NMIT Working Papers

Working Papers on New Media & Information Technology in the Middle East

Blogging, Networked Publics and the Politics of Communication: Another Free-Speech Panacea for the Middle East?

Posted by meaningfulconnections on January 31, 2009

Jon W. Anderson

Revised, keynote address  for a conference on “New Horizons: Obama and the Global Media.” Department of Anthropology, Near Eastern Studies, School of Journalism
University of Arizona. Tucson, AZ – 23 January 2009

On December 10, the White House announced that President Bush would “commemorate the 60th anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights by meeting with activists who use Internet blogs and new-media technologies to promote freedom in countries with restricted media environments.” Two were from Iran and Egypt. Before celebration of blogging as free speech and ‘citizen journalism’ disappoints, like the Web in the 1990s or television in the 1950s, I want to consider how we might place a sounder social anthropology under media-minded constructions. How might such activities be grounded in what research shows about networked communication generally and specifically with globalizing media? As interest in global media turns to blogging, my concerns here are two.

One is that this analysis not fall into another Middle Eastern exceptionalism, such as has marred studies of media in the region and the Internet particularly with litanies of low numbers, restricted access, elite-only participation and not much of that – the usual registers of despair that follow hopes not realized. Never mind that they are not realized anywhere. My other concern is to ground comparison and thus, for an anthropologist, analysis in what research elsewhere and more generally shows about networked communication, global media and my subject, which is the Internet going global, or at least getting into the Middle East and the larger Muslim world.

Blogging, which is less than a decade old and little more than half that as a public phenomenon, has been hailed as a new opportunity for public communication, political activism, and a democratic public sphere from its very first appearances in the region – notably Egypt, Iran, but also Syria, Saudi Arabia, famously Iraq – just like Web portals, the Internet, and back to television in the 1950s. I have to plead guilty to new-ism, since Dale Eickelman and I framed new media in the Muslim world a decade ago in terms of new interpreters, new interpretations, new media and a new public sphere.[1] This was less a theory than a formulary for gathering and comparing developments. My interest as an anthropologist has focused more on the mechanics of these processes, and on opening up the middle ground between the overwhelming emphasis on agency-enhancement that’s dominated most work on these topics in our region,[2] on the one hand, and, at the other extreme, expansive notions from “virtual community” to the “wisdom of crowds” as general conceptions of what networked communications unleash.[3]

We all work in the shadow of the sociologist Robert Merton who gave us the concept of middle range phenomena – and their key specification in reference groups, to which I will come back – which occupy just this space between the micro and the macro. And, recently, the web-guru David Weinberger pointed to such intermediate formations as what’s missing in media constructions of participatory or citizen journalism:[4]

We’re not being atomized. We’re molecularizing, forming groups that create a local culture …[that] falls between the expertise of men in the editorial boardroom and the ‘wisdom of crowds’.  It’s the wisdom of groups…

Almost. “Group” is a loosely applied term in the post-modern world, having already lost the strong-form referent of community in the modern period for a looser range from association to category. This is important, because the accumulating weight of Internet research is showing, if nothing else, that the Internet is not a strong force for forming groups or communities. Groups may migrate to the Internet, and some thrive there; but few actually form through its modalities. Instead, the strong force on the Internet is information-seeking. It is much better for information-seeking than for solidarity-seeking, always has been, and, indeed, was so designed from the beginning by engineers who invented it for their own work. This is my first point.

The social formations that thrive – that even exist – on the Internet and via the World Wide Web, which is the Internet to most people, are less communities than reference groups; and the reason is that the openness of networked communications is far less well-suited for the sort of communication that fosters community – what anthropologists know as ritual – than for the sort of communication that facilitates information-seeking, transfer, feedback. We know this from the success of Google, on the one hand, and from the notorious tendency of online discussion forums all the way back to listservs, on the other hand, to dissolve in acrimony and shouting. And, theoretically, we have known since Durkheim that organic solidarities work within a context of mechanical solidarities with their “solid frame that encloses all thought.”

