November, 2014

The Network Dynamics of Movements

Re­cent events, such as the upri­sings du­ring the so-cal­led Arab Spring, the anti-cor­rup­ti­on mo­ve­ment in In­dia or the pro­tests against so­ci­al and eco­no­mic in­e­qua­li­ties in Eu­ro­pe and bey­ond, have trig­ge­red a de­ba­te among ac­tivists, scho­lars and po­li­cy ma­kers on how new so­ci­al mo­ve­ments are being or­ga­nis­ed. Most of the pu­bli­ca­ti­ons on this to­pic, such as Eric Klui­ten­berg’s Legacies of Tactical Media, Mi­cha­el Hardt and An­to­nio Ne­gri’s Declaration or Ga­bri­el­la Cole­man’s fresh from the press stu­dy about Anonymous, im­pli­cit­ly or ex­pli­cit­ly tack­le the pro­blem of po­li­ti­cal or­ga­ni­sa­ti­on, in par­ti­cu­lar the ques­ti­on of lea­dership, re­pre­sen­ta­ti­on and de­ci­si­on-ma­king.1Cp. Eric Klui­ten­berg, Legacies of Tactical Media, Ams­ter­dam, In­sti­tu­te of Net­work Cul­tu­res, 2011; Mi­cha­el Hardt and An­to­nio Ne­gri, Declaration, New York NY, Argo-Na­vis, 2012; Ga­bri­el­la Cole­man, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, New York NY, Ver­so, 2014. Ro­d­ri­go Nu­nes’ es­say The Organisation of the Organisationless,2Cp. Ro­d­ri­go Nu­nes, Organisation of the Organisationless: Collective Action after Networks, Lon­don & Lüne­burg, Mute & Post Me­dia Lab, 2014. of which an edi­ted ver­si­on is pu­blis­hed here, ta­kes up the­se threads and knits them into a fine ana­ly­ti­cal pie­ce. Op­po­sing the bi­na­ry sche­me bet­ween ho­ri­zon­ta­li­ty and cen­tra­lism, which is most of­ten ta­ken into ac­count when ex­plai­ning or­ga­ni­sa­tio­nal mo­dels, Nu­nes pro­po­ses a dif­fe­rent ap­proach to ana­ly­se the for­ma­ti­on and me­cha­nics of re­cent so­ci­al and po­li­ti­cal mo­ve­ments. Neit­her the Le­ni­nist van­guard nor the li­ber­ta­ri­an ima­gi­na­ti­on of a per se de­mo­cra­tic net­work are, the­re­fo­re, sui­ta­ble con­cepts for un­der­stan­ding the trans­for­ma­ti­ons in in­ter­ven­tio­nist po­li­tics sin­ce the turn of the mill­en­ni­um. In fact, the net­work its­elf, re­spec­tive­ly the dis­cour­se about net­works has gone through a con­siderable trans­for­ma­ti­on sin­ce the Hun­ga­ri­an-Ame­ri­can phy­si­cist Al­bert-László Ba­rabási and his col­le­ague Réka Al­bert pro­po­sed a sca­le-free to­po­lo­gy around the same time.3Cp. Al­bert-László Ba­rabási and Réka Al­bert, “Emer­gence of Sca­ling in Ran­dom Net­works”, Science, 286, 1999, pp. 509–512. Other than the hi­t­her­to do­mi­nant mo­del of a ran­dom net­work, which fos­te­r­ed the idea of equal­ly dis­tri­bu­ted nodes wi­t­hin a net­work, the term sca­le-free net­work in­di­ca­tes the exis­tence of power-law dis­tri­bu­ti­ons: some nodes, which are cal­led hubs, have a pro­por­tio­nal­ly high de­gree of con­nec­ted­ness whi­le most nodes are com­pa­ra­tive­ly po­or­ly con­nec­ted.4The power-law dis­tri­bu­ti­on is also re­s­pon­si­ble for the na­ming of the­se net­works: they do not have an aver­age de­gree of con­nec­ted­ness, which is why their de­gree of dis­tri­bu­ti­on is sca­le free. In this sen­se, most real-world net­works – from the World Wide Web to neu­ro­nal and so­ci­al net­works – do not re­sem­ble the po­pu­lar image of the (in­for­ma­ti­on) su­per­high­way, equal­ly con­nec­ting dif­fe­rent lo­ca­li­ties wi­t­hin a spe­ci­fic ter­ri­to­ry, but ra­ther an air traf­fic sys­tem, whe­re a small num­ber of lar­ge air­ports are re­s­pon­si­ble for most flight con­nec­tions, in con­trast to a lar­ge num­ber of small air­ports with very few flight con­nec­tions. The fin­ding of sca­le-free dis­tri­bu­ti­ons fol­lo­wing a power law is hence­forth chal­len­ging the con­ven­tio­nal no­ti­on of a net­work that, in many ca­ses, is still seen as a ho­ri­zon­tal en­t­i­ty, evo­king an eman­ci­pa­to­ry hope amongst po­li­ti­cal ac­tivists.

