Disrecognized Space

agressi sunt mare tenebrarum, quid in eo esset exploraturi

Distributing internet collaboration: The social construction of groups online.

The internet has created a distributed space that has changed the nature of collaboration, disseminating and linking widely dispersed and often temporary groups horizontally rather than hierarchically, and thus providing a powerful new form of organization. This paper will first consider the theoretical basis of collaboration and organization in an internet-enabled environment, including the social shaping of these technologies, and will then consider some examples of how this is applied by organizations such as Anonymous in the context of political activism, and in collaborative information spaces such as Wikipedia. It will be shown that the internet, largely a neutral technology full of possibility, has built an effective new channel for activism online that dramatically expands the collaborative possibilities that existed prior to its invention.The internet by its very nature represents an opportunity to redefine the way individuals and groups collaborate and organize their activities. Originally created as a networking protocol, the internet was a US Department of Defense project, designed to withstand a nuclear attack (Grubesic, O’Kelly & Murray, 2003, p. 54), and this fundamental precept has provided the basis on which numerous (often unintended) applications have since been created. While not suddenly enabling collaboration it has, however, transformed previously existing methods of linking people together and promoting various agendas into a much more powerful medium. This “indestructibility” of the internet is often summarized in a now famous quote by John Gilmore (2011) that “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”. Gilmore notes that the meaning of this quote originally applied to Newsgroups, but can now also be considered to include individuals as the nodes that actively bypass censorship. The potential of this nature to assist activism is clear.

In 1983 John Kenneth Galbraith (2008) wrote about power in society, and categorized it as manifesting in various forms. Of these conditional power (power exercised through often unstated beliefs), he stated, is the most significant form in the post-industrialist world. While he notes that power can arise from different source, in the modern world organization is the most important, and that it also directly relates to conditioning. Organization in Galbraith’s definition includes both literal organizations such as corporations and governments, but also different groups that exist to form conditioned beliefs. Galbraith was writing before the rise of the internet, but his categories of power and their forms in modern society are still relevant, especially in the context of the challenge to them from groups on the internet.

While collaboration has been a fact of humanity since prehistoric times, the advent of the internet and computer mediated communication has created a distinct new form of collaboration, such that Jones provides the neologism “eCollaboration” (Jones, 2012, p. 210). He explains that eCollaboration uses technology (specifically networked digital technology) to increase the range and effectiveness of collaborative processes. This digital form enables collaboration to be undertaken regardless of place or time, and can be realized in numerous forms. Among these forms Jones lists email, mobile phones (and SMS texts) and spaces such as wikis. This has various advantages, he argues, including flexibility, reduced costs, and inclusiveness. These tools are just the current manifestation of a history of such tools on the internet (Jones, 2012, p.211) and it can be assumed that their development is still ongoing. Especially important is the way these tools can be either synchronous or asynchronous, further enhancing communication across time zones and nodes (Jones, 2012, p. 212). Each tool has different advantages, and each reflects different ways of strengthening communication (Jones, 2012, p. 215) and, of course, groups can increase their collaborative advantages by combining tools.

This changed form of communication also has a social dimension. Castells (2007, p. 239) observes that communication supports the creation of social meaning, and thus communication becomes a battleground for the control of the mind (where conditional power takes form). Concentrating specifically on power, he describes how states are losing this control due to globalization, deregulation and a crisis of confidence in governments (Castells, 2007, pp. 239-240). Digital media subverts state control, changing what had been a one-to-many form of communication to a horizontal, many-to-many form that bypasses mass media (Castells, 2007, p. 246, p.255) and thus communication is the unstable, contested ground on which new social meanings are being defined (Castells, 2007, p. 258).

This point is also stressed by Gillan, Pickerill and Webster (2011, p. 151) who urge a more nuanced view than simple technological determinism. Along with the technology, we must also consider the social context and the political uses, and especially the intersection of these three different elements. Technology provides various possibilities, but it is only when people interact with it that uses are created (Gillan, Pickerill & Webster, 2011, p. 152). Each technology, in its own ways, enables and constrains how these uses will be created and adapted (Gillan, Pickerill & Webster, 2011, p. 154): while digital spaces open up numerous opportunities, particularly in the dense communication networks they enable, it should not be forgotten that they also include various limitations (Gillan, Pickerill & Webster, 2011, p. 181).