While this sociology of networked communications has been coming better into view in the past few years,[5] thinking about blogging and the development of social networking sites and wikis that are collectively known as Web 2.0 is still behind the curve of routine social science research. They share certain features, among them greater interactivity than preceding Web formats such as portals; but the most important is a developer model of continuous modification of programs and “free” distribution (in contrast to corporate models) borrowed from the Free and Open Software movements. While blogs, wikis and social networking sites have precursors back to the earliest days of the Internet, and their own prehistories in 1990s pioneers, they burst into public more or less simultaneously, between 2003 when Google bought blogger.com and MySpace came on-line, and 2004, when Facebook was launched for Harvard students from a dormroom and grew within the year to all college students and a headquarters in Palo Alto. What made the difference?

These did not grow from nothing. There were pioneers in the 1990s who devised the concepts and first software and precedents back to e-mail and file archives at the beginning of the Internet. And they did not grow for nothing, although each is “free” of charge and provides “user-generated content” in contrast to corporate models of software development. That contrast is conscious,[6] and an ideological commitment of developers that resembles the Free and Open Software movements back through the 1990s to the early Internet, which was itself developed as open and pushed hard by early developers to be “free.” That is, free to use and develop, not free of commercial exploitation.

In a meticulous study of the various streams of FOSS movements,[7] Christopher Kelty elucidates the practical interaction between advocating FOSS and designing/writing the software implementing it as part of advocating it. It forms not a gift economy but what he calls a “recursive public” –

… a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public … a collective independent of other forms of constituted power … capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives.[8]

His key point is that joining such a public is to work on its means, and to be recognized for that. While Kelty carefully restricts his analysis to FOSS programmers, he does project the model back onto early inventors/developers of the Internet. That Internet itself is a stack of programs that provide platforms for others; so as it extends to new applications and platforms, might one cautiously extend the notion and analysis to other “developers” such as the user-contributors that are highlighted by Web 2.0, and particularly bloggers?

Modeling blogging as citizen journalism, as competing with journalism, challenging its knowledge production and amateurizing it,[9] captures only a limited comparison to media. Blogging is not only user-generated content, like wikis, but also user-distributed, like social networking sites: it is distributed through links, especially through links to other blogs, as well as links to traditional media, from which blogs often draw information that bloggers “complete” by associating or reframing it with additional, other discourse. This is not universally the case, of course. Many blogs adhere to the earlier model of personal diaries; and most blogs get no attention. How they get attention is a matter of their social organization, which is my second point.

Blogging proceeds largely as commentary that is linked both to sources of information, which are often mainstream media, and to other commentary, which is usually in the form of other blogs. They fall in the intermediate or middle zone between individual and group expression. Some are and remain personal diaries, read by no one; others zoom to popularity. Collectively, they array in Paraeto distributions, not the Gaussian bell curve. A few get most of the attention, traffic, links; most get few or none, and the drop off is steep.[10] If this is the normal outcome of an open market, then how does a blog get attention in a world of many-to-many communications? The answer is by making links, particularly with other blogs. In other words, what blogging resembles is social networking; and blogging took off when it added this facility.

Recall that solidarity-seeking is a weaker force on the Internet generally than information-seeking; so blogging turns social less as audience than as entourage: sharing is typically with friends, with people who already know each other, and migrate on-line. As notes in bottles, as it were, cast upon cyber-seas, blogging would follow Paraeto distributions, and most blogging does, with celebrity for a very few and obscurity for the very, very many.[11] So bloggers turn to linking, as programmers who made posting and commenting easy also made linking easy through “blogrolls.” By this, blogs that overall tend to fall into Paraeto distributions, more “locally” tend to cluster – call them “network neighborhoods.”

These have sometimes been characterised as “echo chambers” for reproducing tendencies noted earlier in earlier formats for like-with-like over any-to-any communication. Sociologists call this “homophily:” actors gravitate to those they are like or want to be like, a basic feature of reference group behavior. So, these network neighborhoods of linked blogs form echo chambers of mutual affirmation, a level of solidarity that sociologists of networks call “strong ties.”[12] These are the ties of kin and friends, with long-standing solidarities but with relatively low information (or high redundancy) as all members share pretty much the same information due to social locations that are pretty much the same. By comparison, “weak ties” are between acquaintances, such as friends of friends, who may share only a bit – literally, a single bit in mathematical terms – of information. The classic example is that your friends can’t help you find a job, because they have the same information; but distant acquaintances or friends of friends can, because they have other information, the bit that makes a difference. In these terms, blogs form networked publics of nodes that consolidate around strong ties (and high informational redundancy) and extend through weak ties (high differentiation) to others.

