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Organised Networks: Weak Ties to Strong Links

By Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter

Sloganism for late 2013: “I feel protected by unpublished Suite A algorithms.” (J. Sjerpstra) – “I am on an angry squirrel’s shitlist.” – Join the Object Oriented People – “When philosophy sucks, but you don’t.” ­– “See you in the Sinkhole of Stupid, at 5 pm.” – “I got my dating site profile rewritten by a ghost writer.” – “Meet the co-editor of the Idiocracy Constitution” – The Military-Entrepreneurial Complex: “They are bad enough to do it, but are they mad enough?” – “There really should be something like Anti-Kickstarter for the things you’d be willing to pay to have not happen.” (Gerry Canavan) – Waning of the Social Media: Ruin Aesthetics in Peer-to-Peer Enterprises (dissertation) – “Forget the Data Scientist, I need a Data Janitor.” (Big Data Borat)

If we look back at the upheavals from the past years (2011-2013) we see bursts of ‘social media’ activity. From Tahrir to Taksim, from Tel-Aviv to Madrid, from Sofia to São Paulo, what they have in common is communication peaks, which fade away soon after the initial excitement, much in line with the festival economy that drives the Society of the Event. Corporate social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are considered useful to spread rumors, forward pictures, file reports and comment on established media (including the Web). But no matter how intense the street events may have been, they often do not go beyond ‘short ties’. As temporary autonomous spaces they feel like carnivalesque ruptures of everyday life and are perhaps best understood as revolts without consequences.

There is growing discontent over event-centred movements. The question of how to reach a critical mass that goes beyond the celebration of temporary euphoria is essential here. How can we get over the obvious statements about the weather and other meta fluctuations (from Zeitgeist to astrology)? Instead of contrasting the Leninist party model with the anarcho-horizontalist celebration of the general assembly, we propose to integrate the general network intellect into the organisation debate. We’ve moved on a good 150 years since the Marx-Bakunin debates.

It is time to integrate technology into the social tissue and no longer reduce computers and smart phones to broadcasting devices. As so many know, either tacitly or explicitly, technologies are agents of change. To understand social transformation, therefore, requires an understanding of technology. Innis and McLuhan both knew this well. It is thus not unreasonable to say that media theory provides a reservoir of diagnostic concepts and methods to assist those making interventions against regimes of control and exploitation. We would even go one step further: don’t just rehash concepts on file, but invent your own by deducing the correspondence between concepts and problems as they manifest within your own media universe of expression. Find sites of conflict, passion and tension, and you’ll soon get a rush of thought to the brain.

The organised networks model that we propose is first and foremost a communication tool to get things done. We are aware that this proposal runs into trouble when tens of thousands of users start getting involved. Once you hit that kind of scale the Event takes over. The orgnet concept (short for organised networks) is clear and simple: instead of further exploiting the weak ties of the dominant social networking sites, orgnets emphasise intensive collaborations within a limited group of engaged users. Orgnets are neither avant-garde nor inward-looking cells. What’s emphasised is the word ‘organ’. With this we do not mean a New Age-gesture of a return to nature or a regression into the (societal) body. Neither is it a reference to Aristotle’s six volume work called the Organon. Even less does it refer to the tired notion of the ‘body without organs’ (or Žižek’s reversal, for that matter).

The organ of orgnets is a social-technical device through which projects are developed, relations built and interventions made. Here, we are speaking of the conjunction between software cultures and social desires. Crucial to this relation is the question of algorithmic architectures – something largely overlooked by many activist movements who adopt, in what seems a carefree manner, commercially motivated and politically compromised social media software such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

Today’s uprisings no longer result from extensive organisational preparations in the background, neither do they produce new networks of ‘long ties’. They do, however, often emerge from a collective unconscious of accumulated discontent. Think of the public protests in São Paulo; initially a response to an increase in the costs of public transport, the underlying motivation behind such demonstrations was a longstanding malaise stemming from social inequalities and economic privileges bestowed upon a corrupt elite. What’s left is a shared feeling: the birth of yet another generation, though one not limited to age or even necessarily class or political persuasions. Even though small groups have often worked on the issues for many years, their efforts are usually focused on advocacy work, designing campaigns, doing traditional media work or being focused on those who are immediately affected by the crisis on the ground. Important work, but not precisely about preparing for the Big Riot.

Is it wishing for too much to want sustainable forms of organisation when the world seems to be in perpetual flux? Very little stability defines labour and life as we know it. Ideologies have been on the run for decades. So too are political networks amongst activists. At best we can speak of a blossoming of unexpected temporary coalitions. What we need to focus on in the years to come is time-in-between, the long intervals when there is time to build sustainable networks, exchange ideas, set up working groups and realise the impossible, on the spot. How might such a long-term strategy be conceived and orchestrated within the logic of networks?

