Do web networks work in the real world?

Nico Macdonald discusses whether online debate can translate into offline action

One of the UK's key policy preoccupations in the past fifteen years has been the relationship of citizens to society.

Debates and policy-making have focused on political disengagement, the lack of social cohesion and outdated hierarchical organisations that can't innovate.

In the area of political disengagement, former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith MP observed, in a discussion on blogging on BBC Radio 4's Analysis: "It's reached the point where the governed and the governing are further apart than they've been, certainly in my political lifetime… they genuinely don't think that we have any involvement in their lives", adding, "it's not just the politicians. [The governed are] beginning to ignore their newspapers and even national broadcasts."

In the early years of the popularisation of internet-based tools, it was widely assumed that these technologies would exacerbate these problems, as people increasingly tele-worked, and found they could use them to avoid many of the mundane activities that brought them into contact with other people. More recently, with the rapid adoption of 'social networking' tools, the opposite view has taken hold: that these problems might be mitigated by those technologies. Let's look at some examples.

Successful online networks

Initially, personal networks benefited from the ease of finding and re-establishing contact with former classmates and colleagues - a phenomenon pioneered by the now ITV owned and re-branded, but languishing, Friends Reunited.

Professional networks have also benefited from these technologies. A good example is the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), a non-profit organisation with more than 8,000 members worldwide. Although it was founded in the US, its network extends across Europe to India, China, Australasia and Latin America. The association supports a lively discussion, via an email list and Web forum, around professional matters, industry developments and ideas. This year it held its first global conference, in Savannah, Georgia. Co-founder David Malouf notes that: "Most of us 'meet' each other for the first time in this virtual space. Then, either within local communities or now at our conference, there is the opportunity to meet face-to-face".

Social campaigns have also used these networking tools. MySociety, a project founded by one-time policy analyst Tom Steinberg that uses Web tools for civic and community benefit, brings a rigorous approach to this area. Most famous for its 10 Downing Street e-Petitions tool, its PledgeBank project is more noteworthy. This tool can be used to commit to undertake an activity if a self-determined number of others will also commit - with many pledges involving people taking collective action in the real world. The Open Rights Group, a UK-based digital liberties campaign, used PledgeBank to solicit election observers for the electronic counting of votes in the recent London Mayoral Elections. While the outcome of the election is known, only time will tell how successful the project has been.

Traditional politics has built on social networks too. The Euston Manifesto, published in 2006, was facilitated via Weblogging, a tool that has basic social networking characteristics. Signatory Paul Evans reports that "blogs provided the context for the establishment of a political movement of sorts", resulting in conferences and lots of offline networking. "Networks of bloggers have developed around a more pluralist set of ideas than offline networks," he notes. "Even though high-volume blogging tends to reward groupthink, low volume sites allow you to test ideas that would not be given the space to develop offline."

Several dynamics are facilitating these new possibilities. As the New York-based academic and consultant Clay Shirky has cogently illustrated in his recent book Here Comes Everybody, the Power of Organizing Without Organizations (Allen Lane, 2008), as a result of developments in networks and information technology, the cost of communicating and organising are tending to zero.

Barriers to offline action

However, there are practical barriers against translating online networks into successful offline action.

At a practical level, the perception one can have of a potential friend or collaborator from an online profile is poor, compared with a face-to-face meeting, although this has improved with new tools such as Facebook. Therefore, it can be difficult to know with whom one is really engaging. That said, the combination of face-to-face meeting and online 'continuous partial perception' can be revealing. London-based consultant Nick Bush notes: "I tend to use Facebook for online networking with people I already know socially offline."

Also, what look like significant behaviours online may not translate offline. David Brain, a producer at Friction.tv, recounts the story of a Facebook discussion to which a woman contributed a reflection on a close bereavement. "We messaged back and forth with words of comfort and support and the email thread eventually faded out," says Brain. "That was about a year ago. I stood next to that girl at the train station this morning and neither of us bothered to say 'Hello'."