This is the social organization of the intermediate space between the individual agency and the “wisdom of crowds;” and that is my third point. Its elementary forms are strong-tie nodes of solidarity-passing and weak-tie links of information-passing that begin to resemble Pierre Bourdieu’s “social fields,” or domains of practice and actors linked in them around a limited set of activities, interests, functions.[13] By that, I mean that within nodes what happens is refinement of shared understandings – that is what all the commentary and argument is about – a process of definition or, in linguistic terms, “entextualization.”

The concept was developed by Joel Kuipers to describe communicative and social practices that unfold in domains such as medical diagnosis or divination,[14] in which highly situated, individual discourse (the complaint) is progressively recast or “entextualized” (as diagnosis) into more general, more shared and often more abstract, ultimately ritual, terms that are low in content (information in mathematical terms) but high in signaling. At one end of the process, you have to know the context, at the other end, the code supplies significance. Kuipers refers to this passage as establishing “textual authority,”[15] which seems precisely what blogging strains toward in its twin features of commentary (over reporting) and linking (over broadcasting). Entextualization confers what boyd and Ellison refer to as the properties of transparency and permanency in social networking sites that permit users to construct a profile, build a network, peruse connections;[16] and this is my fourth point.

While bloggers do not form communities (though they may bring them) on-line, they do form networks that pass interpretation into ever more shared space and terms as signals through weak ties to other nodes. Bourdieu’s concept of fields theorizes that exemplary actors in a field interact with peers outside their specialized (echo-chamber, homophilic) fields, much as our colleague, the Middle East historian Juan Cole, does with the Daily Kos, supplying “informed comment” on Middle East news to the progressive blogosphere, or certain celebrity bloggers – starting with Salam Pak and extending to Saudi Girl, Riverdance, Hoder, or Esra Abdel Fattah and others in Egypt down to Kareem Amir – have been taken up by Western observers of the Middle East from human rights activists to journalists and other commentators.

What may appear problematic as samples of public opinion, or even as information providers, may appear less problematic as something more like Kelty’s recursive public. If, that is, we can move beyond thinking of their discourse as report to something more performative: in a sense, they are developing “software,” the discursive linking, they are using. They join a process of entextualisation that converts situated, individual experience into more abstract, portable terms that can circulate outside small worlds. Quite literally, in programmers’ terms, they “port” discourse to another platform. While this extends Kelty’s concept beyond its type-site in programmers, the comparison may be grounded and not just metaphorical. There are indications that at least some have connections, even roots, in web development. Hoder, Hossein Derakhshan, perhaps Iran’s most famous blogger and self-proclaimed father of the Iranian blogosphere, who was recently arrested in Iran, is described on his Guardian.com page as “blogger, journalist, activist,”[17] but on his own website describes himself as “journalist and multimedia designer,” who started writing about the Internet and then expanded to writing about digital culture.[18] There are hints in the stories of other bloggers of similar crossovers that I have seen in the careers of Internet developers throughout the region,[19] who display marked social as well as occupational mobility (morphing identities) and in developing Internet applications engage also legal, regulatory, financial and conceptual means of that production. For example, the founder of the first pan-Arab Web portal was a medical school graduate who began writing for a computer magazine, subsequently sold his creation to a Saudi media mogul, then became a venture capitalist investing in Internet start-ups from Cairo. I do not mean to suggest that bloggers are software developers in the Kelty’s very specific sense (of writing the underlying program) but to suggest that they are a kind of developer of a kind of software, an application, so that what looks like political commentary has a denser back-story.

Two additional reasons. First, these local blogospheres often are composed of groups of friends,[20] who often write for each other, not for a general public.[21] Second, there are indications that bloggers in the region reach out to form networks, and consciously.[22] The pattern that emerges starts with blogging for friends (and some go no further), then looking for more friends, supporters, located elsewhere but like-minded in some minimal sense of finding a discoverable connection.[23] So, what are the politics of such recursive publics?

Network-building through weak ties and entextualisation together leverage the information-seeking strong force of the Internet, and specifically in blogging. For political analyses, this has limited interest as consciousness-raising, but is discounted for not including (much) mobilization, the sine qua non of political action for modernists.[24] However, passing over the process, the steps in which any-to-any communication unfolds to focus on the gross fact of its advent misses the actual politics in networked communications just as comparisons to journalism miss the real sociology of blogging and of networked communications generally.

