For a period of contemporary society where political and social turmoil is dominating much of the world, there are a lot of excited people. We are witnessing an astonishing spread of revolutionary ideas by young people in nations such as Egypt, Lybya, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere, made possible through the power of the social network. Theorists, politicians and journalists alike see this spreading of ideas and political thought as an example of the uncapping of the enormous potential of the new age social network; albeit in somewhat difficult circumstance.
In speaking of the recent activism in Egypt in the face of Mubarak’s regime, Charles Hirschkind made the following intriguing remark:
“online activists have played a key role in transforming the conditions of political possibility in Egypt ” (Hirschkind 2011)
Through the use of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and blogging, many Egyptians have found power through numbers and power through the capabilities that these media provide. They are finally seeing the possibility and potential to participate in the political process after so much suppression.
The capabilities of social media is only truly effective through the powers in numbers discussed above. But its not just the fact that people are participating in political dialogue through a social network, but rather that this participation is occurring on a horizontal plane. There is no hierarchy in these new social networks but rather “horizontalisation”. Paul Mason write “Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton” (Mason 2011)
(Click to enlarge)
This simple (and crudely drawn) image, I believe, helps depict the power of horizontalisation contained within the social network to empower people to seek change in contrast to the minimal force behind a hierarchical structure . At its core, this power is derived from that age-old adage of power in numbers. And what digital social media provides is an amazingly simple way to unite these numbers and share ideas, opinions and dreams for the future.
But how does the age of the social network affect government and political contexts in nations of relative political stability and democratic freedom such as Australia? The first observation to make is that every day social networking and mainstream media become more and more convergent. Information gathered and shared amongst regular people through digital media has the potential to become a part of the mainstream media within minutes. And what this means for government is that everyone has the power to make a claim or unveil a secret to the entire voting population. People have the power to participate in government and thus want the information they feel they rightfully deserve. Hence governments have adopted the movement towards transparency as depicted by Lawrence Lessig in “Against Transparency-the perils of openness in government” . “Transparency has become an unquestionable bipartisan value.” (Lessig 2010).
Overall, therefore, the new age of ‘Government 2.0’ will be one challenged by new media and the power of the social network to share ideas and rally people together. But hopefully this will lead to an age of unrivaled participation in the processes of government, allowing us to exercise our democratic rights outside the voting booth alone. As Catherine Styles writes “What we need is a visualisation – a view that shows us government functions as a whole and enables us to explore the component parts. Then, we could add an architecture of participation – put it to users as to what issues should be put to the people.” (Styles (2009)) But this visualization is only possible through the continuously developing capabilities of digital media and the social network.
Hirschkind, C. (2011) “From the Blogosphere to the Street: The Role of Social Media in the Egyptian Uprising”, Jadaliyya. [Online, accessed 18/03/2011] http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/599/from-the-blogosphere-to-the-street_the-role-of-social-media-in-the-egyptian-uprising
Lessig, L. (2010) “Against Transparency: The perils of openness in government.” [Online, accessed 18/03/2011] http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/against-transparency?page=0,0
Mason, P. (2011) “Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere.” Idle Scrawls BBC. [Online, accessed 18/03/2011] http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/newsnight/paulmason/2011/02/twenty_reasons_why_its_kicking.html
Styles, C. (2009) “A Government 2.0 idea – first, make all the functions visible” [Online, accessed 18/03/2011] http://catherinestyles.com/2009/06/28/a-government-2-0-idea/