And despite appearances, the online community may not reflect the real character of offline communities. University of Kent sociologist Professor Frank Furedi has argued, in a seminar on virtual community, that: "Traditional communities were based on commitment, a sense of commitment to taking responsibility for both yourself and for others. The online networking community, by contrast, is founded on a narrow self-interest: there is no obligation to care for other people, or to help them out."

Communities also have common interests, which partly cohere them. While professional communities, such as IxDA, can be globally dispersed and share common interests, online social communities cannot do so to the same extent.

However, a community can be both local and networked. For their celebrated study Netville On-line and Off-line: Observing and Surveying a Wired Suburb, Keith N. Hampton and Barry Wellman of the University of Toronto Department of Sociology studied a small development of single-family homes in an outer suburb of Toronto in which each residence had been equipped with high-speed internet access, a computer-based videophone for local calls, an online jukebox and entertainment applications, online health services, and local discussion forums. Among their conclusions, Wellman and Hampton noted: "It is imperative to recognise that community does not have to be local". However, they emphasised the importance of offline interaction. "Preliminary analysis suggests that the internet supports a variety of social ties, strong and weak, instrumental, emotional, social and affiliative. Relationships are rarely maintained through computer-mediated communication alone, but are sustained through a combination of online and offline interactions [and] much online activity is between people who live or work near each other, often in Netville itself."

Another group that has embraced online networking is young people. But we need to consider whether their move to social networks is a product of having been squeezed out of public space and the wider community as a result of adults - fear for and of them, therefore representing a retrograde step for social cohesion.

And what young people are creating may not be a community in the benign sense it is generally understood. As Danah Boyd, a researcher at the University of California, argued in a paper presented to the MacAthur Forum: "Teens see public acts among peers as being key to status. Writing a public message to someone on their wall [a member's Facebook home page] is a way of validating them amongst their peers." This self-validation is a key part of growing up, but reflects more the self-interest Furedi observes than a positive collective dynamic. Moreover, self-validation appears to be a key motivator of much adult social networking, epitomised by behaviours around the Twitter public micro-blogging network.

In the political sphere, online networks appear to be more effective for campaigning around practical and consumer matters, in smaller groups, than for political debate in larger associations - as demonstrated by the examples in Here Comes Everybody. Partly this is because, for debate, they don't scale well and are often poorly designed for their purpose (the Euston Manifesto debaters represent a more tech-savvy section of the political spectrum that can work with the tools as they are).

When it comes to taking action, Flashmobs are the form most associated with the move from online networks to political activity. However, it is worth remembering that they began life as an art 'statement' by Bill Wasik, a senior editor at Harper's Magazine, as an experiment designed to poke fun at hipsters and the desire to be an 'insider'.

How to create an effective network

It is argued that online networks are suitable tools for addressing inter-personal, organisational, community, social and political challenges. But we should also ask what are the causes of the problems identified. To a large extent, these problems seem to be a product of a decrease in trust and an increase in fear in society, a tendency to see other people as the source of problems and threats and as competitors for resources, rather than benign and problem-solving fellow citizens. At the political level, a lack of engagement may reflect a belief that there are few avenues for improving the way society is organised and no alternative political paradigms that might bring people together for change. If the problems were created at this level, surely they need to be addressed at this level. Otherwise, we may be guilty of taking solutions in search of problems.

Although the technologies and tools that facilitate online networking have great potential, in some ways they represent a retreat from the social. Many of the people behind the development of the personal computer and the internet (such as Apple co-founder Steve Jobs) were in retreat from the more high-flown ambitions of their 60s political contemporaries and looked to computing as a means of improving humanity's lot in a more practical and immediate fashion.

Online social networking tools have enormous potential. But they are only useful when used in the context of already functioning social, business and political environments or where the relations and institutions have been reformed on the basis of a political perspective that understands the reasons they are failing.

More practically, online networks need to be well designed, communicate clearly, include an editorial voice and have an identifiable leader. They will also be most effective where they are employed as an adjunct to, or enhancement of, interaction in the real world. Where this is the case, the potential is as great as our imagination.