Social Media and Democratisation in Africa
Mobile, social, innovative: African tools to support democratic processes
From the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street to Anonymous, flash mobs and Wikipedia: It is becoming increasingly clear that the use of new, emerging information and communication technologies (ICT) is having a game-changing impact on collective action and social mobilisations. Part of their effect is, of course, related to facilitating communication among traditional organisations, spreading information, and providing collaborative tools for organising joint events and protests. But the use of modern ICT has perhaps had an even more profound impact by challenging organisational monopolies when it comes to coordinating large-scale collective action. This has brought forth some highly important and interesting questions, such as: What happens to collective organisation when people are given the tools to do things together without the need for traditional organisations? And are we moving towards organising without organisations, a sort of mobilisation 2.0?
On an intermediate level, organisations have long played a central role by coordinating individuals and thus making collective action possible. Organisations have been a necessity, since communication and social coordination tend to get harder when groups grow larger, no matter whether the task at hand is building a pyramid, running a large enterprise, or bringing down a hated dictator. What a couple of friends can do in a basement immediately gets a great deal more difficult when it involves thousands of actors on a global level. This is also the reason organisations are often hierarchical, relatively centralised, regulated and vertically integrated. This has been a must, since it simplifies communication and facilitates monitoring and sanctions to prevent freeloaders, for example. To put it simply: In some organisations, every individual involved needs to be linked to only one other person in order to perform their task: their boss.
The larger the institution, the greater the costs.
This means though that organisations themselves require a lot of energy just to maintain their functions. These include administrative costs, coordination, direction, monitoring, and even managing managers. In other words, while organisations exist to assist in the pursuit of certain goals, a large portion of their resources are simply drained away by the process of directing this very effort. Clay Shirky, author of the well-known book Here Comes Everybody, has referred to this as the “institutional dilemma”. The dilemma arises from the fact that because organisations expend resources to manage resources, there is consequently a gap between what those institutions are capable of in theory and in practice: the larger the institution, the greater the costs. The high transaction costs associated with managing and maintaining the organisation tend to prevent collective action, since many activities fall below what Shirky calls the “Coasean floor”, or when transaction costs exceed potential profits. Many collective activities are considered too expensive to be taken on in any institutional way.
Modern ICT allows us to come together and contribute as individuals to a common cause without a meso-level or any formal management.
However, through the growing use of new communication technologies, the role and function of organisations are clearly undergoing radical changes. Their role as an indispensable intermediate level of collective organising is arguably becoming increasingly unnecessary, due to the potential of ICT to enable the sharing of information, cooperation, coordination and taking collective action outside the framework of traditional organisations. Modern ICT allows us to come together and contribute as individuals to a common cause without a meso-level or any formal management. This is an indication that prior barriers to group action are collapsing in a sense. So it is now possible to achieve large-scale coordination at low cost, enabling collective activities that had previously dwelt below the Coasean floor.
While these tools obviously do not create collective action in any sense, they do remove obstacles to it.
Diverse organisations and loosely structured groups, collectives and individuals may, without the previous cumbersome burden of formal organisation, converge around a few common hallmarks and coordinate their actions jointly via many-to-many communication and the free circulation of information. These functions, once solely provided by organisations, are thus increasingly being performed through decentralised communication networks. While these tools obviously do not create collective action in any sense, they do remove obstacles to it by performing functions such as the dissemination of information, immediate feedback on action, communication, coordination, group formation without geographical restrictions, etc. This means that more energy can be put into performing the actual task and purpose, rather than merely reproducing and managing the organisation.
But speaking more practically, let’s take a look at the impact the use of ICT has had on collective action in social mobilisation so far. To simplify somewhat, we may distinguish between two emerging central categories or logics of collective mass collaboration thanks to ICT. For the first form, communication technology does not change the dynamics of collective action in any deeper sense, though it does for the second. Since these forms can be understood as underlying logics that often co-exist simultaneously in the same movement, they are often difficult to distinguish as separate empirical entities. But I will nonetheless use a few empirical examples to illustrate both these categories.
First of all, by providing means for coordinating and more easily “spreading the word” about upcoming protests and events, ICT has proven highly valuable for pre-existing organisations and communities. Digital tools have reduced the costs of creating, organising and participating in protests, and for disseminating information to groups that would otherwise be difficult to reach.
When applied in this manner, the use of ICT does not so much replace the actual role of organisations in mobilisations.
ICT has thus helped organisations conduct collective action at a lower cost, on a larger scale, and much faster than before. ICT has also proven to be efficient in solving so-called coordination problems. These arise when all the parties involved in a situation could realise mutual gains if they could make mutually consistent decisions. For example, while fighting a repressive regime is arguably in the interests of most citizens, the risks associated when only a few concerned citizens protest often exceed the potential benefits. In these cases, ICT can help bring people together and increase the size, speed and reach of activism.