Here, let me turn from comparing bloggers to programmers, which might be strained, to another set of social actors, also often said to be pursuing democratic agendas, voluntaristically, from the grass roots and so expected to be empowered by information technology, in the transnational NGO sector. Reflecting on information technology in this sector, and specifically on the seemingly halting emergence of a transnational civil society that many predict information technology would accelerate,[25] Jodi Dean, Geert Lovink and I hazarded a guess that the problematic character of any democratizing effect of information technology reflects its dependence on expertise and appeals to abstract values over the head of specific community values and disclaimers of representation. The participation it expands is voluntaristic and abjures representation and constituency formation: “I don’t represent anyone, just myself .” Networked communication, with its Paraeto distributions instead of the idealized many-to-many, with its clumping into network neighborhoods (of entextualized discourses) of strong ties that refine and weak ties that pass information, fosters not Habermas’s ideal public sphere of rational communication (‘speaking truth to power’) but a politics, including cultural politics, that trades on knowing how and showing up. It proceeds as assiduous management of reputations for that as qualification for participation over representation and constituency formation, and by constantly shaping and reshaping its own intellectual technology for and as that participation.[26] These are the means of production in networked communications, and blogging operationalizes these properties.

So, my own view of blogging generally and in the Middle East specifically is that we need to look beyond the paradigms not only of journalistic amour propre that register blogging as media but also of representation and constituency politics and framing the value of “information” for political action in terms of improved decision-making at the expense of attending to how information is formed and acquires authority both in general and specifically under conditions of networked communication. Information-seeking is made through extending weak ties and what they engage: know-how, stepping up, reputations for that and for shaping and reshaping the technology (in an extended sense that includes its regulatory and financial surround), which are essentially reference group phenomena. The elements for rethinking these properties, I suggest, are found in this middle range of reference group behavior and something like entextualisation that are the actual “flows” (of discourses, ideas, links) in networked communications. This universe includes a lot of personal blogging, as well as the seemingly political sort; it starts between friends, precisely where strong ties, along with informational redundancy or the echo-chamber effect, refine views then transmitted as signals through weak ties that come and go. Schematically, this could be imagined as a series of tensions, or empirically as types of data, that relate…

solidarity-seeking~ information-seeking
strong ties ~ weak ties
nodes ~ links
info-redundant ~ info-discriminant
ritual ~  signal
affirmation ~ information

and place blogging in a denser sociology, both within the Middle East and comparatively.

Let me conclude by returning to the theme of this talk. The Internet has been seen as a free-speech panacea, particularly for the Middle East, for supposed capacities to “route around” obstacles – from the state to religious authorities to state media, even the entrenched commentariat of Arab media. Routing around obstacles was originally a design concept of engineers who invented the Internet and then extended it  to additional skills in lobbying for funding and regulation that, as much social as material and operational, got the Internet out of the lab and first into the academic and then into the wider world.[27] But the media-specific extension to “routing around” censorship oversimplifies the social life on and of the Internet. If anything, networked communication proceeds by linking, which is democratic but in limited way: open, but to expertise and to participation based on showing up, not on representational principles of constituency politics but typically cast as appeals to universal values and proceeding by constantly reshaping technology including intellectual technologies (know-how) of its practice. In this denser context, what appears to be agency-enhancement reduces performatively to assiduous work on the means of its own production, which starts with showing up and knowing how, depends on reputation management, and proceeds through skills in shaping these means of a kind of public. It is not a Habermasian public of rational communication, though it may be the public that Habermas was trying to describe.[28] It is more like the pattern that Kelty discerns in free software development and cautiously projects back on development of the Internet itself, which has proceeded as a “stack” of applications that become platforms for others and is similarly given away. But it is a peculiar sort of gift that conveys its properties to the giver, more like becoming the other than just tossing one’s hat into the ring. Networked communication involves a regime less of anybody communicating with anybody than of aggregating strong ties and extension through weak ties that together fill in or organize the intermediate space between individual empowerment and the wisdom of crowds. And here, speech is not “free” that proceeds through entextualization by which local experience is converted into shared meaning in a participatory, if anything but democratic, manner.

References


[1] New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere. (1999, second edition 2003). Chapter 1.