For Nu­nes, who­se in­qui­ry is lar­ge­ly ba­sed on in­sights into the pro­test mo­ve­ment against the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Bra­zil, re­cent uphea­vals have shown that the or­ga­ni­sa­tio­nal form of pro­test can­not be cha­rac­te­ri­sed by ho­ri­zon­ta­li­ty any­mo­re, but ra­ther by what he calls “dis­tri­bu­ted lea­dership”.5Cp. Nu­nes, pp. 33ff. In this con­text, it may be fruit­ful to look bey­ond the field of so­ci­al and po­li­ti­cal mo­ve­ments and to take other dis­cour­ses into con­side­ra­ti­on. For ex­amp­le, re­cent de­ba­tes wi­t­hin ma­nage­ment stu­dies do ap­proach the ques­ti­on of dis­tri­bu­ted lea­dership from a busi­ness-ori­en­ted point of view and, the­r­e­by, of­fer in­te­res­ting per­spec­tives on ...continue Ever sin­ce the alterglobalisation movement in the late 1990s, collec­tive po­li­ti­cal ac­tions – in­clu­ding tho­se which are la­be­led ‘hack­ti­vism’6Cp. Cle­mens Apprich, “Upload Dis­si­dent Cul­tu­re: Pu­blic Net­ba­se’s In­ter­ven­ti­ons Into Di­gi­tal and Ur­ban Space”, Interface: A Journal for and about Social Movements, 2(2), 2010, pp. 79-91, pp. 83f – have chan­ged fun­da­men­tal­ly in their or­ga­ni­sa­ti­on: even if clas­si­cal in­sti­tu­tio­nal play­ers such as po­li­ti­cal par­ties, uni­ons or in­te­rest groups still play a cru­ci­al role in the abili­ty of a mo­ve­ment to or­ga­ni­se its­elf, they do not ‘na­tu­ral­ly’ sei­ze lea­dership wi­t­hin the mo­ve­ment any­mo­re. This does not, as ex­plai­ned be­fo­re, cor­re­spond to the li­ber­ta­ri­an dream of a mo­ve­ment wi­thout lea­dership, but, in fact, the­re are mul­ti­ple lea­ders, on dif­fe­rent lay­ers, re­or­ga­ni­sing the mo­ve­ment over time. As Nu­nes sta­tes, new so­ci­al mo­ve­ments “are not lea­derless, but […] lea­derful”,7Nu­nes, p. 33. ta­king into ac­count that the lea­dership role can, po­ten­ti­al­ly, be oc­cu­p­ied by an­yo­ne wi­t­hin the mo­ve­ment. A look at new collec­tives such as the loo­se­ly con­nec­ted trans­na­tio­nal net­work cal­led An­ony­mous may help to cla­ri­fy this idea. In its self-con­cep­ti­on, the group iden­ti­fies its­elf as an “In­ter­net gathe­ring” with “a very loo­se and de­cen­tra­li­zed com­mand struc­tu­re that ope­ra­tes on ide­as ra­ther than di­rec­tives”.8An­ony­mous, “ANON OPS: A Press Release”, 2010. Thus, An­ony­mous and its many off­shoots and as­so­cia­ti­ons, such as Lulz­Sec, An­ti­Sec, Team­Poi­son and the Peop­les Li­be­ra­ti­on Front, no lon­ger re­sem­ble a clas­si­cal NGO like, let’s say, Green­peace, with its sta­tu­tes, of­fi­ci­al mem­bers and for­mal hier­ar­chies. Neit­her does it make sen­se to com­pa­re them to for­mer ac­tivist groups such as Sub­ver­si­ve Ak­ti­on in Ger­ma­ny or the Yip­pies in the US, be­cau­se the lat­ter were still run, or at least dri­ven by spe­ci­fic and iden­ti­fia­ble lea­ders (e.g. Ab­bie Hoff­man, Die­ter Kun­zel­mann, Rudi Dutsch­ke). In con­trast, An­ony­mous’ gathe­rings as­sem­ble dif­fe­rent, and so­me­ti­mes even dif­fe­ring in­di­vi­du­als, groups and in­te­rests, wi­thout for­ming a po­li­ti­cal en­t­i­ty. This does not, howe­ver, mean that the collec­tive its­elf is powerless, in the sen­se that it would not be able to make de­ci­si­ons over its ac­tions. On the con­tra­ry, the di­ver­si­ty of ac­tions as­so­cia­ted with An­ony­mous has shown how powerful dis­tri­bu­ted lea­dership can be; even if it is not al­ways cle­ar how de­ci­si­ons are being made and who is spea­king in the name of whom.

