Network social movements: anger, hope and technology

Back in March this year, Gordon Ross wrote this great post reflecting on the role of power in organizations and its impact on social intranets projects. Reading that post left me musing on three topics:

  • power as a relationship and the impact that has on our traditional notion of empowerment: in short, for someone to be empowered means that the power is obtained against some other(s) social agent(s)
  • the concept of network making power: who gets to set the rules that create and re-create those networks? How is decision-making done in networks?
  • the fact that the great inspiration for the post was the work of sociologist Manuel Castells

The topic of power reminded me of a painting by Giuseppe Baruffi I saw last year in a museum in Bologna that depicted the city centre and five big towers (“Le cinque torri”). The legend of the painting explained how rich families would erect towers as a symbol of power (and yes, as you may have guessed it, size mattered: the higher the tower, the greater power that family had). I could not find a Creative Commons image of that painting but the following image should give you a good idea of what Bologna looked like with all the tower constructions (if you understand Italian you can find more information here).

Bologna in the 11th century by Angelo Finelli

Bologna in the 11th century by Angelo Finelli

But it was the last item, the reference to Manuel Castells, I found particularly interesting since the more I explore and learn about organizational transformation and design, the more I find myself investigating sociology-related topics such as social networks, group dynamics and how societies and institutions (re)organize.

Holding a management degree, I look back on my “Psychosociology of Organizations” classes and realize how little I remember of that topic and how hard it must have been for the teacher to engage a class of 18 year olds on their first year at the new world one calls university!

But the reference to Castells rang another bell as some time earlier Jon Husband, that I had the pleasure of meeting recently at the Enterprise 2.0 Summit in Paris, had shared on Twitter a link to a talk Castells recently gave at the prestigious RSA entitled Networks of Outrage and Hope. So on the train ride to Lisbon to attend Social Now, I just relaxed and listened to the audio recording.

In that talk Castells explores the recent explosion of social movements, especially since the movement in Iceland in 2009, and the role of our increasingly networked societies (and the online tools that shape that connectedness) in those movements.

In his research he has documented millions of people involved in those movements in over 100 countries, most of them visible via the occupation of urban space in thousands of cities, with many of those actions communicated and coordinated under the radar of mainstream/traditional media.

And though acknowledging that each of those movements may be fighting for different reasons, Castells was able to determine what those movements have in common:

  1. they are movements for dignity resulting from an emotional outburst, usually a feeling of deep anger, in a non-tolerable situation such as a feeling of oppression, misery, exploitation. At some point all this suffering makes people at large unable to control themselves any longer: they need to take action
  2. a process of construction of a protective space –  a sense of togetherness – occurs when people share their fear and anger with others. This is where communication is very important (and where those with power try to control the communication flows and channels).
  3. they have a common starting point: they are network social movements enabled by the power of new online communication channels (corresponding to a new social organization – the networked society) that then develop through different paths and forms of actions or protest
  4. they are always spontaneous in their origins and grow virally
  5. they are usually leaderless movements

So Castells is seeing the rise of what he calls network social movements: a new form of social movements corresponding to a new form of society (the networked society) that, in turn, corresponds to new forms of cultural institution domination and counterdomination.

In the talk he explains how these are movements that act on the culture and mind of society vis-à-vis political movements acting directly on the State. As Castells says, “they change the way people think, not the way people vote”.

He also explains the concept relational notion of power in society as “part power and part counterpower, always”, though drawing attention to the fact that power can be gained from two very different methods: coercion or persuasion.

To the question “are revolutions tweeted”, many times seen in articles about the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement, Castells explores the role of the Web and social platforms in these network social movements. He sees them as

“the protected space where in principle people can organize themselves and setup calls for mobilization which cannot be easily repressed”.

And here he makes the important distinction between control vs surveillance in stating that governments and other institutions cannot usually control the messages though they can, more or less easily, surveil the messengers.

Revolutions, he says

“come always as a reaction against oppression, misery and exploitation. But that is not enough: you need the social process that triggers the transformation and that social process is built by people communicating to one another those emotions (anger), on elaborating a project through communication processes and channels, and then acting together through a transformation of power relationships. The transformation of the public sphere of communication through the Internet [networked] is critical to the elaboration of new social movements that challenge [established] power.”

I’ve been paying particular attention to the impact of social media on society and citizenship ever since I’ve started organizing Cidadania 2.0, an event on that topic, together with Ana Neves back in 2010. So if, as me, you are interested in these topics I highly recommend you grab a cup of tea, seat comfortably and enjoy the audio recording of his talk. You won’t regret it!

One thought on “Network social movements: anger, hope and technology

  1. Pingback: Links for May 2, 2013 | Andrzej's Links

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