As mentioned in a previous post, I'm presenting a paper on online monitoring and UK political parties at a forthcoming event.
This post is sort of a work-in-progress/thinking out loud series of notes leading up to that paper. It draws on recent work by Manuel Castell's and seeks to clarify how power functions in networks. Alternatively, you could substitute the term 'influence' for 'power' – but fundamentally we're taking about power however it's dressed up.
If you're interested in politics or digital communications and networks then read on.
Based on earlier work by Geoff Mulgan, Castells argues that
the state has the capacity to exercise power “through the articulation of three
sources of power: violence, money and trust.”
“Of the three sources of power the most
important for sovereignty is the power over the thoughts that give rise to
trust. Violence can only be used negatively, money can only be used in two
dimensions, giving and taking away. But knowledge and thoughts can transform
things, move mountains and make ephemeral power appear permanent.”
Castells argues that the third power, trust, is critical to
the network society. He believes that while Mulgan’s perspective on state power
is broadly accurate it is traditional (i.e. industrial). In the networked
society the ability of individual actors to control communication and knowledge,
which leads to trust, is being changed.
According to Castells, the most crucial forms of power in
the networked society follow the logic of “network-making power” – that is, the
most important power within networks is the ability to establish and control
the particular network.
The ability to do this is based on two basic mechanisms:
the ability to constitute network(s), and to program/reprogram the network(s)
in terms of goals assigned to the network
(2) the ability to connect and
ensure cooperation of different networks by sharing common goals and combining
resources, while fending off competition from other networks by setting up
Castells calls actors in the first mechanism ‘programmers’
and those in the second mechanism, ‘switchers’.
If we apply this to the example of political blogging
networks in the UK then the logic runs as follows:
Those that ‘program’ the network typically establish who
links to whom and what people blog about. The UK’s primary political blogging
network has arguably emerged from the early, influential bloggers, e.g. Guido
Fawkes, Iain Dale, Political Betting, etc. These bloggers have constituted the
network and thus are the programmers.
If you are a political party then this network is likely to
operate outside of your control. Coercion (i.e. legal or technical take-down) won’t
work as power is distributed among the network.
There are two options then that political parties could
explore to change the network-making power:
Establish their own network of political
bloggers in an attempt to reprogram the political blogging network. This has
been attempted by some political parties, e.g. LabourHome; Lib Dem Voice, but these
have seemingly not accrued enough influence/power in the network to re-program
it as of yet.
They could attempt to establish strategic
partnerships with key networks and attempt to ‘switch’ the flow of power.
Examples of this include providing bloggers with exclusive information or news
and inviting them party conferences etc.
With some luck I’ll be presenting some more conclusive
findings relating this theory to actual practice within UK political parties later this