Friday, June 11, 2004

Social Networks / Issue Networks

Given the upcoming elections, and the continuing hype around "social software" and "e-democracy," it seems useful to take a closer look at what may be at stake when we create and use technological means to help us change the world.

Net-work is Format Work: The Issue-Network as a Site of Politics and the Challenge of Making Info-Technology Part of Civil Society by Noortje Marres

This draft memo shifts our attention from social and information networks - finding friends and sharing knowledge - to issue networks, and the role they play in civil society. The author argues that "making acquaintances and spreading the word" may not be the best way to understand and engage the politics of civil society - and the role of technology in these networks.

[T]he issue network has many good things to offer for an account of the politics of civil society: it draws attention to the work of issue formation, and more specifically, the work of formatting issues, as the crucial dimension of the politics that civil society networks engage in.

In other words, the framing - defining, labeling and translating - of issues is central to political action. In issue-networks, people are connected by virtue of the issues at hand. (This is not unlike the principle behind meetup.com - that strangers will come together because of shared interests.) Furthermore, in issue-networks, the stakes are framed collectively. But issue-networks also, of course, modulate people's political positions and practices.

[I]n policy studies the issue-network is defined as a relatively open network of antagonistic actors, configured around a controversial issue. The issue-network is then opposed to the policy network, which is defined as closed, standing in the service of the de-politicization of issues, and prone to achieve consensus (and as heavily institutionalized) ... To say issue-network, is then to ask: how do civil society groups insert themselves, or get inserted by others, into formations of opponents and allies (as well as actors between these two extremes), which have configured around a common issue?

Sounds good so far, but what does this have to do with information technologies? The author states that social networks (and their associated knowledge networks) are seen to be the arena in which global civil society and information technologies come together. However, the author argues that the informality and amorphousness of these networks makes it difficult to account for, and engage with, the formal (centralised and institutional) aspects of politics. In other words, people may be playing on different - and sometimes incompatible - fields. (Clay Shirky began to hint at this when he questioned the role of social software in the Dean campaign.)

However, this is not to say that politics do not require social and information networking; clearly there is much interconnection. The author simply argues that issue-networks provide a broader perspective on the politics of civil society - as well as a useful means for understanding the role of information technologies in these politics.

[T]echnologies appear as a key element in the practices of information politics of civil society actors, in as far as they enable the format-work these actors pursue, in their attempts to intervene in extended issue-networks, or precisely seek to disengage their practices from these larger configurations around issues ... In approaching information technology in this way, as enabling and constraining format-work of civil society actors, in their (dis)engagement with/from broader issue-networks, we deviate from accounts that understand the connections between global civil society and information-technologies in terms of social and info-networking ... But our account also deviates from social- and info-networking arguments in that it approaches info-technological practices as substantially integrated in civil society politics.

Again, the difference at hand is that social- and information- networks are seen to act in alignment with, or parallel to, information technologies. Issue-networks, on the other hand, involve more of a mangle, or an intertwining with info-tech.

The strength of this approach is that it allows us to re-evaluate the role of technology in politics. How do particular technologies enable or disable the framing of issues? How are people allowed to intervene in these discussions? In these ways, technology cannot be considered either utopian or distopian - and, perhaps more importantly, it can never be understood as neutral or separate from political action. In my opinion, until we answer these questions - and design around them - we don't stand much of a chance of making the world a better place with communication technologies.

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The Govcom.org Foundation in Amsterdam is conceived as a project to map debates on the Web on important social issues.

The Issue Crawler software locates 'Issue Networks' on the Web. An Issue Network is a set of inter-linked organizations dealing with the same issue. An Issue Network is located through 'co-link analysis' of issue-oriented web pages, one method used in network analysis, applied here to the Web.

Issuenetwork.org | Describing the types of networks we seek and analyse

Infoid.org | The Web Issue Index of Civil Society

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Why Map? The Techno-epistemological outlook by Richard Rogers

The essay concerns what kind of commitments researchers and designers take on when they map social networks. More specifically, it takes up what may happen when social network researchers slope towards intelligence work.

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Preferred placement: Knowledge politics on the web edited by Richard Rogers

Instead of celebrating the web and all its prospects for creative artistry, democracy and e-commerce, the volume authors calmly go backstage. How are search engines, portals, default settings and collaborative filtering formatting the surfer and offering passage to the media?

Preferred Placement: The Hit Economy, Hyperlink Diplomacy and Web Symposium

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