[2] E.g., Jon Alterman. New Media, New Politics (1999) for the hopeful view, and “Counting nodes and counting noses: Understanding new media in the Middle East” The Middle East Journal 54 (2001): 355-61 , for the second thoughts.

[3] Howard Rheingold is responsible for both: TheVirtual Community (1993), Smart Mobs (2003).

[4] Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (2007).  Kindle ed., p. 2190

[5] Notably by Barry Wellman and his associates in, for example,  Networks in the Global Village (1999), The Internet in Everyday Life (2002).

[6] See: Sara Lacy. Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0 (2008).

[7] Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (2008).

[8] Two Bits, p. 3.

[9] Hugh Hewitt. Blog: Understanding the Information Revolution that’s Changing Your World (2005); more recently in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody (2008).

[10] Clay Shirky, “Power laws, weblogs, and inequality,” in Reformatting Politics (2006), pp. 35-42.

[11] Geert Lovink, Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture (2007) takes this as a measure of washing significance from the message that makes blogging the vanity press of a nihilistic age.

[12] Mark Granovetter , “The strength of weak ties” American Journal of Sociology 78(1973): 1360-80; “The strength of weak ties: A network theory revisited” Sociological Theory 1(1984): 201-33.

[13] The Field of Cultural Production (1993).

[14] The Power in Performance: The Creation of Textual Authority in Weyewa Ritual Speech (1990).

[15] This might be likened to classification, except that Kuipers describes it as a much more creative, shared, extended, social-linguistic process than a simple act of matching – in fact, a process with recoverable steps.

[16] Social network sites: definition, history and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (2007).

[18] http://www.hoder.com; on Hoder’s occupational biography, see also “A dissident’s diary: Can a blogger bring change to Iran”? by Craig Taylor. University of Toronto Magazine (online: http://www.magazine.utoronto.ca/05autumn/blogger.asp)

[19] Jon W. Anderson, “Producers and Middle East Internet technology: Getting beyond ‘impacts’” The Middle East Journal 54(2000): 419-31, on IT development as a network of regulation, finance, content-development as part of the technology.

[20] Lynch, Brotherhood of the blog (2007) guardian.co.uk, Monday 5 March 2007 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/mar/05/brotherhoodoftheblog/print); George Weyman, Speaking the unspeakable: Personal blogs in Egypt. Arab Media & Society (October 2007); David Faris, Revolutions without revolutionaries. Arab Media & Society (Fall 2008).

[21] danah boyd, “Why youth (heart) social network sites: The role of networked publics in teenage social life” (2007).

[22]Second Generation Internet Users and Political Change,” Ahmad Zaki Osman. Arab Reform Bulletin, May 2008. (http://www.carnegieendowment.org/arb/?fa=show&article=20498); Lynch, Brotherhood of the Blog.

[23] Helmi Noman, Content and usage of Arabic online forums and groups. HelmiOnline.com (http://www.helmionline.com/internet/2005/10/web_content.html).

[24] Marc Lynch, Voices of the New Arab Public (2007).

[25] “The post-democratic governmentality of network societies.” in Reformatting Politics: Information Technology and Global Civil Society. edited by Jodi Dean, Jon W. Anderson & Geert Lovink (2006).

[26] Nortje Mares refers to this as ‘issue’ politics, in which actors come and go, to distinguish it from class or interest based constituency politics. “Net work is format work: Issue networks and the sites of civil society politics,” in Reformatting Politics (2006), pp. 3-18. Also, Ned Rossiter, “Organized networks and nonrepresentative democracy,” ibid., pp. 19-34.

[27] A history of this middle phase of Internet development comparable to Janet Abbate’s on its initial phase (Inventing the Internet, 1999) has yet to be written; but Milton Mueller’s Ruling the Root (2002), and Jack Goldsmith & Tim Wu’s Who Controls the Internet (2006) are a start on governance; see also Jeffrey Hart, “The building of the Internet: Implications for the future of broadband networks” Telecommunications Policy (Nov 1992), pp. 666-689.

[28] Jodi Dean, Publicity’s Secret (2002), argues that the origin of the public sphere that Habermas identified with salons and coffee-houses might better be found in secret societies, such as the Masons, where organizational skills were developed more broadly and in addition to the discursive ones Habermas featured.

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2 Responses to “Blogging, Networked Publics and the Politics of Communication: Another Free-Speech Panacea for the Middle East?”

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