Blau confirms this neutrality of technology, until a social purpose is superimposed on it (Blau, 2011, p. 27), while Croeser (2012) observes that the same benefits offered by the internet in organizing collaborative networks can also be used by forces opposed to them (such as governments or corporations) and it is more appropriate to consider these technologies contested spaces. She sees the networks (physical and social), consisting of overlapping networks with various strengths of nodes, as the important issue in activist struggles.

Sassen also comments on how digital technologies provide both opportunities as well as limitations. The nature of digital networks allows for widely distributed communication that increases interconnectivity, bypassing centralized gatekeepers (Sassen, 2005, p. 1), and hypermobilizing objects (Sassen, 2002, p. 360) so that restrictions that exist in the non-digital realm become trivial when they are digitized. It is the imbrications, or overlapping, of the technological and social that determines outcomes, and it is actually in the local and the specific social contexts that these meanings are argued out (Sassen, 2005, p. 2). Thus, while the widely dispersed connections of local nodes allows for powerful new methods of group collaboration, they also allow for traditional forces to become more powerful and apply limits (Sassen, 2005, p. 17).

Digital collaboration allows for a simultaneously local and global network, one that changes these and allows for an effectiveness that is orders of magnitude greater than previous systems (Sassen, 2005, p. 28). Crucially, those previously excluded from the political process are now able to take part (Sassen, 2005, p. 33) and this increased diversity of voices allows a more democratic participation (Sassen, 2002, p. 381).

One group that has utilized such digital collaboration successfully is the activist collective Anonymous. Anonymous has co-opted the tools made available through the internet to achieve a prominence and notoriety that it is doubtful it would have achieved otherwise, such that it is now very much a brand as well as an actual entity.

Anonymous speaks in a language that is heavily codified by a strict binary between conceptions of good and evil. An example of this is a polemic in which Anonymous discusses the Arab Spring (Anonymous, 2011). Women, also, are excluded in language that refers to “humans” or “men” only. Anonymous stands above other institutions (“other, lesser institutions”). The post does, however, make two very important points: that this is a “communication age” and that an “explosive” collaboration is now possible.

Keane (2011) describes some of the methods Anonymous employed in its campaign against the Egyptian government including hacking sites, and employing Distributed Denial of Service attacks using networked computers. A much older tool, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is Anonymous’s tool of choice for discussion of issues within the core group itself (RemainAnon, n.d.), though it also maintains a Twitter account (https://twitter.com/YourAnonNews) and blog (http://blackbox-anonymous.blogspot.com/) to communicate with the public. Though not developed by Anonymous, the creation, distribution and use of tools such as TOR (to enable encrypted communications) is a simple exercise in a networked structure (Milan, 2012, p. 6). Keane remarks that Anonymous is not a “traditional protest movement”, describing it as unique due to its presence in cyberspace. It would be more correct, however, to see Anonymous as very much a traditional protest group, but that its use of cyberspace, and the mixing of a multiplicity of tools, has facilitated its campaigns across networks of activists that are recruited for specific “operations”.

Treré (2012, p. 2371) warns against characterizing such protest movements as single medium organizations, instead observing them as an “ecology” that utilizes various media both old, such as television, and new, such as YouTube and social media, as well as older internet tools such as mailing lists. This diversity enables protest movements to successfully collaborate and organize across different groups, and to create actions both online and offline.

The language of Anonymous regarding its goals often contradict its actions (see, for example Johnston (2012) and Matisse (2012)). Yet these hypocritical aims do not lessen the effectiveness of Anonymous’ operations. This effectiveness stems from the loosely connected nature of the digital networks it uses: any single operation has such a large potential pool of people to draw from that there are still sufficient people willing to assist any specific campaign.

Coleman (2012) describes Anonymous as a “brand”. She relates the often contradictory nature of the organization, both in terms of legal and illegal tactics, as well as the disparity in its campaigns (from major operations against governments and censorship, to releasing the personal details of individuals it disagrees with). This has led to Anonymous becoming an umbrella organization which brings together various protest groups, effectively enough that it has been described by the US National Security Agency as a security threat, while also being one of Time Magazine’s 2012 “100 most influential people” (Gellman, 2012). Clearly, “Anonymous” (the brand) has become a rallying point that links politically motivated groups.

In his history of the group, Elliott notes that it operates in a borderless “communally constructed environment” (Elliott, 2009, p.97), an environment that is primarily digital. This allows what were once only local protests to rapidly transform, increasing their reach and participants. The regional can now create a global presence, while simultaneously global protests can be localized (Elliott, 2009, p. 107). Anonymous thus is a constantly destabilized object (applying equally to the group as well as the brand), an object that requires no effort to join and which leverages the links that digital networks allow (Elliott, 2009, p. 109).