When applied in this manner, the use of ICT does not so much replace the actual role of organisations in mobilisations. Instead it facilitates and increases efficiency by passing some functions previously performed and organised by organisations on to decentralised communication networks.
Perhaps the Arab Spring is the most recent and salient example of ICT playing this type of role. There are, of course, many other similar examples. Most contemporary movements and organisations, ranging from the Zapatista movement in Mexico and the Arab Spring to more traditional movements, organisations, and NGOs such as Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch, use various types of communication technologies.
The impact of ICT has not only effected a change in degree, that is better, faster and cheaper methods for organising protests and enhancing certain behaviour. We can also observe an important impact on a difference in kind, namely the emergence of novel types of collective action that are directly dependent upon modern forms of communication technologies. While in the first case, ICT is primarily used to augment or supersize collective action, in the second it transforms it and changes the underlying logic when it comes to what motivates people to participate and contribute, for example.
These technology-based communities or forms of collective action generally exist online and have often shown their efficiency in organising scalable and sustained action involving loose, self-organised communities of individuals without any pre-existing formal organisation or command structures, and often with little or no money. Nonetheless, these communities have often managed to create impressively complex, coherent artefacts, often at stunning speeds. Wikipedia, the open source-community, and crowd sourcing are perhaps the most obvious examples, but there are also more subversive examples, such as WikiLeaks and the hacktivist network Anonymous.
There are few examples in which technology-based forms of collective action have taken place offline and generally, they are more sporadic and short-lived, such as swarming behaviour during demonstrations and flash mobs. While these offline forms of collective action may very well be organised in a decentralised way through the use of ICT and without a pre-existing organisation, they are rarely, if ever, able to form or maintain even the most primitive sustained collective action beyond the specific event.
Can we use ICT to open up long-term, sustained social organising offline?
From this standpoint, perhaps the most interesting and indeed challenging question now is whether ICT can be applied to transcend these two aforementioned logics or categories of collective action. In other words, can we use ICT to open up long-term, sustained social organising offline? Can we somehow harvest the full potential of ICT by linking online communities and non-virtual collective action and thus go beyond individual-based actions and sporadic, one-shot protests? Can we summon Wikipedia-like entities into existence to produce public goods, a kind of mobilisation 2.0?
In order for this to happen, participants need a way to engage in the meta-construction of a particular community. They must have the ability to construct common goals and more longer-lasting structures to increase their efficiency. This would require some form of meta-structure or “scaffolding structures” that would allow for continual collective action that does not end as a single protest or individual action, but which build upon and reinforce each other. By supporting and channelling interactions, such scaffolding structures would constitute a way of linking individual actions and allow for collective directedness and thus for coordinated and collectivised action. Furthermore, these scaffolding structures should be able to speak for the individuals engaged, and aid in constructing and defining their collective identity (what they do and how they do it). The individuals’ actions could be carried out “in the name of” the scaffolding structure as well. This would introduce resilience and stability as people could enter and exit as they like, and the social organising would nonetheless remain stable. Much like the way single water molecules can move in and out of clouds without affecting the overall behaviour of the cloud.
Participants would also need to create meta-scaffolding structures that could define other purposes and goals for the meta-level organisation. Using open source to illustrate this principle, this could correspond to not only having participatory structures for writing and sharing codes. The structuring of the code itself would be participatory and democratic, and controlled by the community. The relatively simplistic meta-structures in Wikipedia are one example. There are certain areas designated for discussing and writing descriptions, and manuals that in turn describe how articles should be discussed and written. These parts are written in exactly the same decentralised way as the rest of Wikipedia, which implies that scaffolding structures can be made just as decentralised as the lower-level functions. This way of forming a community on code that itself has control over the necessary processes that can emerge and develop over time, requires extreme flexibility. But the central issue here is not the theoretical possibility, but rather the practical question of how to actually use technologies that allow for the creation of these kinds of meta-levels that can structure lower levels of organising and enable more advanced, longer-lasting and democratic collective organising and action.
Perhaps mobilisation 2.0 will resemble a multitude, organised as a smart, sustained swarm with a purpose.
While the idea that Wikipedia-like forms of social mobilisation could occur in the real world may appear somewhat utopian, we have arguably seen certain tendencies towards this in some contemporary movements, such as los Indignados in Spain and in the international Occupy movement. In both these cases, there were few identifiable established organisations at the centre and most collaborative actions took place online through loosely coordinated networks, often with an explicit effort to avoid designating official leaders.
Whether these tendencies will grow and characterise future movements remains to be seen, but perhaps mobilisation 2.0 will resemble a multitude, organised as a smart, sustained swarm with a purpose. Such decentralised types of mobilisations could perhaps scare the most insolent and brutal dictator. After all, how do you chop the head off a headless herd?