The technological capacity of individuals to publish information online expanded tremendously over the last decade. Free platforms for public expression and publication of ideas proliferated, most recently through services like WordPress and Twitter. There are now an incredible variety of tools available to people that allow any individual writer to potentially have global reach.
Many of these tools for publication have an inherently social aspect. More than simply tools for publication and the broadcasting of information they have conversation at the heart of their technology. Communication online necessitates more than just publication. With modern communication tools there as much emphasis is placed upon what happens with the information once put online.
The last few years have seen the astounding expansion of three key technologies: near real-time communication, relatively easy self-publishing, and powerful data aggregation. The rise of Twitter and related technologies of the real-time web, such as the Tornado Web Server, allow for messages to be sent, received, and replied to in mere seconds. Blogging, and self-publishing in general, has developed remarkably powerful tools as well. What started with tools like Blogger and LiveJournal has now exploded with software such as WordPress, Tumblr, Posterous, and Movable Type. Finally, with all of this information being published at a more rapid rate our tools for aggregation have improved immensely. RSS readers such as Google Reader and Fever present the ability to categorize, filter, and rank information from many sources. Furthermore, software developers have begun to leverage algorithms to analyze, sort, and rank news items in a way that allows the software to filter the important items out of the noise. 1
The internet and its associated technologies have been around for decades and seen a vast array of literature devoted to their political potential. What is it that makes the current moment different? What about the political potential of these specific technologies lacks precedence?
A note on terminology
These technologies provide for structured flows of information. In many instances these flows are political, in others they are not. Much of the language of the following essays will center around notions of information and distribution. The simple dissemination of information is a political act.
The nature of any information flow is such that some people have easy access and others are hindered, either by economic, social, or cultural factors. While the vocabulary herein may emphasize information heavily we must remember that information serves as the foundation for our notion of politics. Participation is grounded in it. Communication revolves around it. Information, and the ways in which citizens interact with and produce it, constitutes the basis for any discussion of participation and communication.
Foundation in contemporary literature
While earlier texts concerning politics and the internet are important to our background for understanding the political potential of the web many are already dated by this point. Texts like Diane Saco’s Cybering Democracy (2002), Mark Poster’s Information Please: Culture and Politics in the Age of Digital Machines (2006), and Henry Jenkins’ Democracy and New Media (2004) provide important discussions of the role of technology and communication online in modern politics but are dated for a discussion of technologies that have matured and rose to mass adoption in the past three to four years.
This recent rise and maturation of online communication technologies is particularly important for the tools briefly mentioned above. Twitter launched almost four years ago but in just the past 12 months it rapidly rose to the consciousness of much of the general public. Other tools that are the focus of this work, such as WordPress and RSS readers, have only seen growing adoption and development in the past three to four years. It is the nature of the internet to provide a platform that encourages rapid prototyping and deployment of features. Due to this rapid innovation in online communication texts like Saco’s, Poster’s, and Jenkins’ serve as foundations but we must keep the context in which they were writing in mind. The aforementioned literature provides an important basis for the theoretical engagement of online communication but ultimately tools like WordPress and Twitter must be analyzed from a more contemporary standpoint.
In texts like Defining Digital Citizenship, the role of technology and the web too often fulfills a role in the existing system of political participation. To say that the biggest paradigm shift since the printing press will simply supplement our existing political structure misses the point of the revolutionary potential of these communication tools.
Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks provides not only an important foundation for a discussion of communication online but also presents a conception of online technologies as necessitating a fundamental shift in social structure. Central to Benkler’s theory is the notion of a networked information economy, which is defined by the decentralized actions of individuals. In addition, Benkler makes the point that, in a networked information economy,
Today’s users of information are not only today’s readers and consumers. They are also today’s producers and tomorrow’s innovators. 2
The importance placed upon individual autonomy and production in a networked information economy form a foundation for the arguments I advance concerning the real-time web, self publishing, and data aggregation. Benkler’s theory lacks a specific discussion of the tools of online communication. The fact that The Wealth of Networks was written in 2006 results in some of the same limitations as texts by Poster and Jenkins. Despite these limitations the theoretical backdrop given by Benkler represents a vital foundation to the discussion of information and knowledge production below.
Other more recent approaches toward the political ramifications of communication online approach the potential from a more critical standpoint. In a talk given at TED Evgeny Morozov discusses what he terms “iPod Liberalism.” Morozov defines this as a confusion over the intended versus the actual uses of technology. Furthermore, Morozov goes on to detail his argument for how online communication can serve as a tremendous benefit to authoritarian regimes. Morozov argues that information which intelligence agencies used to torture for is now available freely online in accessible formats.
Strong critiques like Morozov’s keep a discussion of political potential grounded but ultimately the fear of a new political system should not make us disregard the present opportunity. Furthermore, the possible outcome that Morozov details should not blind us to the negative aspects of the current structure. While the networked information economy that writers like Benkler outline has its own set of problems they should not make us forget about the political abuses present in a system where information flows slowly and through predefined channels of acceptability.
