Comment

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 the pheno­me­non: cp. Ri­chard Bol­den, ...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 (PhD) is assistant professor in media studies at the University of Groningen and guest researcher at the Centre for Digital Cultures at Leuphana University of Lüneburg. He is an associated member of the Digital Democracies Group at Simon Fraser University, of the Global Emergent Media Lab at Concordia University, and of the Research College ‘Sensing’ at Potsdam University. His current research deals with filter algorithms and their application in data analysis as well as machine learning methods. He is the author of Technotopia: A Media Genealogy of Net Cultures (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017), and, together with Wendy Chun, Hito Steyerl, and Florian Cramer, co-authored Pattern Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press/meson press, 2019).