The Network is dead, long live the network

The Network is dead, long live the Network

We’re all talking about networks nowadays. Like the internet unleashed a realisation that our lives are, in fact, a lot more interconnected and complex than we used to imagine.

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But what exactly do we mean when talk about networks? And how can we make better use of them in planning and managing the complexity around us?

I’ve been doing a fair bit of thinking around the subject for my PhD of late (it’s going well, thanks!) and thought Id share some of my meandering thoughts.

If you’ve read my blog previously – or seen me present – will know that I’ve mentioned  Manuel Castells a few times before.

Castells gave us the term ‘Network Society’ in his series of seminal studies of the ways in which the network form has become the basic unit of organisation in our post-industrialist world:

“Networks constitute the new social morphology of our societies and the diffusion of networking logic substantially modifies the operations and outcomes in processes of production, experience, power and culture.” 

In later work Castells also looked at how power – as communication power – is shaped by networks.

But despite Castells’ legacy, the more I read and thought about and experienced networks I couldn’t help find Castells’ work – although compelling – unsatisfying.

For example, trying to get my head around how networks produce qualitative differences characterised as complexity  I found that Castells’ logical or structural analyses that address quantitative differences, for example, the increased connectivity of network making more things happen and faster couldn’t adequately account for the full range of networked phenomena we experience on a day-to-day basis.

Thinking about this I decided that the problem might lie with Castells interpretation of networks from the perspective of technological evolution, that is: as telecommunications networks.

While this enables us to view different elements of our world as being networked, it locks us into thinking of networks as point-to-point systems of communication or organisation. Castells applies this analysis to social groups, businesses, political campaigns, etc.

But what about if we consider that rather than the Network Society arising thanks to newly empowering technology – whether the telegraph or the smartphone – networks, in fact, constitute our existence at a much deeper level as well as manifesting how we live or experience our lives.

This perspective comes to the fore perhaps most vividly in the work of Gilles Deleuze (and also his work with Felix Guattari) who gives us a different interpretation of network: as a rhizome.

Firstly, (and without getting too deep into Deleuze’s philosophy!) we need to unpick the idea of the rhizome which is actually a sort of metaphor (or ‘image of thought’ in Deleuze’s lexicon) to account for Deleuze’s broader philosophy of difference or multiplicities.

Rhizomes, then, are a type of networks constituted as “a series of productive connections with no centre or foundation” (Colebrook 2002, 156).

What this means is we have a way of interpreting networks as a potential form for endlessly connecting things in the world in a way that produces complexity.

Another theorist that has adopted rhizomatic networks, Bruno Latour, complains that Castell’s dominance in network thinking has led to a situation whereby the concept of the network unproblematically accounts for the transformation of things (information mainly) without “deformation”. On the contrary, the rhizomatic network that Deleuze and Latour discuss bring about “transformations” that problematise the point-to-point linearity of telecommunication networks.

So Deleuzian networks are systems of emergence with unknowable outcomes – or at least engender a complexity which makes knowing or predicting outcomes difficult. As such, they connect people and things to one another in ways that ensure an always open and endless flow of possibilities.

In short, I reckon you could summarise the difference by saying:

  • Castellian networks connect and organise
  • Deleuzian networks produce and disorganise

As vague and abstract as this might sound I believe it gets us closer to a better understanding of the potential for networks to account for the world around us – both as we exist within it as well as how it organises our lives.

I’ll hopefully follow this post up with a more applied look at rhizomatic networks and their relation to assemblages, something Anthony Mayfield and Dan McQuillan have already started to explore.

[Image courtesy of Sevensixfive on Flickr ]

MyDavidCameron: some post event analyses

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With the buzz about the remixed Conservative Party election posters and Clifford Singer’s MyDavidCameron website a few days old I thought I’d reflect on the debate and offer up some analysis about what might be going on here and what it means for political parties ahead of the election.

But before I can do that I need to jump back to September last year when I discussed Manuel Castell’s theory of networked power and suggested how it could be applied to the UK’s political blogosphere.

In a nutshell, Castells argues that power in networks is fundamentally about the ability to establish and control particular networks.

This can be achieved by one of two ways:

  1. the ability to constitute network(s), and to program/reprogram the network(s) in terms of goals assigned to the network (largely by setting and controlling the way we perceive issues and information)
  2. the ability to connect and ensure cooperation of different networks by sharing common goals and combining resources (i.e. identifying like-minded networks with which you can work to challenge the dominant program)

Castells calls actors in the first mechanism ‘programmers’ and those in the second mechanism, ‘switchers’.

I argued that Conservative and right-wing blogs were successful because they had programmed the UK’s political network by a) adapting early and b) creating a broad anti-government debate which resonated with the media and wider public.

This meant that left and liberal bloggers had to find common issues and threads with each other and the public with which to try and switch the dominant power in the network away from anti-government/right-wing debate.

So what does this tell us about the MyDavidCameron success? Firstly, I think it supports my original hypothesis. That is, Labour have identified a wider – albeit smaller – network outside of the UK political blogosphere with a shared value (mocking David Cameron/the Conservatives and graphic design).

They are then co-opting this network, forming a strategic partnership but letting the idea and content go where it goes, as opposed to trying to centrally plan and control what happens with the David Cameron imagery.

In my opinion, a political party having the foresight and ability to spot an opportunity like this and use it to help try to ‘switch’ the dominant discourse in the political blogosphere is smart.

Yes, there may be those that say: “well, who wouldn’t jump on an opportunity if it arose?” But I’d argue that the traditional approach to this kind of online meme would be to try and own it: take it in-house.*

I think Labour have deliberately avoided doing this, having learnt the lesson from last summer’s #Welovethenhs grassroot campaign that which Labour co-opted, arguably tried to centralise and quickly destroyed the value in the network. Compare how they're currently using a Labour Party version of MyDavidCameron (i.e. becoming another node in the network) versus their mini-campaign site for #Welovethenhs which argubly tries to own the decentralised campaign network.