Clay Shirky writes in his recent book, Here Comes Everybody, that,
When we change the way we communicate, we change society. 3
This can be seen with technologies like the telephone, television, and even email. These technologies have become mainstays of society in general and of political campaigns in particular. Debates are televised, movements are organized via email newsletters, and some politicians make heavy use of robocall campaigns. Conceptualizing a political movement that does not make use of these communication technologies becomes impossible.
With online communication in the form of Twitter and WordPress, millions of people have once again changed the way they communicate in their everyday lives. We are now at a point where these behaviors have solidified enough to start affecting substantial social change. Furthermore, these advances of the past few years have so dramatically altered the way in which we engage with one another and exchange information that we must consider the technologies as more than just a supplement to the existing structure. Tools like Twitter and software like Fever allow for a radically different notion of participation.
Rapid flows of public-by-default information originating from millions of people provide a political structure in which individuals can engage with one another on a direct level to organize around shared concerns for political action. Additionally, all of this rapid-flowing, individually-published information can be aggregated together, with tools that are accessible to individuals, to create a new type of informed citizen.
Defining participation in a new age
While impressive from a purely technological standpoint these advances hold far more potential when placed in the context of expanding political participation in the United States. For the purposes of this discussion a definition of political participation must first be given. This project draws on two key facets of American political thought: civic republicanism and deliberative democracy. Ultimately I posit that participatory actions not aimed toward personal or economic benefits fulfill political virtue. Three key features define these participatory actions: a citizen’s relative levels of political interest, discussion, and knowledge.
In the American political tradition these ideals have taken a strong place in the writings of many writers foundational to the United States’ political system. Chief among these writers is Thomas Jefferson, who believed that an informed citizenry was of the utmost importance to a healthy and thriving political system. 4
From another standpoint the involvement of citizens in political discussion is central to the deliberative notion of democracy that writers such as Joshua Cohen advance. In an essay titled “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy” Cohen defines a deliberative democracy as,
an association of whose affairs are governed by the public deliberation of its members.
This public deliberation provides the structure for addressing key political problems.
While the role of communication and public discussion in American politics is vital to the democratic tradition other authors have been critical of the role that technology plays in the political process. Phillip Agre writes in an essay titled “Real-Time Politics: The Internet and the Political Process” that,
In the political realm, a technology that democratizes the technical capacity to speak and organize is certainly to be welcomed. But “brand names” play an important role in politics as well, as do long-cultivated networks of personal acquaintance. In politics and markets alike, the Internet helps both the incumbents and the challengers, and both the big and small players. 5
Agre urges caution concerning the democratizing aspects of technologically-mediated communication and political mobilization. There may be a possibility for “brand name politics” to play out online but the web allows for much more. The potential for non-democratic elements does not wholly prevent democratic expansion.
Movements like the Rock the Vote campaign show a strong bloc in American politics that believes more voters means more democracy. After all, if a government claims to truly be “of the people by the people [and] for the people” then having a large percentage of the people participating is crucial to its legitimacy.
Ultimately, an increase in self-publishing, data aggregation, and the real-time web can shift the role of political knowledge, deliberation, and participation from actions that are segmented into annual or quadrennial periods to a more continual mindset. These tools do not require exorbitant investments in time, capital, or labor to organize through. Movements can be created, information can be spread, and groups can take action all in far less time and with far less overhead than before. When political mobilization for common goals opens up to all people the political potential of the everyday citizen is revolutionized.
We have already seen early examples of these types of rapid, online-mediated political movements. Tools like Twitter played such a central role to the protests in Iran last summer that the U.S. State Department urged Twitter to reschedule maintenance in order to keep the service up. The actions of the Iranian government in attempting to shut down services like Twitter, Facebook, and more also serves as recognition of the crucial roles for online communication tools. Despite the efforts to shut down online communication during the summer of 2009 the Iranian people ultimately found ways of circumventing the government filters and kept tools like Twitter at the center of their communication technologies. 6
Using these tools as a foundation any citizen can make his or her views known and, if a significant number of people feel likewise, work toward affecting real political change. Twitter, WordPress, and accessible forms of data aggregation create a future in which any citizen can be a leader. They allow for citizens to engage with each other, and with their representatives, in a public forum through tools that rapidly transmit information at times not dictated by election cycles. That is revolutionary political communication. The channels have been opened to all so that the political can become a part of the everyday. When that happens there is little stopping every citizen from becoming a part of the decision making process.
- A definition of noise will be important to keep in mind throughout these essays. In this discussion I am using Matt Pearson’s definition “Irrelevant & unwanted data; anything that is out of context [to an individual] given the intended signal of the medium in question.” It is important to maintain that noise is relevant to individuals and particular contexts. For these essays there is no objective, universal definition of noise. ↩
- Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. 38. ↩
- Shirky, Clay. 2008. Here Comes Everybody. Kindle Ed. New York: Penguin: Location 254–263. ↩
- This notion of an informed citizenry comes from Jefferson’s discussion of education in his “Notes on the State of Virginia.” ↩
- Agre asks for the copy of this essay that appeared in The Information Society journal to be cited but for reasons of accessibility I have cited the linked essay since it is freely available online. ↩
- For a further discussion of the interplay between Iranian government efforts at shutting down social media and the ways in which citizens avoided this filtering see a discussion from PBS’ Newshour ↩