, to Susan Richards, and most of all to Anthony Barnett, who had the courage, took the risk, and committed himself to an uncertain future. 

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