It is the fin­ding of this dy­na­mic as­pect of sca­le-free net­works that ma­kes Nu­nes’ es­say so va­luable. Un­til now a lot of ef­fort has been put into scru­ti­ni­sing the to­po­lo­gi­cal pro­per­ties of the­se net­works, in par­ti­cu­lar the exis­tence of power hubs. The­se cru­ci­al nodes wi­t­hin a net­work pro­fit from a pheno­me­non which, in ano­ther con­text, is best known as the ‘Mat­t­hew ef­fect’, whe­re the rich get ri­cher and the poor get poo­rer. This me­ans that a cen­tral node (i.e. a hub) is more li­kely to attract new­ly emer­ging nodes, be­cau­se of its stra­te­gic role wi­t­hin the net­work.9Cp. Al­ber­to-László Ba­rabási and Eric Bon­a­beau, “Sca­le-Free Net­works”, Scientific American, 288, 2003, pp. 50–59, p. 55. But such a ‘pre­fe­ren­ti­al at­tach­ment’ would con­se­quent­ly fa­vour exis­ting play­ers to take the lead, which, in turn, con­tra­dicts the afo­re­men­tio­ned struc­tu­ral open­ness of so­ci­al mo­ve­ments and ac­tivist groups. Here is whe­re Nu­nes co­mes in, when he men­ti­ons the pos­si­bi­li­ty of a node which is not a hub to “act as a vec­tor of collec­tive ac­tion”.10Nu­nes, p. 38. This is de­emed im­portant, be­cau­se it me­ans that a node (e.g. a mem­ber of a net­work) can oc­cu­py a ‘van­guard-func­tion’ over a spe­ci­fic pe­ri­od of time, wi­thout ne­ces­sa­ri­ly be­co­m­ing a hub or per­ma­nent lea­der in the pro­cess. Nu­nes’ thought-pro­vo­king pie­ce, the­re­fo­re, gi­ves us a hand­le to un­der­stand dy­na­mic forms of or­ga­ni­sa­ti­on, which go bey­ond the mere as­ser­ti­on of ab­so­lu­tely ho­ri­zon­tal (i.e. de­mo­cra­tic) net­works as well as the con­ven­tio­nal as­sump­ti­on of high­ly ver­ti­cal (i.e. hier­archic) struc­tu­res. Ha­ving said this, some ter­mi­no­lo­gi­cal in­con­sis­ten­cies seem to emer­ge when we take a clo­ser look at the net­work term being in use.