McLaughlin (2012, p. 78) also notes that the internet enables, and indeed encourages, transparency of information and democracy, including making governments more accountable. It makes information spreading an easy act, but it also increases the connections between people to an unprecedented level (McLaughlin, 2012, p. 79). At a fundamental level, rather than specific software such as IRC or YouTube, it is this basic nature of the internet that has made Anonymous so successful. Milan (2012, p. 5) argues that such networked communication aids activism due to its “low cost, speed and flexibility”, such that the network itself is now subject to contention.

Digital collaboration can also be used not just for overtly political ends, but is prominent in the field of group information creation, or wikis, the most notable example of which is Wikipedia. The nature of wikis is fundamentally open, allowing anyone to contribute. This alters the power balance between information creators and information consumers, as Ravid, Kalman and Rafaeli (2008, p. 1915) comment, allowing the community to directly connect with the content rather than accessing it through intermediaries. The collaborative tools that the internet makes possible has allowed this direct linking and cooperation, though the authors note that it is the social attitudes and motives of the users that empowers or disempowers various groups, depending on how these tools are utilized (Ravid, Kalman & Rafaeli, 2008, p. 1924). They also note that digital connections enable the power law function (or the “long tail”) of participation that many authors also observe, making it an easy matter for a majority of people to join the organization even if most of those only do so in a minor way (Ravid, Kalman & Rafaeli, 2008, p. 1917), a point that Blau also comments on (Blau, 2011, p. 30).

Kane (2009, p. 2) emphasizes in relation to Wikipedia that, while the capabilities or limitations of the technology are important in determining its uses, the social aspects (what he terms the “interpersonal aspects”) are at least as important. Until, and unless, the tools are used effectively, there can be no real knowledge creation. He takes a Social Network Analysis view of the project, such that “the network is the organization”, and the relationships between entities are more important than the entities themselves (Kane, 2009, p. 4). Kane finds that article quality and collaborative success is improved where multiple editors work across multiple articles (Kane, 2009, pp. 30-31).

Wikipedia utilizes what has been termed the “wisdom of the crowds” but, in order for this to be effective a number of conditions also need to be satisfied. Arazy, Morgan and Patterson (2006, p. 2) list three: the number of contributors must be large, opinions must be diverse, and mechanisms must exist to aggregate all of these. Such a claim also finds an echo in Sassen’s statement regarding diversity previously noted. Diversity, in particular, acts to stem a possibly destructive conformity to the group. It is interesting to contrast how these work to make Wikipedia effective by consolidating a range of ideas and opinions whereas, in the case of Anonymous, there is a limited diversity of opinions. This does not make Anonymous ineffective, but it does limit its aims and goals, lacking as it does one of the three key conditions for sustained effectiveness.

There are, of course, other ways of considering collaboration online, and the understanding of collaboration online is an ongoing process. Ransbotham and Kane (2011, p. 24), for example, note that these processes are probably more complicated than at first assumed. Discussing Wikipedia, for example, they find two distinct processes where knowledge creation seems to be a separate function from knowledge retention, and so separate considerations of effectiveness need to be applied to different aspects of online collaboration.

Reagle (2011, p. 45) notes that collaboration in respect to Wikipedia can best be seen as shared meaning making. In relation to this, he also notes that automated tools, computer networks, openness, and accessibility all contribute to this process being successful (Reagle, 2011, p. 48). It is this accessibility, and aggregation mechanisms previously noted, that the rapid, distributed networking encouraged by the internet encourages.

Both the examples of Anonymous and Wikipedia demonstrate how effectively groups can collaborate and be organized in a digitally networked system, though each also demonstrates different ways of doing this, and different purposes. Fundamentally, however, these two groups (and many others) show how the basic infrastructure of the internet has enabled a powerful step change in collaborating potential, in an environment that allows virtually costless, rapid, and trivially easy communication. The underlying neutral network of loosely connected individuals creates an exponentially altered base, linking both strong and loose nodes together into arbitrary, and often short-lived, groups. The internet is designed to bypass authority, and to widely distribute connections across multiple points, forming a space that actively flattens relationships and transforms collaborative processes. Built on this network, specific software tools further enhance communication and the development of goals, according to how different groups use them. Along with this change in organizational potential, it must also be remembered that the same capabilities and tools are equally of use to opposing groups, which has led to the internet becoming a currently contested space between different political viewpoints.


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