Manuel Castells: Who has the networking power?

On: October 16, 2009
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About Radmila Radojevic
I am a communications professional from Montreal, Canada. Much of my experience is in the cultural sector and community-driven initiatives. I worked and volunteered for various community and art groups in Montreal (CKUT, university and community radio station, Studio XX, a feminist digital arts organization, Maid in Cyberspace, an annual arts festival organized by Studio XX, Eyesteelfilm, a social documentary film company etc.) Currently doing my MA at UvA. My main interests are in data visualization and locative media.

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I have placed Web 2.0 and social networking platforms as ‘media objects’ within a framework of Manuel Castells in the context of the network society. What interests me in particular is the tension Castells described, between mass communication and self mass-communication – or between corporate / mainstream power and emerging counter-power / creative audience on the Web.

The two oppositional trends have been competing for ‘presence’ on the Web, reflecting current social and political struggle and possible socio-political structural reconfigurations within the network society. According to Castells, there is a new communication space that opened up on the Net driven by horizontal principle of communication, happening on ‘multiple axes’. This horizontal principle is “technical and organizational infrastructure that is specific of the network society. In it Castells sees a democratic opportunity.

To describe the term a bit better – ‘mass’ here means reaching globally and ‘self’ means self-generated content. Castells explains: “it is self-generated in content, self-directed in emission, and self-selected in reception by many that communicate with many”.
In this view mass self communication is almost an automatic means of citizen empowerment, also implied in the capacity of a single entry to multiply and spread all over the network (reminded me of Howard Rheingold who also believes in democratic potential of the information going in all directions and thus not being subjected to easy control).

Ubiquity of the Internet and development of mobile technology made possible emergence of mass self-communication manifesting in proliferation of applications such as social networking sites, Wiki, Web 2.0, Tweeter, SMS. These applications have been used, by people, according to Castells, to create independent social networks and therefore have democratic potential. Mass self-communication has “provided new opportunities to challenge elite control of political issues”. Therefore it is potential means of counter – power, understood by Castells as “the capacity by social actors to challenge and eventually change the power relations institutionalized in society”. Such trends as web activism, mobile technologies enabling citizens to inform of their political experience and social networking “may be the most revolutionary aspects of new media environment today”.

According to Castells, emerging of multi-axis communication reflects tension in the network society – increase “of distrust of citizens vis-à-vis politicians, political parties, parliaments, and to a lesser extent, governments” and search for alternative social and political concepts /outlets on the Net. In this sense, he sees politics migrating to the Web. On one side we have existing or power to be, on another creative audience trying to gain more democratic power. The tension has been specifically evident in commercialization of the Internet, subversion of democratic potential of social networking and constant efforts to make the Net into a conformist space.

However he resolves this tension still believing in the power of social networking.

Castells conviction in the power of mass self-communication carried out by technology echoes techno-deterministic attitudes often underlying arguments about social networking. He also uses terminology derived from computer science (programming, switching, techno-social-network, protocols etc) to explain many aspects of network society, which is symptomatic of techno-determinism as well. He writes:“It is not entirely true that the medium is the message, empirically speaking, but it certainly has substantial influence on the form and effect of the message.”

I’ve been reluctant to share entirely his optimism about social networking platforms and Web 2.0 as carriers of counter-power at least at this point. While the ability to connect and interact globally has doubtless empowering potential, it has been constantly polluted by commercial ‘hacking’ and advertisement noise. The most known and the most used social networking platforms (Facebook, MySpace, WordPress) have functions supporting their commercial revenues from advertisement and this has been business orientation for most of the platforms — generating their profits trough advertising or clicks. They are modeled around offering free services in exchange of making user into a commodity – by tracking his / her behavior and data for commercial ends of the third party -advertisers, corporations etc. WordPress, for instance, makes money also with Google AdSense by attaching ads to free hosted blogs. (In the interview with one of WordPress founder, Matt, he says: “the revenue generated from serving Google AdSense ads on WordPress.com hosted blog may still be significant as do around a billion page views per month.). The only one that is really ads-free and non-profit is Wikipedia.

Furthermore, there are plenty of attempts to strengthen mainstream voice online trough developing all sorts of applications or buying and appropriating existing ones. Take the instance of YouTube, free streaming video portal that has been so quick bought by Google, who now can exercise copy right control over the content etc. “In the weeks following the purchase corporations have flocked to YouTube”, Wikipedia). The counter-culture initiative to YouTube is now YouTomb. It is a research project of MIT Free Culture, investigating which kind of videos have been taken down due to copyright infringement /especially tracing ‘mistakes’ / wrong allegations/ . They are especially focused on YouTube. Digg was about to sell to Google in 2008 and Google changed the mind. After that Digg received the funding of 27. 8 million from Highland Capital Partners, a venture capital firm.

Such examples open all sorts of issues from ownership to vulnerability of social networking towards economic and political power through its large dependence on global capital. It questions its capacity of counter power (unless we believe in it from a techno-deterministic point of view).

But there is another issue that has opened while I was reading Castells, regarding what he calls consumer-driven, or self-generated content. Users post images, collect friends, upload videos, build online communities, interact, exchange, collaborate – creating user-generated content, which is to say voluntarily. User is being at the same time producer / creator of the content and consumer as well. The line between production and consuming has become blurred. One is given tools for free but is also exploited labor. At this point, I find very helpful concept of ‘free labour’ by Tiziana Terranova for further understanding as well as the concept of “informationalised” economy where information is a production value. She argues how notion of labor has changed and has become ‘immaterial’ or ‘free’. ‘Free’ labour type of production relies on constant (voluntarily) collaboration and social interaction to produce the value (think of open source communities as the basic example, and hacker ethics of gift free economy). Free labour makes knowledgeable cultural consumption into productive activities, argues Tiziana. We are producing capital ‘surplus’.

One of interesting initiatives relevant to this issue I have come across is development of ULML or User Labour Mark Up Language. Its authors Burak Arikan and Engin Erdogan have developed code that determines the value of (otherwise ‘free labour’) user contribution to the ‘free’ platform service. On their website it reads: “Granted, the user is already getting compensated by using the service for free in exchange with advertisement exposition. But, the value of the web service is based on the sum of service facilitation and content production, and the user appears as a stakeholder twice in the service ecology, as the consumer and the producer of the service.”

My further research would focus on investigation of commercialization of the Web, tactical-media strategies, as well as digital economy and free labour. Castells, in my opinion, believes that social networking and horizontal mass self communication is autonomous (it stays unclear to me where this autonomy comes from exactly) and its democratic potential inevitable – which is especially evident in extreme practices of control (surveillance and censorship).

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