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Thinking through Connective Networks

The next keynote at ASMC14 is by W. Lance Bennett, whose begins by highlighting the use of social media by NGOs. For them, the game has shifted in recent years – the emphasis now is less on continuing membership than on temporary calls to action. Other recent political movements – from the Spanish Indignados to the global Occupy movement – also appear to be crowd-based movements pursuing some form of collective action, and are moving away even further from conventional organisational models.

Conventional collective action in organisations has its problems – with free riders, for example –, and communication here simply reinforces the existing organisation. By contrast, in connective action there is more self-motivated networking well beyond the organisational setup: social technology enables sharing, using personal action frames, and thereby enlists a greater range of participants beyond the organisation itself.

Hybrids also exist, combining conventional collective and crowd-based connective action into organisationally enabled (crowd) networks. In some circumstances, all three ideal types overlap in addressing specific issues; in others, one of these models is dominant. This can be illustrated with recent examples, and indeed the Put People First campaign following the Global Financial Crisis experimented with all of these permutations over the course of its activities.

Crowd-enabled connective action, then, can be found in the 2011 Real Democracy Now protests in Spain, for example: characteristically, these involve loosely established, young, and non-membership-based organisations, which strongly distinguishes them from more conventional protests involving traditional organisations.

And of course such protests do not simply take place in the street – they are online as well as offline, and (through mobile media) usually both at the same time. To engage in them means also to reposition oneself – they can be joined in a very personalised way, without subscribing to the totality of other participants' ideological views; to communicate with other participants is itself productive of new organisations; and this creates new logics of action.

However we got here (through the transformation of conventional democracies, or through the path from authoritarian regimes to atomised populations in countries like China and Egypt), what we see around the globe now is an individuation of participation, combined with access to digital social technologies that enable networking and the coordination of action.

The key elements of such large-scale personalised communication are the availability of personal action frames (ideas that travel easily across social networks), and the use of social media that help networked organisations grow, stabilise, direct resources, and adapt to new circumstances. The underlying logic of action here, then, is one of personalised sharing across social networks – and such sharing is self-motivated.

Such personalised sharing ('send your own message') is fundamentally different from conventional collective action ('join our message') – both draw on the exchange of memes across networks, but personalised memes, like "We Are the 99%", are a great deal more malleable to different circumstances, while the messages of conventional collective action, like "Eat the Rich", do not necessarily translate well beyond their initial sociocultural contexts.

But in spite of this personalisation and malleability, such communication also supports organisation. Many different technological platforms embed in each other, and self-organising takes place across all of these – leading users, Websites, communicative markers (such as hashtags) gradually emerge and help to channel communication. Twitter, in particular, plays a crucial role in this process: it is the traffic control mechanism that integrates all other platforms; it serves as the thread creating a network of networks, and in doing so mirrors other naturally occurring phenomena.

Such threading of networks affects the prominence of specific network nodes, as well as the rise and fall of such nodes over time, in relation to changing circumstances. The network organisations which emerge from this serve to distribute resources (reports, discourses, financial and physical resources, etc.); to generate short-term reactions to external events (coordinating actions, alerting potential participants, informing the broader public, etc.); and to manage long-term adaptation and change (engaging and reengaging participants over the longer term, handing over to the next generation of protesters).

In the course of these changes, traditional NGOs have had to adjust to allow more affiliation- rather than membership-based forms of participation. As part of this, NGOs often deploy more social media both internally and for external networking, but conflicts can also arise from the overlap between different organisational types and approaches. Connective networks are also well-adjusted to protests, but not necessarily to a post-revolutionary environment (as seen in Egypt) and can be substantially disrupted by external force or other factors.

All of these are also questions of power, at different levels of analysis and across the different types of networks. Similarly, the technologies used are far from neutral; they are limited by their design, terms of service, and potential for surveillance of user activities. These issues still need to be thought through much more fully.