But thinking logically about the MyDavidCameron campaign: would Labour seeking to ‘own’ the network really kill it in the same way that it killed #Welovethenhs?

I’m not so sure for two reasons:

  1. Firstly, the #Welovethenhs campaign was not a pro-government campaign; nor was it an anti-tory campaign. It was a pro-public healthcare system campaign. It’s an issue that traditionally has a shared value for with liberal/left networks but not solely. Labour arguably killed this campaign as it tried to go further than switching and instead reprogram the networks’ values as pro-government/pro-Labour.
  2. Secondly, network alignment based on shared opposition to David Cameron and/or the Conservatives is one thing, but the reality is that only Labour can defeat the Conservatives at an election. Therefore, Labour trying to reprogram the goal of the networks driving the MyDavidCameron campaign to be pro-Labour is actually a smart move.

What this says to me is that now we’re entering the run up to an election, the political discourse is no longer split broadly between anti-government/right-wing ideology and pro-Government goals (that were largely indistinguishable form Labour policy).

Instead, Labour is starting to reprogram the UK’s political networks through creating a discourse of Conservatives vs Labour. It’s early days and the Conservatives still have the upper hand but I’d argue that the MyDavidCameron campaign plus the recent emergence of distinct left and Labour-aligned voices is starting to re-balance the pro-right-wing goals of the UK’s political networks.

Footnote:
* What this reveals is Labour’s ability to switch between a traditional command and control political party and a node in a fluid, participative network. Something Andrew Chadwick has defined as “organisational hybridity” – the internet driven phenomena that enables organisations and institutions to switch between being member-led hierarchical institutions, single-issue campaign groups or temporary, loosely joined networks of like-minded individuals. I believe this is what political parties of the future will look like: political parties in all but name, But that’s something for another post.

Online monitoring and political behaviour: survey of UK political parties

 

I popped along to give the keynote speech at a symposium on measuring online political behaviour yesterday organised by Royal Holloway University’s New Political Communications Unit.

In keeping with true keynote style I only managed to get along to
the afternoon sessions at the event, but I still managed to catch a
couple of interesting presentations: one from Rob Pearson at the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office examining the evaluation of its G20 London Summit web presence; the second from Simon Bergman from strategic communications outfit, Information Options.

I was presenting findings from some research I’ve been conducting
into the use of online monitoring by the UK’s three main political
parties: The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats which is an area without any in-depth study to date.

I’ve embedded my presentation
above, but be warned – it’s text heavy (hey, it’s tricky articulating
research findings using fancy images) – but here are some of my main
findings:

  • All political parties report that they track online influencers qualitatively (e.g. Iain Dale, Guido, Political Betting, etc) but they also reported that they engage with these blogs to help set the national media-agenda (which nicely supports my earlier research).
    Equally, all online or influencer monitoring by parties is performed
    informally – that is, not using paid for or third party tracking tools.
  • One respondent told me that monitoring is about “a gut feeling about what’s going on
    and also the UK political blogosphere is small and well organised. In
    my opinion, using influencers this way suggests that parties are
    perhaps only scratching the surface of influencer engagement. In my day
    job I would advise clients to establish a conversational position
    within influencer networks and build trusted relationships.  This is
    key to developing successful long-term engagement programmes – arguably
    the only real way to change behaviour.
    • Parties do engage directly to a limited extent with individuals
      online, particularly at a local level. However, The Labour Party
      appears to be closest to participating in real-time within online
      networks by engaging non-political networks, e.g. marketing/PR and
      media networks to leverage news or content.

 

  • Interestingly Labour also use quantitative tracking to identify
    popular or trending issues and content on the Labour Party website and
    to identify ‘content gaps’ on the Labour website. This insight is used
    to create new content to meet demand.
  • The Liberal Democrats use qualitative monitoring in a different way
    altogether: as an internal communications or customer service tool. By
    reading and staying on top of what Lib Dem campaigners and activists
    are saying, thinking and doing, the party can help out or resolve any
    issues that are emerging at a grassroots level. Really interesting use
    of monitoring.

My presentation also tried to fit these findings into a critical framework based on the workManuel Castells has completed in mapping and analysing the Network Society.

I started from the position that political parties monitor online
networks to ensure they can engage effectively with the aim being to
exert influence influence in the network.

One of the most important measures of influence – or more accurately
– power in networks is defined by Castells as “networking-making power” – that is the ability to establish and control particular networks.

This ability is further categorised into two processes: programmers and switchers.

  1. Programmers have “the ability to constitute network(s), and to program/reprogram the network(s) in terms of goals assigned to the network”
  2. Switchers have “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 strategic cooperation”

Based on my findings I hypothesise that the Tories are Programmers while Labour are Switchers:

    • Conservatives – early political online networks in
      the UK were (and still are to an extent) right-wing or anti-Government.
      This meant that the Conservatives were able to program the network and
      assign goals that were largely identical to its own. This would
      potentially explain why the Conservatives focus online engagement with
      influential nodes in the network rather and not primarily engaging in
      wider debate around issues.

 

  • Labour – Labour are Switchers as they are seeking
    to cooperate with strategic partner networks through shared goals. For
    example, identifying media networks interested in specific issues and
    leveraging them by combining resources.

Anyway. Those are my main findings. Feel free to challenge, share,
agree with, etc. As always, they open up more questions for further
examination than they answer. But that’s the beauty of research.

Cross-posted to We Are Social.

Tags: online monitoring, politics, Labour Party, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Network Society, Manuel Castells