We can complain about social media causing loneliness but without a thorough re-examination of social media architectures, such sociological observations can easily turn into forms of resentment. What presents itself as social media critique these days often leaves users with a feeling of guilt, with nowhere to go, except to return to the same old ‘friends’ on Facebook or ‘followers’ on Twitter. As much as mainstream social media platforms come with an almost guaranteed capacity to scale as mass networking devices, they are not without serious problems that many are now familiar with: security of communication (infiltration, surveillance and a wilful disregard of privacy), logic or structure of communication (micro-chatting among friends coupled with broadcasting notices for the many subscribed to the cloud), and an economy of ‘free labour’ (user generated data, or ‘the social production of value’).

While there has been some blossoming of social media alternatives such as Lorea, which is widely used among activists in Spain, other efforts such as Diaspora ended quite disastrously. After successfully raising $200,641 in development funds through Kickstarter it failed to gain widespread traction among activists, until an overall implosion of the project after one of its founders committed suicide. The increasing migration of youngsters to Instagram (a subsidiary of Facebook) and Snapchat was probably inevitable (irrespective of whether the NSA leak happened or not). But as April Glaser and Libby Reinish note in a recent Slate column, these social media alternatives “all use centralised servers that are incredibly easy to spy on.”

Current social media architectures have a tendency to incite passive-aggressive behavior. Users monitor, at a safe distance, what others are doing while constantly fine-tuning their envy levels. All we’re able to do easily is to update our profile and tell the world what we’re doing. In this ‘sharing’ culture all we can do is display our virtual empathy. “She really ain’t all that. Why does all the great stuff happen to her and not me?” Organised networks radically break with the updating and monitoring logic and shift attention away from watching and following diffuse networks to getting things done, together. There is more in this world than self-improvement and empowerment. Network architectures need to move away from the user-centered approach and instead develop a task-related design undertaken in protected mode.

Three months into the Edward Snowden/NSA scandal, Slavoj Žižek wrote in The Guardian “we need a new international network to organise the protection of whistleblowers and the dissemination of their message.” Note that the two central concepts of our argument are utilised here: a network that organises. Once we have all agreed on this task it is important to push the discussion further and zoom in on the organisational dimension of this timely effort. It can be an easy rhetorical move to emphasise what has already been tried, but we nonetheless need to do that.

One of the first observations we need to make is how Anonymous is the missing element in Žižek’s list of Assange, Manning and Snowden. Despite several setbacks, Anonymous remains an effective distributed effort to uncover secrets and publicise them, breaking with the neo-liberal assumption of the individual as hero who operates out of a subjective impulse to crack the code in order to make sensitive material public. The big advance of anonymous networks is that they depart from the old school logic of print and broadcasting media that needs to personalise their stories, thereby creating one celebrity after the other. Anonymous is many, not just Lulzsec.

We also need to look into the many (failed) clones of WikiLeaks and how specific ones, such as Balkan Leaks, manage to survive. There is GlobaLeaks and the outstanding technical debate about how to build functioning anonymous submission gateways. It has already sufficiently been noted that WikiLeaks itself is a disastrous model because of the personality cult of its founder and editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, whose track record of failed collaborations and falling-outs is impressive. Apart from this ‘governance’ debate, we need to look further into the question of what the ‘network’ model, in this context, precisely entails. A step that WikiLeaks never dared to take is the one of national branches, based either in nation states or linguistic territories.

To run a virtual global advocacy network, as Žižek suggests, looks sexy because of its cost-effective, flexible nature. But the small scale of these Single Person organisations (SPOs) also makes it hard to lobby in various directions and create new coalitions. Existing networks of national digital civil rights organisations should play a role here, yet haven’t so far. And it is important to discuss first why the US-organisation Electronic Frontier Foundation, the European Digital Rights network or the Chaos Computer Club for that matter have not yet created an appealing campaign that makes it possible for artists, intellectuals, writers, journalists, designers, hackers and other irregulars to coordinate efforts, despite their differences. The same can be said of Transparency International and Journalist trade unions. The IT nature of the proponents seems to make it hard for existing bodies to take up the task to protect this new form of activism.

Networks are not goals in themselves and are made subordinate to the organisational purpose. Internet and smart-phone based communication was once new and exciting. This caused some distraction but that’s soon going to be over. Distraction itself is becoming boring. The positive side of networks – in comparison to the group – remains its open architecture. However, what networks need to ‘learn’ is how to split-off or ‘fork’ once they start getting too big. At this point networks typically enter the danger-zone of losing focus. Intelligent software can assist us to dissolve connections, close conversations and delete groups once their task is over. We should never be afraid to end the party.

Published in Occupied Times 23 (2013).

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Organized Networks by Ned Rossiter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at The plaintxtBlog theme, © 2006–2008 Scott Allan Wallick, is licensed under the GNU General Public License.