For Nu­nes, the who­le trick is to re­place mo­ve­ment with net­work-sys­tem in or­der to be able to “see organisation as a con­ti­nu­um stret­ching from les­ser to grea­ter de­grees of stabilisation, formalisation and consistency”.11Nu­nes, p. 27. Whi­le this trick may al­low us to go bey­ond the net­work-mo­ve­ment, the­r­e­by also ta­king tho­se into con­side­ra­ti­on who do not see them­sel­ves as part of the mo­ve­ment, it reintro­du­ces the ra­ther sta­tic term of sys­tem. Even if the net­work-sys­tem is “a sys­tem of dif­fe­rent net­works […] which con­sti­tu­te so many in­ter­ac­ting lay­ers that can neit­her be re­du­ced to nor su­per­po­sed on each other”,12Nu­nes, p. 20. the no­ti­on of the sys­tem, at least from a sys­tem-theo­re­ti­cal per­spec­tive, ent­ails the pro­blem of a sys­tem boun­da­ry. Thus, as soon as a net­work be­co­mes a sys­tem it is de­fi­ned by a boun­da­ry bet­ween its­elf and its en­vi­ron­ment, and, in con­se­quence, cea­ses to be a net­work – be­cau­se a net­work, by de­fi­ni­ti­on, con­sists of an open struc­tu­re.13Cp. Ste­fan We­ber, Medien – Systeme – Netze. Elemente einer Theorie der Cyber-Netzwerke, Bie­le­feld, tran­script, 2001, p. 58 On the other hand, a sys­tem can be­co­me a net­work by dis­sol­ving its boun­da­ries, be­cau­se every node wi­t­hin a net­work can be seen as a tran­sit point with po­ten­ti­al­ly end­less con­nec­tions go­ing through it. In this sen­se, the net­work and the sys­tem are mu­tual­ly in­com­pa­ti­ble, as­su­ming that a net­work is neit­her sta­ble nor fi­xed, but co­mes into being only du­ring the pro­cess of net­work-buil­ding its­elf. The net­work is al­ways in the ma­king, and ra­ther than ‘sys­te­mic thin­king’ it is this per­spec­tive that un­der­li­nes the dy­na­mic as­pect of so­ci­al and po­li­ti­cal mo­ve­ments.

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1. Cp. Eric Klui­ten­berg, Legacies of Tactical Media, Ams­ter­dam, In­sti­tu­te of Net­work Cul­tu­res, 2011; Mi­cha­el Hardt and An­to­nio Ne­gri, Declaration, New York NY, Argo-Na­vis, 2012; Ga­bri­el­la Cole­man, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, New York NY, Ver­so, 2014.
2. Cp. Ro­d­ri­go Nu­nes, Organisation of the Organisationless: Collective Action after Networks, Lon­don & Lüne­burg, Mute & Post Me­dia Lab, 2014.
3. Cp. Al­bert-László Ba­rabási and Réka Al­bert, “Emer­gence of Sca­ling in Ran­dom Net­works”, Science, 286, 1999, pp. 509–512.
4. The power-law dis­tri­bu­ti­on is also re­s­pon­si­ble for the na­ming of the­se net­works: they do not have an aver­age de­gree of con­nec­ted­ness, which is why their de­gree of dis­tri­bu­ti­on is sca­le free.
5. Cp. Nu­nes, pp. 33ff. In this con­text, it may be fruit­ful to look bey­ond the field of so­ci­al and po­li­ti­cal mo­ve­ments and to take other dis­cour­ses into con­side­ra­ti­on. For ex­amp­le, re­cent de­ba­tes wi­t­hin ma­nage­ment stu­dies do ap­proach the ques­ti­on of dis­tri­bu­ted lea­dership from a busi­ness-ori­en­ted point of view and, the­r­e­by, of­fer in­te­res­ting per­spec­tives on the pheno­me­non: cp. Ri­chard Bol­den, “Dis­tri­bu­ted Lea­dership in Or­ga­niza­t­i­ons: A Re­view of Theo­ry and Re­se­arch”, International Journal of Management Reviews, 13, 2011, pp. 251-269.
6. Cp. Cle­mens Apprich, “Upload Dis­si­dent Cul­tu­re: Pu­blic Net­ba­se’s In­ter­ven­ti­ons Into Di­gi­tal and Ur­ban Space”, Interface: A Journal for and about Social Movements, 2(2), 2010, pp. 79-91, pp. 83f
7. Nu­nes, p. 33.
8. An­ony­mous, “ANON OPS: A Press Release”, 2010.
9. Cp. Al­ber­to-László Ba­rabási and Eric Bon­a­beau, “Sca­le-Free Net­works”, Scientific American, 288, 2003, pp. 50–59, p. 55.
10. Nu­nes, p. 38.
11. Nu­nes, p. 27.
12. Nu­nes, p. 20.
13. Cp. Ste­fan We­ber, Medien – Systeme – Netze. Elemente einer Theorie der Cyber-Netzwerke, Bie­le­feld, tran­script, 2001, p. 58
Clemens Apprich

Clemens Apprich is research associate at the Centre for Digital Cultures (CDC) at Leuphana University of Lueneburg. In 2011 he co-founded the Post-Media Lab at the CDC and from 2013 to 2015 he was Principal Investigator (PI) of Making Change, a joint research project between the CDC and the Hivos Knowledge Program. He is one of the founders and editors of spheres and the PML book series. His book »Technotopia. A Media Genealogy of Net Cultures« will soon be published by Rowman & Littlefield.